Over the weekend, I was outside doing some much-needed yard work. With winter now behind us (no more unanticipated snowstorms, hopefully), the time has arrived to start bringing the yard back into shape for the spring and summer. While I was outside, I was also listening to an audiobook I had started a couple weeks ago: Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. It struck me that the ideas I was listening to (the ethos of variety and nuance in botany) were in contrast with the actions I was taking. My yard work was attempting to bring “order” (a uniform green lawn free from “weeds”) to “chaos” (a natural variety of plants). Was I being a hypocrite by demonstrating textbook “dominion over nature”?

The act of “maintaining” a yard or garden seems to require a balance between active repression of the “natural order” and encouraging the growth of certain plants. The range of that balance can swing between the relatively libertarian practice of simply mowing the lawn to the draconian “lawn management” services that rule the lawn with an iron fist (perfectly uniform turf). But as the Platonic ideal of a “natural” lawn would be almost devoid of human intervention, it is culturally repudiated in suburban America.

What then would the “sweet spot” be for a lawn or garden that hews more closely to a natural habitat than a man-made oasis? Is there a way to hedge against my predisposition to exert dominion over nature? One of the more common suggestions I have read is to use native species of plants wherever possible, as they are well-suited to the climate and require little maintenance. There are some species of grass that are more well-acclimated than others to certain climates, but rarely are they truly native species (at least in my part of the country).

Biodiversity is another common suggestion for leaning towards the more natural approach. By providing a rich mix of plant species (and accompanying fungal and insect/animal communities), the resistance to specific diseases or weather variations is increased by virtue of diversification (some plants might die off, but others take their place quickly). It can also prevent diseases or insects from devastating unnaturally high concentrations of certain species that would otherwise be spread out and protected via physical distance.

Notably, however, the central feature of most midwestern yards is the lawn itself. Grass species used to populate lawns are usually singular (one species) and specifically selected for/genetically engineered to grow thick, green turf that can be mowed to short height. Despite what its rich color implies, lawns primarily covered in grass are relatively sterile environments relative to a field or forest occurring in nature. The lack of species diversity and heavy dependence on artificial environmental modifications (watering, fertilizing) makes a lawn full of grass ecologically poor and resource intensive to maintain.

It’s still early in the year, and I will have a lot of choices to make with regard to how to “maintain” our yard. But I hope with at least the presence of the ideas encountered from sources like Pollan’s book, I can strike a good balance between the naturalist approach and the impulse to exert dominion over nature.

One Comment

  1. William Colt

    In response to your blog, I contribute a little history (not my text) for perspective and a few random thoughts.

    Green, weed-free lawns so common today didn’t exist in America until the late 18th century. Instead, the area just outside the front door of a typical rural home was typically packed dirt or perhaps a cottage garden that contained a mix of flowers, herbs, and vegetables.

    Lawn grasses native to America proved unsuitable for a tidy and well-controlled lawn, and our extreme climate was less than hospitable to the English grass seeds, where the wealthy maintained lawns.

    By 1915, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was collaborating with the U.S. Golf Association to find the right grass—or combination of grasses—that would create a durable, attractive lawn suitable to the variety of climates found in America. Included in the testing were Bermuda grass from Africa, blue grass from Europe, and a mix of Fescues and bent grass. Fifteen years later, the USDA had discovered several grass combinations that would work in our climate. So, we were off and running to find the most suitable pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that would protect and serve the newly blended mix of grasses.

    There was also the challenge of providing sufficient water to keep the grass green in summer. It wasn’t easy hauling a bucket of water out to the yard during the summer droughts.

    Cutting the grass was a challenge, as well. Existing English lawns were trimmed with scythes, an expensive process that required a certain amount of finesse, or by grazing livestock on the greens. In 1870, Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana designed a machine that basically brought push mowing to the masses. By 1885, America was building 50,000 lawnmowers a year and shipping them to every country on the globe.

    As of yet, there wasn’t a real big demand for green lawns in the front yard. It wasn’t until The American Garden Club stepped in. Through contests and other forms of publicity, they convinced home owners that it was their civic duty to maintain a beautiful and healthy lawn. So effective was the club’s campaign that lawns were soon the accepted form of landscaping. The garden club further stipulated that the appropriate type of lawn was “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.”

    Natural lawns, contrary to popular perception, are not a natural occurrence. Synthetic grass is also one of the best ways to go green if you are living in an arid region, or want to cut down on the use of fertilizers and pesticides. The EPA estimates that up to 7 billion gallons of water is used for landscaping every day. This is one-third of all residential water consumption. Lawn maintenance equipment guzzles up to 17 million gallons of fuel every year.

    The EPA also found that a gasoline push lawn-mower emits as much pollution in an hour as 11 cars and a riding mower emits as much as 34 cars. Add to this another EPA statistic: 33.2 million tons of yard trimmings were generated in 2009. When decomposing they generate methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.

    The average homeowner spends more per acre to grow his lawn than it takes per acre to grow corn, rice or sugarcane.

    An EPA report titled ‘Sustainable Landscaping’ mentions that American home-owners use about 3 million tons of synthetic fertilizers every year, over and above 70 million pounds of herbicides and insecticides, on their lawns. 40%-60% of these chemicals find their way in our local water systems.

    There are simple steps you can take to do away with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers:

    Pesticides. For those insects that truly are voracious, consider using an organic alternative to pesticides (such as a soap and water spray) or introducing natural predators (such as ladybugs or praying mantis) into your garden.

    Herbicides. The best way to get rid of weeds without resorting to herbicides is, of course, to pull them by hand. But, mulch is your best bet. Bark mulch spread 6 to 8 inches deep will keep 99% of weeds from being able to grow.

    Fertilizer. If you can get it, manure from a local farm is an excellent replacement for petroleum-based fertilizers. Improperly spread, manure can be as harmful to the watershed as petroleum-based fertilizers. A slightly safer and more generally accepted soil amendment is recycling kitchen scraps via a compost pile, compost tumbler, or worm factory. A compost pile in the garden is the easiest and cheapest way of composting kitchen scraps, but don’t put bones or fat (or any animal product, for that matter) into it.

    Other possibilities:

    Coffee Grounds: Coffee grounds contain substantial quantities of potassium and phosphorus and some amounts of nitrogen. They also contain calcium, copper, and magnesium that are essential nutrients for plants.

    Egg Shells: Egg shells are almost completely calcium carbonate and thus are greener alternatives to agricultural limes. Crush them in your blender to a powdery-fine consistency and sprinkle at the base of your plants. They will thank you for this!

    Compost: Coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peels, egg shells, and fruit cores are some common kitchen wastes that can form the green base of the compost while the dried stems and branches from your plants, paper, sawdust, and wood shavings can make up the brown component.

    Wood Ash: Wood ash makes a great fertilizer for your plants and a green conditioner for your soil. Its composition of potassium, phosphorus, and quite a few trace minerals provide nutrition to your greens. So the next time you have a barbeque party, remember to collect all the wood ash you can. You can also scoop the ones from your fireplace. Sprinkle this on the soil just before spring and see your plants grow up strong, healthy, and happy. You can also use wood ash in your compost.

    Boiling Water: If ever you could go minimal and simplistic with your weed control routine, then this is what will let you achieve your goals. Simply pour boiling water on an ant mound or weedy undergrowth and you will soon be free of pests

    Vinegar and Lemon Juice: Undiluted vinegar, that is, vinegar at its most acidic, is a potent weed killer, pickling vinegars with up to 18 per cent acidity levels does the best job. Lime juice mixed with vinegar adds more killer strength to your bottle of homemade pesticide. Apart from being a completely natural product, another advantage of using vinegar and lime juice in your garden is that this pesticide is pet-friendly.

    Epsom Salt: Epsom salt is a very effective natural pesticide that can kill and/or repel a variety of insects and animals that can harm your plants. For instance, Epsom salt mixed with bran and molasses keeps away grasshoppers and other creepy crawlies. Sprinkling this salt on the leaves of your greens also keeps away animals like deer, groundhogs, and rabbits who would otherwise chew the leaves of the plants. The salt is also an effective deterrent to beetle, slug and snail infestations. However, be careful that you do not douse your plants with too much of this salt; Epsom salt is known to damage the roots of plants. On the other hand, make sure that you reapply an Epsom salt solution to your plants after watering or a spell of rain.

    Orange Peels: Orange peels or any food left over or discarded makes an excellent fertilizer. Why throw left over fruit and vegetable food stuffs away? Take it to your garden and watch your garden shine while you utilize all of your resources.

    So what are some conclusions I would make:
    1. Lawns had government and Garden Club sponsorship behind them.
    2. It is a broad industry, and has a positive economic impact.
    3. Having nice looking grass and a weed free lawn is a social norm, a civic duty, and is generally appreciated by your neighbors. It is often governed by ordinance. There is nothing “natural” about them.
    4. Similarly, wearing nice looking clothes, taking showers and using deodorant is a social norm, and is generally appreciated by those around you. There is nothing “natural” about them. Clothes and deodorant have a negative ecological footprint, and taking a shower is a terrible use for the globally scarce resource of water.
    5. Although a little more effort, there are alternative pesticides and fertilizers, which can be used for the foundational effort (see above). As you suggested, the use of beneficial predator bugs is a good practice, but you need to remain vigilant year-after-year. If used, pesticides and fertilizers should be used judiciously, for specific problems, and with a heightened sensitivity regarding their impact on the surrounding environment and the animals that dwell within. Also, consider that there are a growing number of eco-friendly commercial products on the market.
    6. Water conservation regarding your lawn and garden is an excellent concept, but difficult for the average homeowner to accomplish. Collectors for rain water from down-spouts, etc., is the easiest approach, but a little difficult to distribute. Diverters for home “greywater” is also a great eco-friendly concept, but a little more difficult to adapt from a plumbing and hydraulics perspective.
    7. Although an extreme view by today’s standards, you can replace your lawn with a vegetable garden or with a synthetic lawn, both eco-friendly alternatives, for the most part.
    8. I totally endorse the use of native plant species.

    Good stuff!


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