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Wasting precious time mowing? Worried about pesticides? Don't like the water bill? Maybe there's a better way.

No matter how you cut it, grass is a problem-especially in the Maritimes where, with the exception of Nova Scotia, there are relatively more households with lawns than anywhere else in the country. Blame it on the fact that we have a higher percentage of single-detached houses than anywhere else in Canada, but Atlantic Canadians are doing more than their fair share of lawn maintenance.

Our quest for perfect turf fuels a billion-dollar lawn and garden industry. However, the more critical cost is to the environment. Chemical fertilizers contaminate our drinking water. Emissions from gas-powered lawn mowers and trimmers pollute our air. Pesticides pose such serious health hazards that a growing list of jurisdictions is banning most of them from cosmetic use on lawns, gardens, parks and school grounds.

The environmental burden of maintaining a monoculture of manicured, non-native grass has people like Melanie Priesnitz rethinking the very concept of lawns.

"Lawns are highly over-rated," says Priesnitz, a conservation horticulturalist at Acadia University's Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens-a green space devoted to plantings that are native to the Acadian Forest Region (an area that begins in New York and stretches through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to encompass all of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI).

Priesnitz is currently exchanging the grass in her own yard for a mix of vegetable gardens, stone pathways and a lush, zero-maintenance carpet of low-lying native groundcovers like Three-toothed Cinquefoil, Creeping Cranberry, Bearberry and Bunchberry. She says that there are many advantages to replacing conventional tracts of treated lawn with native species like these.

Native plants existed in the Acadian Forest Region before European settlement.  Over the centuries, they have adapted to the climate and soils of this region. Because they belong here, they require only the water that nature provides. They're familiar attractions for birds and butterflies, and they provide suitable habitat for wildlife. As an added benefit, they have learned to co-exist with other native plants, so unlike alien species, they don't try to take over.

Ten years ago, Bill Freedman began replacing the grass on his downtown Halifax property with native plants and trees, sometimes pushing the definition of "native" to include the Eastern White Cedar, White Trilliums and Mayflower: species that are indigenous to Eastern North America. Six years ago he removed the last remnants of lawn from his yard. "The lawn is a stupid idea," says Freedman, an ecologist in the Biology Department at Dalhousie University. "I teach about environmental problems. Part of walking the talk was naturalizing my own property."

Some of the plants on Freedman's property came from the side of the road. Others came from the sites of environmental assessments he has conducted on areas of vegetation that are slated for destruction. Happily, the search for tough native plants doesn't require forays on roadsides and demolition sites. Although most garden centres specialize in imports, some have begun to expand their selection of native species. As well, there is a growing number of nurseries in Atlantic Canada that carry native trees, shrubs and other plants, (for listings see the website for the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens).

The pursuit of native landscaping materials goes beyond plants like Lady's Slipper and trees like Larch. Bill Freedman has accented his collection of plants and trees with rocks and Halifax slate. He scatters seashells around the ground-not only for decoration, but also to provide calcium for the soil. The look of the yard is decidedly unconventional, but there have been no complaints from neighbours. "Ecologically my property is the best thing around. I'm in favour of pesticides where there is a benefit to produce food and to protect the environment. For the lawn they are unnecessary."

"Worse than that, they're harmful," says Richard Wetmore, "but many people are trying to replicate the landscapes they see in photos taken in places like Virginia and Kentucky and they don't believe that they can do this without using pesticides." Until recently, Wetmore ran an organic landscaping business in Woodstock, NB.  He says that while pesticides make the lawn look healthy in the short term, they actually weaken it in the long term by disrupting the natural biology of the soil. "People don't understand the importance of soil. They think that it's just the dirt where you pour your chemicals in order to grow plants."

"It all begins with good soil," says Chris Benjamin, Healthy Lawns Co-ordinator for Nova Scotia's Ecology Action Centre. Benjamin has recently launched a "Go Wild" campaign encouraging homeowners to reduce the amount of lawn they maintain, first by thinking of the lawn as a pathway that leads through areas planted with trees and shrubs, and secondly by letting certain areas in their yards grow wild with flowers and decorative grasses.

"Lawns just don't make sense," says Benjamin. "You can have a beautiful, useful, healthy yard-space without using any grass at all. In fact, the most beautiful lawns are the wild ones that use natural features like rock gardens, ponds and native plants and trees."

Halifax resident Janis Brown went wild more than a decade ago when she had to cut down a large tree in her front yard. Rather than seeding the area with grass, she began transplanting things that grew naturally, laying the groundwork for what exists in her front yard today: a diagonal arrangement of medium to low grasses and plants that are hardy enough to meet the challenge of being sprayed with salt from the road and covered in mounds of snow. "What can survive does," she says practically. "My nurturing style has changed over the years."

For those who are not yet ready to give up their lawns, there are ways to have greener ones. The first step is to eliminate pesticides and restore a healthy balance to the soil and lawn by reintroducing beneficial micro-organisms through natural fertilizers like compost. The second step is to relinquish the fascination with single-species turfs like Kentucky bluegrass. "When we plant one species of non-native grass a cinch bug can destroy the entire lawn," says Melanie Priesnitz.  A mixture of grasses, herbs and clover is less wasteful of water and better able to resist diseases and pests. If one species is attacked, the others will survive.

A large expanse of green grass was once a status symbol. "It meant that you could afford not to have goats," laughs Priesnitz. Today the rationale for residential lawns is equally obscure. People no longer spend much time sitting on them. Children no longer spend much time playing on them. "Why not plant a vegetable garden in the front yard?" asks Priesnitz. "What a great way to get to know the neighbours."

And if times continue to get tough: what a good place to keep a goat.

Kinder Cuts

New models of maintenance-free reel mowers are the greenest option. Not only do they start every time and make a clean cut of the grass, but also they're lighter to push than earlier models and they mulch as they go.

Electric mowers produce no emissions while you use them. They are relatively light to push and require no tune-ups. Their range is restricted because they must be plugged into a power source, making them best suited for smaller lawns.

New cordless electric mowers are not restricted in range, but their batteries require charging after about an hour's use. Unless you have a second battery, these machines are impractical for a large area of grass.

Solar-powered mowers run on sun-powered batteries that require several days of sunlight to charge fully. They are best suited to areas that get lots of sunshine.

New gas-powered lawn mowers are more environmentally friendly than the old clunkers, but they are generally heavier to push, require regular tune-ups and make more noise than other types of mowers.

Lawn Care Made Easy
  1. Balance the PH in your soil and poke some holes in the ground with an aerator.
  2. Fertilize with worm castings and compost tea. 
  3. Dig weeds by hand and destroy roots
  4. Cut grass often and leave it at least 2 3/4"long for greener stalks that are less likely to scorch.
  5. Save water and landfill space at the same time by using moisture-rich grass clippings as mulch.
  6. Attract toads. One toad can eat hundreds of earwigs in a summer.
  7.  Use a rain barrel to collect water for grasses and plants.

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