Monday, 11 July 2011


"A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule." Michael Pollan

(As always, go to WHAT CAN YOU DO if you are pressed for time.)

I had planned on starting this blog entry with a simple statement: I hate grass.  I didn’t understand why people would willingly spend so much time on it (cutting it, fertilizing it, watering it), and do something that is so clearly bad for the environment (cutting it, fertilizing it, and watering it), only to have their lawn look just like the lawn next door.  Isn’t the whole idea of owning a home, I thought in my naïvité, to be able to do what you want with your little patch of ‘mine’?  How could so many people genuinely want grass on their lawn, I wondered.  Aren’t they just going along with what everyone else does – well, because it’s what everyone else does?  Then I began my research for this blog.

For many, many years, only the very wealthy and the aristocracy could ‘waste’ land by having a lawn instead of using it for food production.  They also had the disposable income to have servants to care for the lawn.  Lawns became a status symbol, eventually copied by the upper middle class, and finally by the middle class.  They served as a visible contrast to the urban habitat, and the ‘green space’ afforded to the middle class in suburbs became a visible sign of  upward mobility.  Many municipalities have bi-laws requiring the maintenance of lawns, and demanding conformity in order to maintain property values, among other reasons.  The need to maintain conformity and control lawns can take on absurd levels.  For instance, Julie Bass of Oak Park, Michegan, now faces ninety-three days in jail for daring to grow vegetables for her family on her front lawn. 

Graminoids (the technical term for grasses) are present in rain forests, deserts, mountains, and even intertidal habitats, and

“…are now the most widespread plant type….Graminoids are the dominant vegetation in many habitats, including grassland, salt-marsh, reedswamp and steppes.”
Well, it is difficult to maintain a line like “I hate grass” when, as it turns out, it is a major source of food for wildlife (graminovores - just think of the African Savannah), and given the variety of graminoids (3,500 species), I think it’s fair to say that I did some major reconsidering.  So, I thought, I don’t really hate grass.  In fact, some grass is rather beautiful. 

So beautiful that I know of one park in the city that has planted a grass garden, comprised of various species of grass. 

After carefully reconsidering lawns, I realize that I still hate turf grass lawns.  They are surprisingly bad for air quality (and electric mowers have their detriments as well) , the list of pesticides used on lawns is frightening, and (a recurring theme with me), terrible for bees.  It is true that there are some benefits to turf lawns:

 “Lawns absorb water, which helps reduce storm runoff and improve water quality. Lawns also have a significant cooling effect, provide oxygen, trap dust and dirt, promote healthful micro-organisms, prevent erosion and filter rainwater contaminants.”

However, these benefits come at a high price.  So, what can you do to decrease the environmental impact of the traditional turf lawn?  You have quite a few options. 

1.   Go here and here and support Julie Bass.  Tell others about this case.  Help protect one’s right to use one’s property in environmentally friendlier ways.

2.   Get in touch with your municipality, and find out what your by-laws are, and what your options are.  If, like Julie Bass, your by-laws are restrictive, or interpreted in a restrictive way, mount a campaign to change them.  You may be fine with your front lawn, but you should have the right to choose  whether or not you want turf grass.

3.   If you genuinely like your turf grass, then keep it.  (In fact, you may not have a choice, depending upon the bylaws in your area.  See above.) 

4.   Stop overusing fertilizer, and improve the soil quality (there’s a great article here that may help.) 

5.   Pay attention to the local rainfall, and water accordingly . This should make a big difference in water consumption.

6.   Research native grasses.  Plant them, and if you can. Allow them to grow without cutting or watering.

7.   Research alternatives to turf grass as your ground cover.  There is an excellent article here which lists wild camomile, clover, and thyme as alternatives. (Needless to say, you will have to research which species would best suite your needs.) These plants should provide you with the soft ‘walkable’ quality that some people might want.  They're beautiful, too.

8.   If you don’t plan on walking on your lawn (and most people I know don’t), then consider wild strawberries, which are beautiful while flowering and when producing fruit.  They are also great for pollinators like (yes, again) bees.

9.   Other plants can be beautiful too, and in my opinion, offer far more interest than simply ground cover.

10.                Finally, one of the best alternatives I can think of is to plant a food producing garden instead of a lawn.  This, however, will be the subject of a future blog entry, as you are most likely quite tired by now, Dear Reader.

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