Lawns, Steroids and Roger Clemens: Reclaim Your Turf — Reassessing America’s Past Time!

Lawn grass requires an inch of water a week – a 25’ x 40’ lawn needs about 10,000 gallons per summer.

Americans are passionate about grass…and baseball. After today’s release of the George Mitchell report, American baseball fans are reassessing the merits of Roger Clemens’ long standing achievements and baseball’s abilities to deal with its own turf. Though it is almost winter, and a winter storm is bearing down upon us, and gardening minds here in the Northeastern United States are far removed from the boys of summer and lawns, it seems as appropriate as any time to reassess the lawn. I may have raved against paving but nothing gets me riled up as much as the American lawn…

Americans are passionate about grass. Just ask any homeowner about their lawn and you will quickly uncover their attitude about gardening, their home and neighbors.

I have no lawn, for reasons I’ll explain later, but my childhood recollections of grass are memorable: the pungent smell of grass-stained pants while playing football; the brilliant, blinding green grass of Fenway Park; earning pocket change cutting lawns in my neighborhood; my Dad always fussing and fiddling with our lawnmower, inevitably enlisting me to go and borrow the neighbor’s machine.

Today, more than thirty years later, my parents’ “lawn” is mostly moss, violets, clover and crabgrass. All the real grass is gone. A “good” lawn is no longer desirable, its present condition the result of neglect, old age, and shifting priorities. Yet when viewed from the driveway or the kitchen window, it still looks like and functions as a lawn (at least the Canadian geese, who forage there most spring seasons, haven’t complained.)

For me a “good” lawn is no lawn. I live on a small urban lot (6400 sq. ft) perched on a steep hill, with thin, sandy soil, not exactly ideal conditions for growing and maintaining grass. When we moved here awhile back, I spent the first two years methodically removing the existing grass (mostly crabgrass and pernicious dog grass), replacing it with big perimeter borders, giant sweeps of groundcovers, vegetable parterres, a rock garden, patio, driveway, even large expanses of mulch to smother the grass in the remaining areas, until we could get around to planting them. My goal was simple: get rid of the grass so I could spend my time growing food.

Many people spend and hour or two a week mowing the lawn. Some even claim to enjoy it. Others consider it drudgery, and look forward to it about as much as a visit to the dentist. But they do it anyway, for a variety of reasons (community peer pressure, status, familiarity, mass advertising by the lawn-care industry, zoning ordinances). And in some neighborhoods it must be a “good” lawn: a plot of grass of one species with no competing weeds, uniformly cut low, neatly edged, a dark even green color, sustained by regular doses of water, fertilizers and pesticides. These lawns use lots of energy and cost big money. As a culture, Americans are obsessed with their lawns. So much so that it is difficult for many Americans to imagine residential yards without large expanses of low-cut grassy areas.

But there are alternatives to the above scenario. The American landscape of the single family home surrounded by grass – our current model – became widely popular only after World War II, with the growth of suburbia. By the 1990’s, the collective size of lawns cultivated in the United States equaled the size of the state of Michigan! (For a fascinating read on the topic of how the lawn has single-handedly transformed the ordinary landscape in the 20th Century, see Virginia Scott Jenkins’ excellent book, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.) Regrettably, it only takes a generation or two to obscure history. Prior to the Civil War, it was rare for Americans to have a lawn. In most towns, houses were built close to the street, some with small fenced-in front yards. In rural areas, the farms, houses, and outbuildings were surrounded by fields, pastures, and gardens, or the packed, bare grounds of farmlands (Jenkins). European immigrants, accustomed to domestic living conditions where privacy is valued, oriented their gardens inward or behind the house. Yards often were enclosed by walls or fences, and the lawn was not seen from the street. Even now, in other cultures around the world, the idea of cultivating a lawn seems strange (Jenkins).

What do our uniformly-laid out front lawns say about our present American culture? For a growing segment of people, our residential landscapes need to change to reflect a new concern for ecology, responsible resource use and the choice of individual homeowners. Why have a lawn if you are not going to use it?

Who needs a lawn? Lawns are superb for serving as a multifaceted area in the yard for many activities – a play area for sports and kids, a place for the dog, picnics and barbecues. And they can be a time-saving device: simply mow it as needed and spend your free time doing more enjoyable activities. Yet most yards are either too small to effectively incorporate multiple activities, or so big that mowing becomes a serious chore. In most cases, you can get by with less lawn – or it you’re bold, no lawn – and increase the beauty and efficiency of your yard.

