Send a Message, Start Digging

It is a gorgeous late evening as my wife and I return home from a dinner celebrating 10 years since our first date; I’d venture to say it is the first perfect evening all spring. The low sun casts that warm summer glow reminiscent of firesides in winter, the air is clear and soothing, trees and shrubs are just now flowering. Entering our neighborhood every garage door is open like a mouth agape, a long waking yawn or a scream of joy. Fathers play catch with their young boys arcing balls over the street, others race small bikes with training wheels, parents cluster in groups with arms folded in satisfaction at the bucolic vista.

And every other yard has a lawnmower roaring up and down, side to side. Two men wear ear protectors I’ve only seen construction workers use with jackhammers. Mr. Mows All the Time, who lives across the street from me, is gliding around his front yard for the third time in a week, and the lawn next door is bog-like from the daily watering of an underground sprinkler system. Everyone this night is enjoying the weather, enjoying it by destroying it.

You, too, can have Swallarchs in your garden.

You, too, can have Swallarchs in your garden.

Maintaining a lawn is like maintaining a big cornfield — that’s what Home Depot and Scotts want you to think. They subtly play into the ideal that your quarter acre lot at the city’s edge is really your 160 acre homestead, that your property is something to prove up. But you have to MAINTAIN it (for the record, in one hard day of work my 2000′ native plant garden is set for 12 months). My one neighbor sweats like a hog every time he mows and looks, after an hour, like he’s about to have a heart attack. What joy mowing the lawn is! Huzzah to the green carpet that you fertilize when the commercials come on the air to tell you when! Work it! Work it! Work it! The same machine we feed that poisons our food supply poisons us in yet another way.

I watered this bad boy twice last year and pulled about ten weeds.

I watered this bad boy twice last year and pulled about ten weeds.

A lawn is a desert. A lawn slathered in petrochemicals is a Superfund site in the making with a drug-addicted soil that needs more more more juice. Turn on the sprinklers and wash that stuff into our streams and lakes, help the Mississippi dead zone grow. As the fertilizer sits on the lawn it releases greenhouse gases. Lawnmower exhaust restricts blood flow leading to hypertension, fosters lung disease, creates hearing loss, makes a person impotent. The only time I see my neighbors outside is when they’re mowing — at least if they picnicked, or suntanned, or made love on the lawn it’d get some use, I’d see some purpose.

I’m not wholly against lawns. Well, yes I am. It’s the whole system designed to maintain it that I abhor, and the non regional idea that lawn works out here in the prairie (did Lewis and Clark see Native Americans maintaining tall fescue?).

Drought tolerant and climate adapted prairie plants -- tugs on my heart strings.

Drought tolerant and climate adapted prairie plants — tugs on my root strings.

It was Michael Pollen’s father who, after neighbors pressured him to finally mow his lawn, wheeled out a mower that barely started and simply carved his initials into the lawn, never to mow again. Per acre, American lawns use four times as much pesticide as agriculture — and you know how much agriculture uses now that GMO crops can take more pesticides. American lawns use 50% of our fresh water. American lawns kill the planet. Lawn, as it is now, is murder as we lose thousands of animal, plant, and insect species each year due to habitat loss from farming, new roads, chemical overuse…. American lawns are killing our families through artificial chemicals that can increase the risk of cancer, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, and lead to early puberty.

Our new veg bed -- less lawn, more organic food. That's two birds with one stone!

Our new veg bed — less lawn, more organic food. That’s two birds with one stone!

I haven’t mowed yet this year, whereas my neighborhood has been at it for over a month — even right after a morning snowfall melted. My soil-enriching dandelions are doing fine, and if it wasn’t for my city’s 12 inch “weed” ordinance, I’d have a short grass prairie on my 1,000 square foot front side that would be a drought tolerant, soil amending, pollinator nirvana. Watching a man spraying something on his lawn as kids next door run barefoot makes me stare long and hard at the tiller in my garage. Do you want to come over and help me change the world?

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Native plants have a wonderful effect on the soil too. Almost twenty years ago I could barely force a shovel far enough into my boulevard’s “soil” to force in small plugs of little bluestem, butterfly/whorled/sullivant milkweed, heath aster, cylindric blazing star and other lower growing natives. When they felled the emerald ash borer-killed street tree last month, the branch stumps left on the trunk 8″ deep divots in the now soft, friable and finally LIVING soil.

    Toronto also has an ordinance against “tall grass & weeds” over 8″…but the intent must be to prevent highly allergenic turf grasses and specified noxious plants to flower since bylaws must be rooted in health & safety, not any arbitrary (and illegal) aesthetic preferences.

    The courts have ruled on both sides of the border that we have a constitutional RIGHT to express ourselves through our gardens (subject only to health & safety limitations — like sight lines). More than that, we have a duty to the earth to do so. Cut out the lawn. Bring your garden up front and bring back a “new” aesthetic to the eyes of your neighbours! We can’t change viewpoints hiding our plantings in the back yard (where they are still, after all, subject to bad bylaws and over zealous inspectors).

    It’s taken the better part of 2 decades, but a few other front yard (sadly, not native) gardens have appeared nearby. I may not be changing many adult minds yet…but the neighbourhood kids love my front yard meadow, and so do the birds, bees, and butterflies!
    Deborah Dale recently posted..Green Evolution Site Gallery

    • says

      I’ve had my garden only 6 years and ALREADY I’m noticing soil improvement when I dig — it’s just a few inches, but still. And the drainage! Water used to stand forever, now the soil seems to absorb it much faster. The idea of having kids enjoy a front garden is very appealing — and then to have them influence their parents, maybe….?
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Can’t Have Enough Native Plants

  2. says

    Just because you have a lawn does not mean you have to pour chemicals all over it or use a gas mower. We just moved into our first house, and yeah, there is mostly nothing but lawn. As I start the long process of adding plants, there will remain some small patches of lawn. We don’t put anything on it and we bought a push mower. I consider lawn mowing my exercise, and honestly I’d let it go longer if my daughter could take more than a couple steps without falling (long grass is hard to walk on when you’re just learning). In addition with a dog and a one year old, the lawn has become important. I’d rather the dog not do her business in the flower beds. And the lawn (other half from where the dog uses) is a disaster free place for my daughter to play while she’s in the stage of ripping leaves and flowers off all plants in her path. The neighbors come over and play, we have a picnic table, it’s a place for gatherings.

    So in most cases, yes, bad. In a few, not all bad.
    Kelly Brenner recently posted..The Virtuous Weed:: Common Groundsel

  3. says

    I’m not bashing all lawn. I’m not saying if you have some you’re evil. I certainly AM saying that if you have pets and kids and wash it in chemicals you are a bad parent — yes, I’m going to say that and go all the way over on the pendulum. I certainly AM saying that lawns are one of the many reasons we have wildlife die off, water runoff, soil fertility problems, you name it. I certainly AM saying that plants other than lawns are FAR batter for nature and your bottom dollar, from maintenance to water bills and gas bills to home heating and cooling bills. Before lawns, what, kids and dogs just couldn’t play outside? I’m tired of that argument. Boy — what did our children do before 1900? Probably led a more active and creative life I reckon. (this isn’t an attack, Kelly, just me making noise)
    Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Can’t Have Enough Native Plants

  4. says

    Benjamin, I prefer gardens with lots of native plants myself, but the last time I saw your yard on a garden tour, you had more lawn than I even have yard. I remember you saying it was for resale value. I don’t begrudge you having it, but I feel you are not being totally honest when you make others feel like they are doing things wrong by having one. We have just a little lawn, and I am pleased that I have talked my husband out of putting chemicals on it. He mows more often than he needs to, but at least he’s given up most of it for all of the planting beds I enjoy working more than a day a year in.
    Corner Garden Sue recently posted..May 1, 2013 in the West Front Yard

    • says

      That was two years ago, Sue (re: resale value — I’ve evolved). I have a BIG beef with the chemical nature of our love affair with lawns — I think I’ve made that abundantly clear in the post and my above comments. I’d like to have less lawn, but I can’t afford it, not even the few hundred dollars I’d like to spend to convert to some short grass. So I don’t feel like I’m being a hypocrite at all — I don’t use cancer-causing chems, I’m not polluting our streams, I’m not mowing more than once or twice a month, I don’t water every stinking day, I’m not adding greenhouse gases while mowing or fertilizing, and I do have 2,000 feet of native plants. I think I’m doing FAAAAAAAR more than 90% of folks.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Can’t Have Enough Native Plants

      • says

        I agree with the things you said in your reply. I know that each of us differs in what we are comfortable with in our indoor and outdoor spaces. It’s good that we don’t have to conform to what everyone else does. We all could do more to protect the earth’s resources. Unfortunately, there are some who just don’t care, and no amount of railing is going to change that. I know I could make some improvements with the amount of electricity I consume with the TV and computer time.

        Yesterday, my sister-in-law said she was about ready to rip everything out of her large raised planting area and put the orange kind of daylily in. She saw my body’s reaction, and said I need to remember that she doesn’t enjoy gardening. I am thinking about offering to pick some mostly native easy to take care of plants out and help her plant them if she has the area cleaned up and pays for the plants.
        Corner Garden Sue recently posted..May 1, 2013 in the West Front Yard

      • says

        One thing that I’ve found that helps people reduce their lawns over time is to only think about reducing 10% every year. This is a perfect time of year to divide some plants to make more plants, which is totally free, and to create a new bed which fulfills that 10% reduction in lawn. Since I ripped out my entire wildlife garden last year, and needed to start over again from scratch, I can totally understand the expense of filling space with native plants. But I’ve been lucky in that some dear friends have gifted me with plants and I’ve been able to divide some others to fill in the gaps.
        Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Carroll Cox Radio Show Native Bees

  5. says

    We are starting our third year of switching to buffalo grass in areas where we want/need a lawn. (The “want” is particularly Greg, who simply likes lawns…for reasons that are unknown to me! :-) The “need” is to keep a firebreak around our home, since we live in the country and we do allow/encourage the rest of our acreage to grow up in what is slowly evolving back into native tallgrass prairie.)

    We started this lawn conversion process in 2011, just as the rain turned off and the extreme heat turned on. We plugged all 1800 plugs of buffalo grass in during those 2 hot months…and almost all of them lived. Even when they were first plugged, we only watered when it looked like the plugs were really getting stressed out. By last summer, the lawn was filling in nicely. This summer it’s filled in very, very well and we’re plugging in further areas to expand out a bit.

    I’ve been handweeding…which is NOT a chore that many people could devote the time to doing, but it’s producing almost a carpet effect. I had to do a major late winter weed the spring after we first plugged, followed by a midsummer weed of the summer weeds. This spring my handweeding only took a couple hours, front and back combined. (That’s not including my weeding out of the areas we’re expanding into.)

    For us it’s not a bad solution: a native grass, almost no mowing (I think Greg mowed twice last summer), no fertilizing, no watering – except a little in extreme drought, no chemicals. I will, however, be glad when we get done expanding our lawn area and just relax into maintenance mode.
    Cynthia, aka Gaia gardener recently posted..Red-Tails at Home

    • says

      This is so encouraging to hear about buffalo grass. I seem to hear a 50/50 split on its use — and of course it greens up late and turns brown earlier than fescue, which would really make one stand out in a suburban environment.

