Joined: 19 Dec 2002
|Posted: Thu May 02, 2019 1:17 am Post subject: Mowing My Lawn
|Right at Home
I’m Done Mowing My Lawn
A manicured swath of grass may be the ultimate symbol of suburbia, but perhaps it shouldn’t be.
By Ronda Kaysen, April 26, 2019, New York Times (4-26-2019)
In the suburbs, homeowners take their lawns seriously. A neighbor, who maintains an impeccable bed of grass in his backyard, once spent a full hour explaining to me how he’d had a sample of his soil analyzed to help him attain optimal growing conditions. He glanced at my backyard and suggested I do the same.
And why wouldn’t he? My back lawn has never been one to admire, if a manicured lawn is your kind of thing. Surrounded by tall hickories, ash and oak, it is mostly covered in shade, a condition not ideal for grass. I use neither fertilizers nor pesticides, so my lawn is a sparse blend of grass, clover and weeds, interspersed with sad bald patches.
My sunny front lawn, however, grows like a champ. It grows so well that a passer-by, concerned about my boisterous crop of dandelions, once suggested I use her landscaping crew to corral my wild patch. “They can really get those dandelions under control,” she said.
But the dandelions aren’t going anywhere. When my husband and I moved into our house six years ago, we envisioned a yard as green as our ideals. We swore off pesticides and bought a Fiskars reel mower, a simple machine with a cheerful orange cover. The website’s video, set to inspirational music, showcased the blades silently slashing through grass like butter. We were convinced that this would be the way to a sustainable suburban aesthetic.
The quiet swooshing was a peaceful reprieve from the roar of the gas-powered alternative. But have you pushed a reel mower up a slope on a hot, humid August day? Try it and you may start to consider the limits of your green intentions. Three grueling summers later, we caved when a neighbor offered us her old gas-powered mower after she bought a larger one. We took it and put our loyal Fiskars in the garage, telling ourselves we’d still use it on the weeks when the grass wasn’t too tall. (Spoiler alert: We never did.)
Americans are devoted to their lawns, planting enough sod to cover the state of Florida, making turf grass the largest irrigated crop in the country. To keep the grass green, some of us pump our landscapes full of pesticides, chemicals that potentially harm our children, pets and waterways. We use 7 billion gallons of water a day on our yards, wasting half of it to runoff, over-watering and evaporation.
And those gas-powered mowers, edgers and leaf blowers spew millions of tons of pollutants into the air, fine particulate matter that we inhale as we work to keep our lawns looking pretty. All that hard work does little to attract the bees, butterflies and birds that prefer a different kind of habitat. “You might as well have AstroTurf when it comes to the value of lawns to birds and butterflies,” said David Mizejewski, a naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation.
Every summer, I imagine a different landscape, one that I do not have to mow. My sunny front lawn would be a great place to grow a vegetable garden: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and maybe some chard. But if my dandelions raise eyebrows, imagine the reaction I would get to a raised garden bed just a few feet from the sidewalk.
We have an expectation “that the American lawn is the be-all and end-all and that’s what our houses should look like,” said Kris Bordessa, the author of the forthcoming book “Attainable Sustainable: A Modern Guide to Traditional Living.” “The hardest part is overcoming the idea that I have to have this lawn.”
Ms. Bordessa sees room for edible experimentation, even in the front yard. A clever homeowner could tuck food-bearing alternatives like basil, peppers, eggplant and blueberries into the flower beds without disrupting the neighborhood aesthetic. Grow a fruit tree and the neighbors might even come knocking for a free peach.
The lawn has already lost its luster in drier regions of the country, where homeowners have embraced trends like xeriscaping, a landscaping style that favors plants that need little or no watering.
In California, years of drought turned the manicured lawn into a potent symbol of wealth and excess, as sprawling properties in Los Angeles enclaves like Bel Air stayed green at a time when millions of homeowners across the state were turning to drought-resistant alternatives.
But in the Northeast, where summers are often wet, and cactus is hardly common, the green lawn still reigns. Consider breaking the mold with something more creative, particularly in the front yard, and you have few models to follow.
It’s no wonder that grass has become the default vegetation. The seed is cheap, the aesthetic predictable, and you don’t have to know much about landscape design to succeed. With a uniform palette, you do not have to tend to an eclectic brood of plants that may have different demands for light, water and soil conditions.
But this spring, I decided to plant more and mow less. A local landscaper who specializes in native plants stopped by my house to offer advice. When I suggested the possibility of a vegetable garden in the front, she steered me to the backyard instead, pointing to a narrow swath near the driveway that gets full light. And I could shrink the rest of the back lawn with native plants like sweet fern, sweetbells, witch hazel and silky dogwood that thrive without full sun. In the front, we could expand the existing flower bed and add new ones. She glanced at me and said, “Of course, you’d need to take care of all this.”
But maybe if you start digging up the lawn, you may not mind the extra work.
Stephenie MacLagan and Dave Oliver, who live in a 900-square-foot house on a quiet suburban street near Bangor, Me., started chipping away at their lawn almost a decade ago when they grew frustrated by the tomato options at the local grocery store. That, and “it was the realization that I mow my lawn and I hate mowing,” said Ms. MacLagan, 34, a natural resource economist. Mr. Oliver, 42, is a behavior specialist in the local schools.
That first crop was so tasty that each season the couple expanded their patch, planting beets, squash, cantaloupe, kohlrabi, chard and peppers. The plants filled the backyard and wrapped around the side of the house, generating enough produce to feed five food-insecure families in the area every week. Their ambitions grew with the crops. “If we’re going to do 10 plants, why not 20?” Ms. MacLagan said. “Why not the whole seed packet?”
Last summer, the couple eyed the front lawn, planting 50 raspberry bushes where once there was grass. The decidedly productive aesthetic caught the attention of passers-by.
Mostly, people wanted to know what they were growing. Teenagers walking home from the nearby high school often plucked raspberries for snacking, but with such a plentiful bounty, who even noticed when a few went missing?
So far, no one has complained. But they do get blank stares, particularly around October, when the days are short and Ms. MacLagan and Mr. Oliver are outside picking the last harvest in the dark. “People are like, you’re totally nuts,” Ms. MacLagan said.
But she just shrugs, relieved that at least she’s not mowing.