Guest Rant: Dude, Where’s My Lawn?


Liza We used to just keep ducks in the backyard pen, and they were easier on the landscaping. Except for sticking their heads through the fence whorls to chew on rose leaves or taste the purple cone flowers, they concentrated on clipping dandelions, which my wife Linda and I considered to be a good deed. When we added two geese, they overturned the occasional chunk of turf and nibbled on the grass here and there. Things didn’t spin out of control until we moved the ducks to the barn and took in more geese.

We didn’t plan on getting the additional honkers. People started giving them to us. Because we love the emotional excesses of these graceful yet simultaneously awkward waterfowl, we couldn’t say no to orphans that had nowhere else to go. One male Embden had turned up wandering aimlessly in an apartment complex parking lot. Three female African Browns had been dumped in a roadside ditch. We took to them immediately, and they took to our yard. They probed the soil for succulent bits of dirt, mined for grubs, and made endless trips to the grassy salad bar.

One day the grass was stubble. The next day, it was gone. “We don’t have a lawn,” Linda complained. I took this to be an exaggeration until I looked up from filling goose wading pools to note an expanse of rocky soil unbroken by the usual sprigs of green.

It could have been worse. We still had our weeds. Geese, after all, are pikers compared to hens. WhenFwmyrna we built a pen behind our barn for our ducks and turkeys, we gave them a lush section of ground awash with thistles, nettles, wild mustard, catnip, bee balm, and vigorous grasses. The birds diminished but didn’t destroy the grass – and hid behind the other plants when I tried to shoo them into the barn after dinner. Then we took in a batch of homeless hens. The first year, they ate the grass but failed to conquer the larger plants. But the following spring they managed to consume every green shoot as soon as it shot up its head. Today our once natural hen pen has less vegetation than an asphalt parking lot.

We think we’ve solved our problem with the geese. We ran a chicken wire fence down the lower quarter of the yard to confine the waterfowl, and reseeded the rest with Kentucky bluegrass, fescue, and perennial ryegrass. But Linda, who hatched this plan, has already backslid so far as to insist, “The geese need to eat grass.” And I can’t really argue. Our lettuce bills have skyrocketed over the past twelve months.

So, as soon as we’ve watched our new lawn grow in, we’ll unleash the geese and watch it disappear again.

Fowlweather_2 If you’d like to win a copy of Fowl Weather, Bob Tarte’s newest book about life with 39 animals, give us a little insight into your own victories, defeats, compromises, or enslavement to the animals that graze on your garden.  Post it in the comments or post it on your own blog and put a link in the comments.  We’ll announce a winner tonight.


  1. oh, I have THE story about fowl and gardens for you…my true and tragic tale of the blue poppies…

    I’d LOVE to have ducks or geese eat the grass, though…all the more room to garden!

    cheers, jodi in Nova Scotia

  2. Bob, I am definitely buying your book! Last year, I tried to keep hens in an urban yard. Confined to a pen, they cannibalized each other. Let loose in my garden, they were happy, but I wasn’t, as they threatened to undo four years of gardening labor in a few weeks of peck-and-scratch.

    They ended up being given away in early May–before they could get to my beloved lilies.

    But I miss the eggs and miss the fun. I was considering trying a pair of ducks. What’s the garden and lawn damage, in your experience, with ducks?

  3. Oh, how I would love to own ducks.

    My husband and keep three chickens in our backyard, though our battle is keeping the ladies out of the garden. They hop the fence and make a dash for our lettuce and peas. A line strung about ten inches above the top of the fence seems to have discouraged them. They only had to clothesline themselves a few times before they gave up.

  4. Ducks and Geese are one thing but someday I’d love to have a few chickens. For now, the only critter eating my grass is my small rat terrier.

    In the past I’ve had my gardening managed by a pack of Labrador Retrievers. In our old house, I decided how I would set up the dog run. There was an old, beautiful rose bush in that part of the yard. Within a week or two of it becoming the dog run, I noticed that the rose was being pruned. By the end of that summer, there was no longer a rose bush. They utterly and completely destroyed it and it never came back. I was amazed. Down to the roots and I think they dug some of them up too.

    Animals are hard on gardens, no doubt!

  5. My cousin, who raises exotic birds for a living, got her start with geese, which she kept in the back yard of her parents’ house as a teenager. I thought they were really cool until she mentioned that not only did they hiss loudly, they were also somewhat aggressive and not above attacking when displeased by grabbing a big pinch of skin on her arm with their bills.

    That kind of fizzled the goose ardor, especially because, with their necks extended, they were almost as tall as I was at the time.

    Now, with all the slugs in the garden, the idea of ducks is tempting …

  6. my grandfather could never say no to “exotic” birds either. alas for him neither could my grandmother. while she hated the destructive nature of the various fowl that my grandfather brought home, she adored the taste of them. he was a reserve marine and every time he went in for a weekend doing whatever marines do one or two would disappear. she always swore they had just flown away… in the end he gave up and just kept chickens in ducks. the ducks rarely disappeared as their eggs made superior cakes and the chicken eggs were for every day eating so they were safe as well.

  7. Oh yeah. Poultry stories. We had a small flock when our son was about six. I wasn’t very good about culling the roosters. It got to the point where he’d gather the eggs with a whiffle ball bat and a trash can lid to fend them off.

    We let him sell extra eggs to the neighbors and keep the money. We were talking with them one day and they said how good they were and worth every penny of the $2 a dozen they paid for them. We thought our son was only getting half of that.

    We asked him about it, and he told us (with the Elmer Fudd speech impediment he outgrew later): “A dowwa fo the eggs. And a dowwa fo the dewivewy.”

  8. How cute!

    Just this last year, my fiance and I started feeding a stray cat that had been nosing around in my veggie garden. We were so surprised to discover that she was pregnant! We couldn’t let her have her kittens outside, so we brought her into the house… despite the fact that my hubby is *super* allergic to cats. My the close of the winter, we had mama cat and 6 (!) kittens holed up in our computer room. (Hubby even birthed one of them, plucking it from its placenta and rubbing its chest until it started to breathe)

    We found homes for them all and he says that he’s glad that they are gone… but sometimes I catch him going through the pictures we took of them when they were tiny with a wistful look in his eye.

  9. We had 4 ducks in our city back yard and although I am not very handy I had them sort of corralled in one section of the yard. We got them when they a day old and had a great time building them pools and nest boxes etc etc.
    The first time they got out they ate all the swiss chard and lettuce which made the kids very happy. The second time they got out they ate the corn. Third time it was the tomatoes which I thought were safe as the leaves are supposed to be toxic but not to ducks apparently. Also they found the hot peppers quite tasty.
    Then I beefed up their cage, staking the chicken wire to the gound, putting in proper fence posts etc.They still had their pool, and the shade of the apple tree and for a few days they had a lawn so I have to say it was a very pleasant cage. Despite tons of weeds and salad they would leap and grab the leaves from the lowest braches of the crab apple tree. Come fall they started gulping down whole apples.I was sure they would choke to death but no.
    We ended up butchering and eating them and man were they good. My son stared at his first plate of roast duck and commented that it was hard to eat someone you knew. Pretty soon he was asking if there was more in the kitchen. I am not sure what the moral of this story is. But it was certainly a learning experience.

  10. Speaking of cats, after so many years trying to teach our cats not to chase the wild birds, there is something kind of rewarding about watching a goose chase a cat.

    Yes, the geese can occasionally be aggressive with people, too. “Fowl Weather” tells about a former classmate of mine who shows up with her hair in a topknot. Our goose Matthew took the hairdo as a provocation. (Perhaps it looked like a macho bird’s raised crest.) He not only hissed at the visitor, but did his best to bite her.

    Mostly, the geese are very well behaved, and the hens are so habituated that they mob me when I go into the barn, viewing me as a walking food dispenser.

  11. Before I retired from my suburban NJ high school English dept. chair job, I used to watch the custodian whose sole task between 7:15 and
    8 a.m. was to set off bottle rocket firecrackers over the football, soccer and hockey fields, to drive off the huge flocks of Canada geese which settled in each morning for breakfast. The amount of poop those creatures left was unbelievable–kids slid in it, and if they had a cut or sore on their legs or arms, they frequently got infections. But I loved to watch those geese. In my youth, they migrated south from the mid-Atlantic states to southern climes every winter, but now they no longer do so–they’re there year-round.

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