For however democratic a lawn may be with respect to one’s neighbors, with respect to nature it is authoritarian. Under the Toro’s brutal indiscriminate rotor, the landscape is subdued, homogenized, dominated utterly. I became convinced that lawn care had about as much to do with gardening as floor waxing or road paving. Gardening is a subtle process of give and take with the landscape, a search for some middle ground between culture and nature. A lawn is nature under culture’s boot.
Second Nature, 1991
A gardener’s spring chores begin on St. Patrick’s Day. That is the day to plant peas, Sweet Peas, and fertilize one’s lawn.
I hope you will plant peas, and if you can find seeds for the old-fashioned pink, blue, and white annual climbing Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus) to grow up a trellis on your porch, well, that’s OK, too.
But instead of fertilizing your lawn, cut it in half and plant prairie plants in its place.
My side yard in June
This lawn in Campton Hills is no more than a path.
An immense, green velvet lawn surrounding one’s house has been the ideal ever since the Romantic movement in England in the early 18th Century, a status symbol eagerly embraced by Americans. In the United States, it was promoted by Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmstead after the Civil War—they dictated that individual front lawns should all flow together along an entire street, unimpeded by hedges, fences, or walls. In 1870, the cause was taken up by Frank J. Scott, who wrote and published The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, probably the most influential book about landscaping and gardening ever written. In his mind, front yards belonged not to the homeowner, but to the public; anyone who didn’t maintain an open, manicured front lawn was not only unneighborly, but unchristian, as well.
But it is only been since the 1950’s that a whole new industry came about to make that dream come true for everyone, no matter how humble. Gasoline powered mowers, petroleum-based chemical fertilizers, and toxic pesticides and herbicides became available to every homeowner, and spending several hours every weekend mowing and tending the lawn became a ritual. The “Industrial Lawn,” clean, green, and sterile that looked the same in Phoenix, Atlanta, Boston, Seattle, or Chicago, became the ideal. As actual physical labor became distasteful to millions of upwardly mobile people, lawn services were hired to mow, clip, and spread ever more chemicals, in order to give homeowners the time and energy to jog or join health clubs in order to keep physically fit.
In the United States, about 62,500 square miles are covered with turf grass. (Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home). Kentucky Blue Grass (Poa pratensis), not native to Kentucky, but to Europe, is a cool-season grass that grows without help in our area only in the cool, rainy spring and cool fall weather; it goes dormant in the hot, humid summer months (there is no area in the United States that has enough rainfall to grow Kentucky Blue Grass throughout the summer without artificial watering). Only by applying copious amounts of water and high nitrogen fertilizer, can it be kept green all summer, but at what cost?
Need I point out that such an approach to “nature” is not likely to be environmentally sound? Lately we have begun to recognize that we are poisoning ourselves with our lawns, which receive on average more pesticide and herbicide per acre than any crop grown in the country.
Since lawns cannot absorb more than an inch of rainwater, some developments resort to a drain in the lawn that connects to a pipe that carries not only rainwater, but fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides directly to the Fox River. Fertilizers contain nitrates and phosphates, nutrients that reduce aquatic oxygen levels and degrade fish habitat
Herbicides spread on lawns are considered unsafe for pets, because they walk in the treated grass and then lick their paws, allowing the chemical into their digestive system. Do we really want our children playing amongst those same chemicals?
Gasoline lawn mowers pollute our air: 1 gallon of gasoline is burned per acre per mowing. In a 36 week growing season that includes 36 mowings per year, 576 pounds of CO2 per acre are emitted into the atmospere…In addition to water vapor, energy, and CO2, the exhaust emissions of a lawn mower contain many toxic oxidations products, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and many of the same emissions that are prohibited from the exhausts of today’s automobiles. (Gerould Wilhelm, “The Realities of CO2: Seeing through the Smog of Rhetoric and Politics”) Even worse are hedge trimmers, string trimmers, and leaf blowers.
