YES! But How? :: Alternatives to Grass

If you're searching for practical ways to live sustainably, just ask us.


Weather predictions say this is going to be a very dry summer, and I'm having a harder and harder time feeling good about using precious water to keep my lawn green. Any suggestions?

You could let it go brown – here in the Northwest, lawns stay green in the winter and, unless watered, go brown in the summer. You could pour a bunch of water on it. Or, you could think of this as a perfect time to start tearing up chunks of it for your “xeriscaping” project. Right now, when everything's a bit damp, it's easier to start turning the sod under than when it gets baked into brick-hard masses of roots.

Xeriscaping is the art of creating a pretty lawn that needs much less water than standard bluegrass turf. The concept was developed, and the word coined, in Colorado, one of the drier states.

It's not about expanses of crushed rock and cacti. There are plenty of plants that do well at moisture levels that would kill the average lawn. It's about growing turf where you use it, and growing something else where the grass does nothing but get mowed. If you've struggled for years to make grass grow in a shady corner, give it up. Plant a shade-loving ground cover or make it a flower bed for light-shy perennials.

Good xeriscaping does take planning. One of its basic concepts is zone planting; putting the thirsty plants together so you can water them all at once and not drown the ones that like it drier.

There's plenty of information available on the web. A good basic primer is at If you're not an online person, try your local library; my library system returns a list of 10 items for the search term xeriscap*.

The materials I've reviewed overlook one delicious prospect: edible landscaping. Sage, for instance, is a perennial, doesn't like much water, and comes in decorative colors. Lettuce and kale come in some outrageous colors and shapes that merit display in a front yard bed. For those, check with Seed Savers Exchange (3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, Iowa 52101), which will link you with people who have thousands of varieties of heirloom seeds – you can decorate your yard, eat the decoration, and help preserve germ plasm diversity.


I know fluorescent bulbs are more energy efficient, but my husband says they aren't more efficient when you turn them off and on frequently. Also, don't they contain mercury?

Fluorescent bulbs are much more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs. In American households, 35 percent of the electricity is used for lighting. With fluorescents, you get the same light for 25 percent of the energy; the Department of Energy says we'd save about 30 billion kilowatt hours annually if all incan-descents became fluorescents.

Just one other cool fact: if every household in the US replaced four incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, we would save as much energy as taking 7 million cars off the road. And fluorescents produce less waste heat, save you money, and last longer – a great deal for your budget and for the climate.

The drawback to turning fluorescents on and off frequently is that it decreases bulb life. But the extra current draw, if any, lasts only for the very short warm-up time, so the fluorescents continue to be a big energy saver.

The mercury question is a tougher one. Fluorescents do contain mercury, but much less than they used to (about 5 milligrams now compared to 48 milligrams in the past). EPA estimates that up to 2.5 tons of mercury per year is released into the air from bulb disposal. To put that into perspective, 7,000 tons of mercury are released annually from natural sources, primarily from volcanoes, 6,000 tons from fossil fuel power plants, and 3,500 tons from such sources as automobiles, furnaces, and municipal waste incinerators. It seems to us that the real issue is an apparently marginal increase in mercury versus a very large potential savings in electricity use.
Nonetheless, there are some things you can do to minimize the release of mercury. Avoid disposal through incineration, as the mercury is released into the atmosphere. If a bulb breaks at home, make sure to air out the room immediately to eliminate mercury gas. And you can purchase bulbs with especially low levels of mercury; Phillips, for example, produces a line of reduced-mercury fluorescents called “Alto.”

Halogen lights have become popular in recent years, especially in the torchieres that light a room from a bowl-shaped lamp on top of a post. Although halogens last three to four times as long as incandescents, they last no where near as long as flourescents, and they are less efficient than either incandescents or fluorescent.

The nicest idea of all, solar powered garden lights, don't solve indoor lighting problems, but they are the ultimate in energy efficiency and they are great in the garden, yard, or on a patio.


I am glad you are asking for natural solutions instead of going out to buy neurotoxic moth balls, which contain napthalene. I receive on average three e-mails a week from people desperate for ways to remove moth ball odor residue from their clothing.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer – the best thing one can do is air the clothes in the sun as often as possible.

I have a nice natural moth repellent recipe that I'll include here, but before you get to the stage of packing away wool clothes with herbs, make sure that you clean them thoroughly and even air them in the sun for a few hours first. If you discover moths in your clothes, place items in a clothes dryer on high heat for about 15 minutes if the fabric can handle the heat; if not, freeze for two days to kill the moths and eggs.

Natural moth repellent sachets are nice to tuck into sweater drawers and hang in closets.

To make a batch, combine:

  • 2 ounces dried rosemary
  • 2 ounces dried mint
  • 1 ounce dried thyme
  • 1 ounce dried ginseng
  • 8 ounces of whole cloves

Blend the herbs and make into sachets by stuffing them into simple handmade bags of assorted sizes.

Other plant materials that work well as moth repellents are lavender, lemon, hyssop, winter savory, and cedar shavings.

You may also have heard that the camphor plant produces a powerful, antiseptic, volatile oil that is famous as a clothes moth insecticide, and it deters other pests as well. However, it has been banned in some countries due to its high phenol content, so although it is “natural,” only use it for extreme infestations, and then use true caution.

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