Lawns are a relatively recent historical phenomenon. Lawns didn’t exist except around the palaces of the world (think Versailles) until the 19th century (link), and even then only in the more affluent places like Great Britain. In North America, though there were some modern lawns in the early 18th century, a good grass seed wasn’t found until around 1930, and due to the more extreme weather lawns had nowhere near the smooth appearance of those in the UK. While lawnmowers appeared in the 1880’s, the North American lawn didn’t come into its own until homeowners had both hoses and sprinklers for use in the hot summers, and gas-powered rotary lawn mowers, and until the American Garden Club gave lawns a lot of publicity. With a manual push-type lawnmower people could only keep a relatively small lawn, but powered mowers and irrigation made it possible for many to have huge lawns, especially in the prosperity-driven move to owning huge “McMansions” that occurred at the end of the 20th century. So how will things change from here on?
Maintaining a lawn is a pain in the back(side). For the past few decades I have tried to minimize my lawn-related work and expense, at first because I was young and had other priorities, and later as I became increasingly environmentally conscious. Over the years I have tried to incrementally change my lawn and how I handle it, learning more and making small ecological improvements every year, but the huge run-up in gas prices of late has had me thinking of more radical approaches, and bigger incremental steps over the next few years to reduce the energy and carbon footprint associated with my lawn.
Radical and different lawn-solutions are appearing. In many small cities and towns I have visited, the lawns look like they were manicured – solidly bright green and uniform in height, with amazingly neat edges around gardens, walks, and driveways. (I confess I have wondered if people there have anything else to do, and if they use nail clippers to trim their lawns …) I live in a college town, however, where a lot of people are too busy (some would say lazy, but I beg to differ) to cut and manicure their lawns. In addition, some people are especially environmentally conscious and have very negative feelings about pouring chemicals on their lawn, no matter if it looks clumpy and unrefined without them. A few people, here and there, have converted their lawns into gardens with a lot of ground cover, and fewer have gone for lawns given over completely to wild flowers and shrubs. I have one neighbor who plants his entire front lawn in sunflowers, a miniature variety that only grows to about four feet in height.
I’m not as radical as some, but I’m trying to improve and be more ecologically responsible. I am probably the delight of my neighbors (not) as I don’t use chemicals, mow as infrequently as possible with a mulching type mower (gas-powered, I’m sorry to say), and have allowed the moles to make an amazingly pillow-like honeycomb of my lawn. I have allowed moss to grow in the shady areas, or just let the ground be bare. Once in a while I toss a little seed on the bare patches, in the front yard only, and water a little. Decades ago I recognized that brown is the natural color for grass in the hot dog days of July and August, and almost entirely stopped watering, at least until the bare dirt patches between the grass clumps approached several inches in diameter.
I stopped the cycle of chemicals and fertilizers decades ago. For decades I have fertilized about once every ten years, whether my lawn needed it or not, and tried to comfort my neighbors by reassuring them that I will keep THEIR lawn looking really good (by comparison). One incremental change around ten years ago was to set the mower height to 3″ or higher, as it not only is more resistant to heat and drought, but also shades the ground where sun-loving weeds would start. Of course, it doesn’t stop the dandelions, but it does slow them down. ;-) One year I took a thistle-removing tool and cut all the dandelions out of my lawn, cutting the roots below the surface one by one, to see if I could at least reduce their numbers. (The lawns on both sides of me had NO dandelions at all, and I was getting malevolent looks from the neighbors from time to time.) Of course, it was a lot of effort and within a month or two you couldn’t tell I had done anything at all. Sorry, neighbors, but you need to get with the new paradigm.
Continued incremental changes will move me towards a sustainable yard. I am still thinking about how my lawn might change further. To that end:
– I have planted a couple of small flowering plants that the provider assured me would send out little roots and spread until they take over everything … well, I hope they just take over the lawn.
– I have considered the sunflower guy’s route, and pondered whether I might someday have a bioreactor behind the house into which I could feed yard waste, and which would produce energy somehow (alcohol fermenter? fuel cell?).
– I would dearly love to stop cutting my lawn entirely. That #$% lawnmower has hurt my back on more than one occasion. (The handle is too low for my 6’2″ or 1.9m frame, making it hard to avoid bending over while pushing it.) I don’t think I can do that without raising the ire of the city fathers (prompted by neighbors, of course), but I can feel a solution coming. Will grass be genetically re-engineered to only grow to a 3″ height? I would probably jump at that, though I wouldn’t want to have to scrape my yard clean of all biological materials to do it. Maybe the new grass could be genetically engineered to just push out the old stuff — it wasn’t natural anyway. Aren’t all lawns just invasive species that we patrol and police?
Bring on the bioengineers. Since bioengineering is becoming more and more like a hobby, and our very smart kids (the ones who stay in school and understand why they need to) are experimenting with it, maybe the new lawn seed will appear soon. Properly designed and tested, it could be a great energy (and back) saving answer to the problem of having a presentable lawn.
A grass lawn isn’t absolutely necessary, nor the best looking alternative. Alternatively I may go the route of my mother, whose rock and ivy garden had half taken over her lawn by the time of her passing a few years ago. It looked nice, and, while it wasn’t good for croquet or football, the kids still enjoyed hopping along the stone step pathways and climbing onto the bigger rocks. There was a city park not far away if they wanted to play sports.
You, too, can progress towards the lawn of the sustainable future. If you have a lawn, please think about the future, and the developing new paradigm of lawn maintenance. You could save money, energy, and your back, and possibly even get more energy out of your lawn than you put in. Wouldn’t it be great to sit back with a cold drink on a summer day and look out over your beautiful lawn and gardens without a sore back, or the roar and exhaust smell of lawnmowers and weed whackers? That day is coming.
Afterthought: I visited Phoenix, Arizona, a couple of years ago and was astonished at the huge number of green, heavily irrigated lawns there. In an area where the water table is said to have dropped from 12 feet down to over 100 feet down in just the past 70 years, I can’t understand how anyone can justify such things. I won’t go into the many miles of cotton fields under open-channel irrigation South of Phoenix – that just seems insane to me, and I can’t understand how it could be economical. The interesting climatic effect I noticed was that, in contrast with normal deserts where the dry air allows large daily temperature swings, in Phoenix in early September it was 110F during the day and only dropped to perhaps 99F at night. I can only attribute this to significant elevation of humidity from all the irrigation, swimming pools, etc. I not only can’t imagine why people are doing this to themselves and the environment, but wonder how they will change their lawns as water becomes increasingly scarce. It will be interesting to see.
As always, I welcome your comments.