In Defense of The Lawn

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The American Gardener In Defense of The LawnLast week, Susan Harris emailed me regarding my recent article “In Defense of The Lawn” in the July/August issue of The American Gardener magazine. “Can we use it for the Rant?” she said, “Where it belongs?” 

Susan is right – it is a rant of sorts, though I like to think of it as a well-reasoned argument.  In any case, it’s a discussion I think we should all have; and when I contacted David Ellis, editor of The American Gardener, he kindly permitted us to run an excerpt here to start that discussion.  David has also generously provided a discount membership offer to the American Horticultural Society, valid until 8/31/20 so you can read the rest of the article (and there is much more) either digitally or in print, and take advantage of other wonderful member benefits. 

I am certainly not paid to say this, but I believe that if you’re a gardener in the U.S – or a gardener interested in American horticulture, you should seriously consider joining this excellent organization.  More information is provided at the end of this piece.

Now let’s get back to the ranting…

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Mine is not a lawn by the standards of the HOA protected subdivision that dominates the landscape less than three miles away. It is not the lawn of golf-courses and nervous groundskeepers further east towards the city. It does not cry out its nitrogen dependence in shades of electric green, nor does it bankrupt the resident gardener with various expensive treatment programs meted out on a meticulous schedule and marked with little yellow flags.

claytonia in virginia lawn
Claytonia virginica in my lawn in mid-April.

Each week, cropped at a machine finished four inches, my lawn in Northern Virginia provides recreational space, control over rampant woodland invasives, and the necessary void spaces that connect cultivated and uncultivated parts of the property and give our eyes needed rest.

Unlike conventional turf lawns, which are usually a near monoculture of one or two lawn grass species, my lawn is a hodgepodge of species—natives and non—including many common broadleaf thugs such as dandelions and plantain. But to chemically eradicate these less desirable plants would mean the loss of other, sweeter species—the claytonia… the violets…and the vast network of trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), whose lovely spotted leaves make up for the rare sighting of a flower.

To term this open space a “lawn” is therefore to be exceedingly generous. But I, and many others who maintain their lawns in this way—and who don’t have to rely on summer irrigation to keep them alive— look out upon them and are satisfied.

Right up until the minute a friend or neighbor informs us we should be ripping them out and planting a meadow instead.

The concept of being judged by one’s lawn has had a long and painful history. Knowing this, it is worth reflecting whether our laudable desire to be excellent stewards of our environment means we are continuing to mete out this judgement clothed in a different set of robes. Are we ignoring the desire of average homeowners to keep their beloved lawns, and, at the same time crippling our own ecological argument by offering idealized alternatives that do not meet their needs?

virginia lawn and volleyball net
Untreated but beautifully usable. In pre-COVID days, this space was used once a week with friends during the summer.

A PERSPECTIVE SHIFT

Meticulous standards of lawn care might very well be considered a legacy of growing suburbs in the mid- to latter half of the 20th century. For decades, urged on by a continually “improved” chemical arsenal, homeowners were instructed to treat their lawns like a prized rose bed.

No weeds. No bugs. No discoloration. And, to this gardener at least, no life.

By this standard, the masses were judged, and yet it was only attainable for your average weekend gardener in an average-sized American lot with average amounts of staff (that is to say, none), through the regular application of hundreds of pounds of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides every year, with known and unknown collateral damage to personal health, ecosystems, and watersheds.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book Silent Spring forced society to think deeply upon the costs of chemical warfare. The average homeowner, however, could neatly categorize such issues as a problem with industrial agriculture, and ignore their own part in the process. The chemical quest for the perfect lawn continued throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s.silent spring by rachel carson

And that is only half of the story. Such lawns required at least one inch of water per week to remain healthy and hydrated. In areas of abundant summer rainfall, there was no issue; but in many other areas of the western and southwestern United States, one inch per week required that gardeners tap into a rapidly dwindling resource.

No matter. The subtle and not-so-subtle influence of television, magazines and other national media sources, aided and abetted by the lawn-care industry, pushed a onesize-fits-all approach. So, gardeners continued to treat, water, mow, and obsess about their lawns; and as the end of the century approached, many handed homeowners’ associations further power to require similar, exacting standards of them. Or perhaps more accurately, of their neighbors.

It is no wonder then that gardeners in a new millennium were open to burning their bras. Over the last 20 years, we have seen a positive shift in the way we look at gardens, wildlife, chemical treatments, and our moral obligation to conserve the many fragile ecosystems around us.

Trends towards meadow gardening and the evolution of the New Perennial Movement have opened the eyes of many to the rich ecosystems that can develop in the presence of species diversity and the lack of chemical intervention. Increasingly, gardeners and naturalists find themselves working together to create cultivated spaces that radiate exciting, uncultivated energy. That’s a beautiful thing.

