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Standing By The Lawn

March 23, 2009

dscf0025Four properties come together in this photo; I find it hilarious that you can tell where, even in the absence of an actual marker.

Ok, so… the lawn. If you read any other garden blogs, you may well get the sense that everything that ails society exists within that closely cropped square of turf between your home and the sidewalk. The attacks lobbed at the lawn range from the undeniable (turfgrasses are often not adapted to where we plant them, fertilizers used on lawns contribute to nutrient leaching) to the extreme (lawns are undemocratic!). The issue has been framed to appear completely binary: either you rip up every shred of turfgrass on your property (composting the sod, of course) and plant edibles and wildflowers, or you’re a 2,4-D lovin’ dinosaur who maintains a perfect carpet upon which even the birds won’t set foot. meticulous-gardener-xs

Like anything else, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Reasons to hate the lawn

First, aesthetics: subdivisions that are predominantly lawns are dull and lifeless-looking. The houses, which are disproportionately large for their lot, look even more jarringly out of scale with few plants to tie them to the site. With no real differences in landscape style, the entire scene is bland and homogenized.

Second, resource use: lawns- especially stressed lawns- require a lot of inputs. I was contacted by a large fertilizer applicator, who recommended five to seven applications of fertilizer and pesticides to my lawn, per year. Consider the implications of that, especially since synthetic fertilizers are derived from petroleum products. Now that I’m doing a fert & squirt program, of course I’ll want to protect my investment by watering regularly. This means either installing an irrigation system, or dragging a hose around. However I do it, I want to give my grass an inch of water per week, which is not insignificant on a quarter-acre lot. Feeding and watering a lawn makes it grow faster, and if I’m like many people I’ll cut it short, thinking that will extend my time between cuts. Now I’m cutting every 4-5 days in cooler weather, but the short grass also loses more water (both because of evaporation, and because the plants are so busy trying to regrow the leaves that they’re not putting energy into root development), so I’m upping the irrigation times. Putting my lawn on this stress cycle makes it more susceptible to disease, so I’ll probably have something else that needs dealt with as well. I’m also building up thatch, and that’ll need removed at least once a year if I’m going to have a decent lawn.

And, of course, most of these products I’m using are water-soluble. Some of the nutrients or chemicals will get to the grass plants, but a fair bit will run right off the lawn and down the storm drain at the bottom of my hill. Ready to dig it all up yet?

Reasons to love the lawn- or, it doesn’t have to be this way

Aesthetics: I’m a plant geek. I love a riot of bloom colors, foliage textures, and wild structure. From a design standpoint, though, this can look totally chaotic. What you need is a way to tie everything together, preferably something of a single color and texture that also gives the eye a place to rest. This is why you hear about the importance of creating the structure or “bones” of your garden before planting. Paths and walkways can serve this purpose, but turfgrass allows you to lead the eye through a space in big, broad swaths, without spending tons of money.

Function: Planting vegetables, flowers, and exciting shrubs is great- I can totally get behind that. But I also want to have fun. I can’t play croquet- even extreme croquet- in my pea patch, without disastrous consequences. Therefore, my backyard plan contains a swath of lawn on which I can play lawn games, set extra lawn chairs when bigger groups of friends come over, or just let my friends’ kids have fun. Also, turfgrasses establish themselves pretty quickly, and if they’re in good soil they can help control erosion on mild slopes. When it comes to moving water away from the places we don’t want it, I prefer moving it on the surface of the ground, instead of with underground pipes. If you have the slope to make it work, a grassy swale is extremely effective at moving and dispersing water.

Resource Use: If you learn a little about organic lawn care and you’re willing to accept a lawn that doesn’t resemble astro-turf, your lawn can demand few resources, including time. In the summertime, when weeds are popping up in my flowerbeds and I’m tending to my veggies, I like that my lawn demands nothing from me except a few laps with my reel mower.

Lawns are just a collection of plants; they’re neither good nor bad on their own. Like any other plants, if we think carefully about where we place them, learn a little about what they really need, and make them one part of a more varied landscape, they can help make your property something special.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 10, 2009 9:28 pm

    FANTASTIC!

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