Lawns, I am convinced, are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship to the land. They teach us that, with the help of petrochemicals and technology, we can bend nature to our will. Lawns stroke our hubris with regard to the land.
But the tide has begun to turn, ever so slowly. Reducing high maintenance lawn areas in suburbia by at least half is now a goal of the environmental movement. With a smaller lawn area, one will be able to get rid of the noisy, polluting, gasoline-powered lawn mower and buy an old-fashioned, non-motorized reel mower.
Lora mowing my lawn.
Lightweight materials and new designs have made the modern reel mower easier to push, as well as staying sharper longer. It always starts, it makes a pleasant sound, it doesn’t have to be tuned up in the spring, and it doesn’t need to be fueled with petro-chemicals that dirty the air and increase our dependence on foreign oil.
Much as we’ve come to distrust it, dominating nature is a deep human urge and lawn mowing answers to it.
To deal with the remaining lawn, set your lawnmower as high as it will go, never mowing it shorter than 3-3 ½”. The roots of Kentucky Blue Grass grow only as deep as the blades are long. With deeper roots, the turf will absorb a little more water into the soil, making it more drought-resistant, consequently staying green longer during the summer.
Leave the clippings on the lawn; as they decay they provide humus and nitrogen to the soil (removal of grass clippings results in the loss of up to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre of lawn per year, says Janet Marinelli in her 1998 book, Stalking the Wild Amaranth).
Another free source of nitrogen to all plants, including lawns, is the lightning from thunderstorms. Tom Skillman, weatherman of the Chicago Tribune says that the tremendous heat—up to 50,000 °F—generated by lightning combines atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen, creating a fertilizer that falls with rainwater.
We must give up the idea that the ideal lawn should resemble Astroturf. Small flowering plants dotted throughout the lawn give it a look of tapestry and improve its health considerably.
Until the 1960’s, White Clover (Trifolium repans) was considered beneficial in lawns for its natural nitrogen attracting properties and for its summer greenness when Kentucky Blue Grass went dormant. Its seed was always mixed in with grass seed—an ideal lawn consisted of ¼ to 1/3 clover. Once you stop herbiciding it will take two years for patches of clover to appear.
Other attractive flowers often found in lawns are the Common Blue and Confederate Violet (Viola sororia).
Dick Young, author of Kane County Plants and Wild Areas, suggests several other small plants to introduce into lawns to make them prettier.
Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) produces tiny, 5-petaled, pale pink flowers striped with darker pink lines, which bloom from March to mid-May. It’s common in woodlands, but it grows in pastures and lawns, as well, particularly under oak trees.
Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata) is a common companion to Spring Beauty.
The small, bright yellow flowers of Early Buttercup (Ranuculus fascicularis) bloom above the finely cut, silky, segmented foliage in April and May.
It is found scattered here and there on dry gentle slopes or flat land under widely spaced trees, but will grow in lawns, also.
It can sometimes be found mingling with Pussy Toes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) with white flower tufts that resemble little cat paws atop an 8” stem that rises from a basal rosette of white, wooly leaves.
Pussy Toes grows abundantly on a south-facing grassy slope in Bluff City Cemetery, blooming in late April.
Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) is a low-growing, creeping perennial with broad 5-fingered leaves and shiny yellow buttercup blossoms that bloom from mid-May to early June. It will make large patches in the lawn, particularly in sunny areas.
Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis) that’s growing in a garden will cheerfully scatter its seeds into a lawn for July-August bloom.
Non-native Lawn Flowers
Since a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn isn’t native here, I don’t have a problem with non-native ephemerals growing within it.
The lawns of older houses on the near west side of Elgin turn blue with Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica), usually in April.
Once you have opted for a flowered lawn, you must never, ever use broad-leaf weed killers.
So cut your lawn in half and dot what’s left with tiny, pretty flowers and maybe even lay in the grass with your children this summer to look for 4-leaf clovers.