Delaware Botanic Garden
It doesn’t come much more beautiful and ecologically vibrant than this. Waves of perennials offer texture, movement, habitat and food sources at The Delaware Botanic Gardens (Piet Oudolf design).

But in their desire to free both the environment from harm and the homeowner from drudgery by advocating against the sins of the past, is it possible experts have begun to swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction? Fellow garden writers, horticulturists, Master Gardeners, naturalists, and nursery people, I’m talking to you.

Respectfully of course.

We are ignoring the many commendable functions of a lawn, chastising people for wanting those functions, and ignoring a large proportion of homeowners who do not artificially treat their lawns and are instead content to mow a vigorous and herbaceous green space wherever it grows. To those homeowners we offer a—highly arguable—“low-maintenance” solution to a functional space that is neither a problem, nor a high-maintenance headache.

Wouldn’t it be more effective to focus our efforts on helping homeowners to maintain the lawns and open spaces that they love in ways that can equally be loved by the planet?

Dogs chasing balls on lawn
My Jack Russell Mungo lives and breathes for chasing balls on the lawn. I’d hate to take that away from him.

PURPOSEFUL AND PLEASING

Functionally, a lawn or open space not only provides an outdoor exercise area for children and adults, but a recreational space for gatherings and entertaining—recreational space that a meadow cannot offer. It is versatile, permeable, comfortable to walk upon, and invites the play of outdoor games.

As Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and Tag, Toss & Run: 40 Classic Lawn Games wryly remarks, “It’s no fun to play badminton in a meadow when you can’t find the shuttlecock.”

In addition, lawns discourage tick populations where devastating tick-borne diseases like Lyme, babesiosis, and ehrlichiosis proliferate, and they allow pets to roam without harming expensively landscaped areas elsewhere in the yard.

Lawns with healthy root systems act as sponges. When compared to garden beds filled with more double-shred than plants (an unfortunate but popular method of planting in America), lawns provide excellent capture of storm runoff. And carbon. And airborne particulate matter. Where summer rainfall makes lawns viable, they may also be utilized as aesthetically pleasing firebreaks against the ever-present threat of wildfire.

THE LAWN AND LANDSCAPE

From a design standpoint, lawns or other open expanses create areas of rest for our eyes and our senses. “Emotionally, they are breathing spaces,” says Carolyn Mullet, garden designer and owner of the garden tour company CarexTours. “Design is about the interplay of mass and void, and there is a very different intensity to each. Both are needed. Mass is framed and enhanced by void.”

Gardener or no, we recognize this instinctively. Majestic mature trees dotted through open lawns feel calming and restful; conversely, we find ourselves invigorated and energized by the life radiating from tall meadow grasses and wildflowers.

Getting the balance right between these two elements is a skill. Too much void and you are left with a sense of emptiness. Too little and the planting can feel suffocating or chaotic.

A mown framework can help us to appreciate other ecologically dynamic areas in our landscapes, communicating a sense of familiarity and comfort through what Joan Iverson Nassauer, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Michigan, terms a shared “landscape language.” Just as wide, mown paths through the meadow of a large public garden allow us to immerse ourselves comfortably in an inherently energetic environment, mown areas abutting a woodland or meadow at the borders of our yards make the area feel tended and approachable.

wisley meadow
A carefully curated late fall meadow at RHS Wisley.

Though some might protest against the ecologically negative and often arbitrary effects of culture on the landscape language being spoken, studies show human beings are naturally and unintentionally fluent in the language of their region. To effect positive ecological changes, it is therefore wise to become fluent ourselves, and stop shouting at them in a different tongue.

Open spaces play a vital role in our landscapes, and for areas of the country where abundant rainfall creates green whether you want it to or not, a mowed lawn is the simplest answer to unending maintenance woes—no matter how the experts protest otherwise.

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This excerpt is reprinted with permission from the July/August 2020 issue of The American Gardener magazine, which is the bimonthly membership publication of the American Horticultural Society (AHS). To view the article in its entirety, click HERE to become a member of the AHS at a special discounted rate for Garden Rant readers (valid until 8/31/20). In addition to receiving The American Gardener, other benefits of AHS membership include free admission to more than 340 public gardens nationwide, discounts on seeds and gardening books, and discounts on select educational programs.

 

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Marianne Willburn

Marianne Willburn is a gardening columnist, speaker and author of Big Dreams, Small Garden. After years of occasional guest rants, she began an on-going digital correspondence with Scott Beuerlein in 2019, and officially joined GardenRant in 2020.

A weekly newspaper columnist for over a decade, she frequently contributes to print and digital magazines and has won several national awards for her popular column and blog, Small Town Gardener.  Marianne also guides European garden tours with CarexTours, a D.C. based tour company dedicated to exploring public and private gardens in a small group experience.