Here’s how:

  • Eliminate the lawn in areas where it simply won’t grow or is impractical. If you’re not sure where these areas are, go out and visually inspect your yard. Or better yet, think about those areas that are a pain to cut with your mower. Sloped terrain, areas where tree roots are exposed (trees will win the battle for water and nutrients), large shady patches of ground beneath mature tree canopies, soggy or seasonally wet soils, gravelly or very thin, sandy soils are difficult areas to keep grass growing.
  •  Eliminate grass in areas where it doesn’t improve aesthetic appeal. The front and side yard areas and entryways are such places. Reconsider those narrow foundation beds where you’re constantly cutting back (hacking and disfiguring) shrubbery when it protrudes into the lawn. Why not remove the lawn, extend the beds, and give plants room to grow a natural shape (This brings to mind another silly current American obsession: foundation plantings, where plants are crowded tightly together against the house and pruned into balls, boxes and lollipops. Why?)
  • When you grow a lawn, switch to a polyculture of drought-tolerant and insect-resistant grasses and plants (the opposite of many lawns that have one or two varieties of grass, requiring a steady onslaught of chemicals and water to keep them lush and green. While there is no such thing as a natural lawn (think about it: lawns are inherently unnatural) you can build a lawn that requires less water, chemicals and care, and even one that flowers during the seasons!) The widespread hybridization of grasses and technological advances make it possible to grow grasses in every region of the country. Select a grass that will thrive in your existing conditions or modify your conditions to match the needs of a particular grass. Educate yourself about grass varieties and their cultural requirements. It’s interesting to note that most gardeners and homeowners know the names of at least some of the plants in their yards; yet for most people, grasses are anonymous, lumped together as one species, devoid of change and development. Choose grass varieties appropriate for your particular climate. Or consider an alternative to a lawn, such as a meadow or groundcovers. (see these pages soon for a listing of grass varieties and alternatives to grasses.)
  • A successful lawn is dependent upon the ability to grow grass and the aesthetic desire to have one. If you want a lawn, improve your soil (this applies to everything you grow) and eliminate wasteful maintenance practices. This is contrary to the lawn-care industry practice of chemically inoculating a lawn, feeding the plant instead of the soil. Chemical fertilizers are like my morning cup of coffee. Once your lawn gets hooked, it will be irritable whenever it doesn’t get its “fix.” Soil science is complex and takes many years of hands-on work to fully understand, but if you want to raise a hardy lawn, start by enriching the soil. (For an explanation on how to improve your soil, look for an in-depth discussion in these pages come late winter!)
  • Consider installing an irrigation system for both the lawn and ornamental/ vegetable areas. There are lots of do-it-yourself kits on the market or you can hire a professional to install one. The proper irrigation system will help conserve water but it’s up to you to water at the proper intervals. Avoid watering during the heat of the day or near dusk; early in the morning and late afternoon is best. When watering a lawn, try to keep excess water away from the foliage of vegetables, fruit trees, perennials and shrubs; this is a quick way to spread diseases. Better yet, replant your lawn with drought-tolerant plants and save the water for your valuable trees, shrubs and edibles.
  • Finally, ask yourself two important lifestyle questions: What are my priorities for the yard? Do I have the time, interest, energy and money to devote growing large carpets of lawn? While it is undeniable that a freshly cut, well watered, dark-green lawn appeals to many and evokes a flood of pleasurable feelings, few people have the “know-how” to keep their own lawn looking consistently “good,” particularly in some geographic regions (the humid south and northeast, the arid southwest), or during weather extremes. And after all, why waste water on the lawn? If you’re serious about growing some of your own food in an edible landscape (as this writer is), it might not make sense to have a lawn (particularly if your yard is small). On the other hand, if your yard is sizeable – over 10,000 square feet of open space – or your time and gardening skills limited, a lawn can keep outdoor chores to a minimum. The down side: if lawns are not cut carefully, clippings go into borders, time-consuming edging must be done and the watering of the lawn can be detrimental to adjacent plantings (powdery mildew).For a large segment of the population, a yard full of grass provides a connection to nature but keeps it at a safe distance. It’s alive yet fully under control. Ironically, under its duff in many a suburban development sits fantastic topsoil teeming with life built by generations of farmers who cultivated a complex and close relationship with nature. The soil life (and that of the farmers), snuffed out and forgotten, hermetically sealed in seemingly unending suburban plats, the lawns serving as coffins. The widespread proliferation of the lawn may very well be our number one cultural icon, supplanting more far reaching achievements of the latter 20th century – medical breakthroughs, air and space travel, the invention of the television and the personal computer. So next spring when the baseball season begins anew, resist supporting lawns and baseball players hooked on steroids; and instead, when visiting the ball park, or mowing your lawn, allow yourself time to imagine, to dream, about what has been and what could be. Reclaim your turf…by reassessing the lawn!

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