  6. says

    I can’t take seeing the chemicals being sprayed on the neighbors homes nearby that have small children. WHAT are they doing??? How can they NOT know that this is a bad idea? This is what I am struggling with these days. I listened recently in an Agway store to an employee sell an old couple TWO different bags of poison for grubs in the lawn–even after they specifically mentioned they had a little dog who uses the lawn. I left the store FUMING MAD. I try to talk organic lawns wherever and whenever I can. I have a beautiful organic lawn to show it can be done. (next to it is my wild meadow-y area I just let grow) It’s hard to watch this happen but all we can do is keep doing our thing and spread the word and learn to CALM DOWN. Good post-glad I am not alone in ranting and raving sometimes!
    Diane St John recently posted..No One Ever Fertilized An Old Growth Forest

    • says

      I find it VERY hard to calm down. It’s insanity. It’s put us all in a straight jacket insanity, pure and simple. All the lawnmower pushers seem so content, so happy, maybe it IS the only bliss they have every week, an escape from bad jobs, loud kids, a life inside where the air is even dirtier. I don’t know. Bah. :)
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Can’t Have Enough Native Plants

  7. Dee says

    3 years ago I said good bye to the useless lawn in my yard, & I built a raised butterfly garden over it. The butterflies, pollinators, all came to visit & feed at my garden. This gave me encouragement!
    After that, I cleared out more sod & planted a beautiful border of roses & native plants. I have Milkweed, Little Joey Pye weed, Bee Balm, Liatris Ligulistylis & Violets.
    2 weekends ago, I removed another useless piece of lawn & extended the border & planted native Columbine, Little Lanterns.
    It’s still a work in progress. It’s a labor of love. I’m trying to gently plant the idea in others minds, of planting a few native plants. Many are so stuck on the “I have to weed & feed,” It feels like an impossible uphill battle. My co worker, so set in her ways, has 2 different companies fertilizing & putting chemicals on her lawn every month. Her formerly green lawn is now yellow lawn with bare patches. I’ve explained that she has killed everything in the lawn with all the chemicals. The fungi, good bacteria, insects, everything has been poisoned. But, she says, it was ok before the drought. No, I explain, the drought was the last straw, the lawn was already severely weakened & the drought was the straw that broke the camels back. I suggested planting a few native plants & only using 1 company to maintain & put all of the chemicals on the lawn. I was hoping to slowly wean her off of 1 company at a time, to no avail. She is set in her ways, immovable & stubborn.
    I don’t give up, because there will be someone who will get the message when I gently put the seed of planting native in their mind. I live in a manufactured home community, & the yards are small. We can all do are part, even in a small space.
    This site is a goldmine! I have learned so much, & applied that to a practical way with fantastic results!.
    Thank you to all of highly educated, knowledgeable, trained professionals on this site who have shared their knowledge!

  8. DeAnna says

    Years ago, in my 1st garden, I planted Petunia & snap dragons. They brought the Ruby Throated Hummingbird to my garden, a lovely, exciting experience! When the neighbor died of Leukemia, some suspected it was from the chemicals she put into her lawn. She was always digging in the ornamental flower beds, kneeling in the grass full of chemicals that were continuously applied to her lawn. That scared me, & I vowed to never use chemicals on the lawn or in the garden.
    In my current home I replaced the entire lawn with a beautiful raised garden bed filled with native plants. I planted Bee Balm, Milkweed, native Columbine & Snap Dragons, a Trumpet Vine, & too many other plants to list. I still have a small area of lawn in the very back, only because when it rains the entire area is about 2 feet underwater. I use a push mower to cut this small area.
    Benjamin, I loved your article & I posted it to my facebook page devoted to using native plants in your garden. I’ve learned so much from this site, it has educated me & I pass along what I’ve learned. I’m trying to spread the word, in my small way, about the beauty & benefits to the environment from planting native wildflowers. I hope others will see how beautiful native plants are, add some to their gardens, & lose some of that lawn!
    I too, unfortunately, have a shirtless pot bellied neighbor who loves to work his lawn! He cuts the grass way too short, to the ground, which kills it. Then he tries to revive it with chemical fertilizers & insecticides to kill the grubs. It’s a vicious circle. I cut the small area of lawn that is left with a push mower. I don’t use any chemicals anywhere on my property. I use organic materials, like worm castings, composted manure, peat moss, & worms from the bait shop.
    In my opinion, the ordinance in your area needs to be changed, you’re severely limited to what you can plant because the height limit is so restrictive!
    If you get a chance, please check out my page!
    https://www.facebook.com/MyButterflyGarden?ref=hl

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