The lone voice of horticultural reason

Gardens, Not Grass Part I

This week I have some bad news and some bad news. First, the bad news: I’ve recently been reading a fair number of talented, big-shot garden writers. Now, the bad news: turns out I’ve been right about green grass all along.

You see, since my earliest forays into home ownership, I have been decidedly anti-lawn. This attitude does not stem from any known predispositions, or scarring childhood occurrences, so far as I can tell. In fact, growing up we had a nice, rather large front lawn, and I have nothing but fond memories of the typical boyhood activities performed upon it: baseball, football, Frisbee, blowing up anthills with firecrackers, tag, and the like. The family yard never instilled any negatives into my consciousness. I didn’t even have to mow it; only Dad knew how to do that right.

Yet when I became an adult, I began to question why homes should be surrounded by so much grass-the Green Plague, as I call it. Well, I’m not alone.

Garden writer Rosalind Creasy writes: “What a thankless task it is to maintain a lawn! You’ve got to water it, feed it, and lime it so well you have to cut it down the next week.” My sentiments exactly. Grass is labor-intensive, chemically addictive and gasoline combustion-inductive, all while contributing zilch to the health of the planet and its occupants compared to trees, shrubs and plants of higher character.

Driving to work each morning I pass a large, established church, the grounds of which have been recently developed to include a lavish expansion to its school. After the trucks and cranes and bulldozers were finished with the construction, what was the choice for landscaping the new, half-acre berm created by the excavation? Rolls and rolls and rolls of sod. Green grass. Green grass running from the county road up over the berm and down to the start of the modern new addition. We’re so used to driving past green grass one doesn’t notice the berm, the new building, or anything at all.

Ah, but what if they had planted it with native shrubs, prairie flowers and tall grasses? Spring, summer and fall this entrance to the church grounds could have been a joyous, living, moving celebration of nature and spirit, a sanctuary for birds and butterflies, a tonic for the soul, a welcoming, colorful, ever-changing canvas of creation. I don’t think the church elders thought it through.

Writer Cassandra Danz, in her wonderful book Mrs. Greenthumbs, accurately points out that America is one of the few countries in the world where today, grass is used not as a divisional respite between, say, a stand of trees and the driveway, but as the primary landscape itself. She points out it was not always so: “You can see how little grass was used by observing some of the older suburbs developed before World War II. (The) streets are tree-lined and the front yards are extensively planted with rhododendrons and other shrubs. The whole feeling tends to be leafy and cool, very welcome in the summer, and sunny in the winter because the tree leaves are gone.”

What happened? Gas-guzzling, power lawn mowers are what happened. Prior to their advent in the 1950s, only push-mowers were available, and patches of grass were small, simple, functional accents to a home’s landscape. If you owned a half-acre or more, a great majority of the land was devoted to ornamental trees, shrubs, zero-maintenance ground covers, and perennial and vegetable gardens, if desired.

Next week I’ll continue on this topic, and offer some alternatives to the insanity that’s been foisted upon us by the Green Plague.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener