The lone voice of horticultural reason

Gardens, Not Grass Part II

Many, many factors have combined to create the current situation whereby we Americans have been hoodwinked into surrounding our homes with great expanses of green grass.

It was not always so. In fact, it’s a relatively recent notion, this ridiculous practice of landscaping our homes-from modest city bungalows to enormous suburban brick castles-with virtually nothing but lawn. And, sorry but resolutely to say, ridiculous it is.

Look at the facts. “A lawn is, ecologically speaking, a desert,” writes Cassandra Danz, in her book, Mrs. Greenthumbs. “No flowers bloom, no food is produced, no birds sing. Grass manufactures only a fraction of the oxygen that trees growing in the same spot would produce.” Gasoline-powered lawnmowers, belching along at the blazing rate of two miles per gallon, keep this Green Plague at bay, week after week after week, multiplied by millions of American lawns. I’m not even an ecology nut and I consider this both harmful and wasteful, particularly when there are so many simple alternatives that are aesthetically superior and no more (some even less) time-consuming.

As the suburbs were launched in the 1950s, city lots gave way to half-acres, full acres and more. America was booming, and homeowners wanted to flaunt it. What better model than the wealthy English estate owners of the 1800s, who were the first to proclaim their social and financial superiority by creating what only the wealthy could afford: an expanse of grass? “Wealthy landowners in England had a lawn for the same reason people buy fancy cars and Rolex watches today-to show off,” chirps Mrs. Greenthumbs. Down girl.

Not only was seed expensive, but lawnmowers were unheard of. Of course, wealthy landowners never would have tolerated even a square foot of green grass were they personally responsible for its upkeep; servants did all the weeding, fertilizing, watering, cutting, and sweeping up of clippings by hand, known today as hiring a lawn service.

But over here in America, we didn’t quite get it right. The great old estates in England never used grass in ninety, or even thirty percent of the total landscape. They simply had a nice lawn, for croquet, or on which to picnic or stroll, but always as a pleasant supplement to the overall landscape, like the mat on a painting. Americans, of course, went hog-wild, concluding that if a little was good a lot was great, and hand-in-hand with developers, homebuilders and the burgeoning power-mower and lawn chemical industries, proceeded to make all the landscapes surrounding all the homes across our immensely varied land look exactly the same. If that isn’t ridiculous, I’ll stop writing.

Had enough of green grass? Start with your side lawns. Their only purpose is to allow you to carry an extension ladder from the front of the house to the back when cleaning the gutters. Plant a line of shrubs and a few trees along the lot line, add foundation plantings next to the house, introduce any of a dozen drought-resistant groundcovers and any of a hundred native woodland perennials to the mix, then keep a sacred strip of grass-but make it curve-in between. Not only does your house now stand more impressively apart from your neighbor’s, it just went up in value. By the second year, the amount of time spent maintaining this portion of your property will be well short of the time previously spent mowing.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener