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.