Marianne believes strongly that you should never wait for the ‘perfect space’ to create a restful garden oasis for yourself and your family; and she has spent much of her gardening life in small city and suburban gardens in places as diverse as California, England and the Mid-Atlantic. In 2013, she began gardening intensively and exhaustively on ten acres in a rural corner of Northern Virginia, and occasionally longs for the days of city window boxes, houseplants, and a great Indian restaurant within walking distance.

Contact Marianne by email: [email protected]

25 COMMENTS

  1. My lawn is a medley of grass, clover, and a seasonal variety of weeds. I do spot treat dandelions in the spring, but otherwise don’t water or feed or seed. A corner of my backyard is “meadow” and it is a mess and requires a lot of work to keep invasives at bay, whereas the lawn just has to be mowed periodically (at 4″ height, it always looks greener than my neighbors’ scalped and treated grass). The older I get, the more I appreciate the adage that “less is more” and right now I want less work and more enjoyment out of my yard. So I’m eliminating the vegetable garden, downsizing the perennial beds, and enlarging the lawn.

    • This is another point that I didn’t specifically make in the article, but that is very valid. As one ages, garden maintenance becomes more difficult, but lawn mowing is one of the easier tasks to perform as it does not require bending. With the self-propelled, and battery mowers these days (and numerous safety features), the job is made more accessible. Thank you for the good point Mary! – MW

  2. Whether one type of plant or many, a lawn is definitely a space for exercise and games and dogs that chase balls– especially no doubt Terriers, who are very active. Hopefully it’s not maintained with chemicals, so inimical to life.

    For those who would like to help stop global warming and feed more pollinators (and birds), they can do so with part of their lawn– and by doing so, quickly start adding carbon to the soil– at a rate many times that of a typical lawn– and much faster than planting trees. Turns out, it’s the roots!
    https://twitter.com/TheMeadoway/status/1244972471062867968/photo/1

  3. I think your argument is valid. I scratch my chin thinking of those who slave over their lawns using too much weed-and-feed, drain lakes of water to keep things hydrated, and spend years mowing and weed-whacking. I’m at a point in my life that if that’s what other people want to do, I won’t stop them. I’ve lived in my home for 5 years and have a tiny lawn of St. Augustine in the front. I’ve pretty much not watered or fertilized it. It has a few weeds, which don’t bother me that much. Spring & summer I weed-whack it about every 3 weeks, and otherwise, I ignore it. I don’t use it for anything. It’s just the small stage you walk through to get to my front door. The backyard is where the real garden-action takes place.

    • I agree Laura. I have never understood the desire to undertake all those treatments, but then I’ve never lived in an HOA and so cannot understand the lawn shaming either. Sounds like you have the right balance going on. – MW

  4. I am a proponent of Earth-Kind lawns, which proposes turf only where it is necessary to fulfill aesthetic, recreational or functional needs. A lawn is not, in itself, an ecological nightmare. If we choose the right grass for the right place, and irrigate wisely, we can eliminate all the chemicals and still have a quality turf. This reminds me of the native only vs. adapted controversy. Enthusiasm is great, but pushing people too hard will hurt even the most noble cause.

  5. Generally, a wonderful article and call for a low, green space in which to play. The one thing that leapt out at me as an omission was any reference to the carbon footprint, fossil fuel reliance and noise pollution of all that mowing. We can make ‘lawns’ net positive by removing these activities, too.

    • Nice article. I have a lot of native species in my yard to support pollinators. I also cut a portion of untreated grass so I can have some open recreational space. I believe a balance is key. It’s important to have some corridors, which are native and non-native refuge for organisms to live that are relatively untouched. Then also have your organic lawn space for you. Then again there’s variation for each person’s personal preference- that in my opinion shouldn’t include chemicals ever.

    • Hi Jodie – this is only half of the original article. In my last house, I used a small reel mower as I had a tiny area of lawn to mow and it made sense. In my property now, I have approximately an acre and a half that is mowed by machine not just to provide those recreational spaces, but to stop the encroachment of invasives and woodland towards the house. We had a tree go through the roof last year, and I am very aware of the fine balance one has to keep between cultivated and non-cultivated when a house is at stake. In this part of the world, seedlings become four foot saplings in a season. In fire country (where I grew up) – my father’s mower used three times a year kept a fire break around our house, once the manzanita had been cleared. I think that there is a balance that can be reached with our own carbon footprints, which we can attain by making other changes in our lives – for instance, we mow with a motorized mower once a week or so, but I also hang out clothes, use a compost pile, and rarely drive to the stores more than once every two weeks. By keeping my lawn chemical free, amending the soils, allowing many species to proliferate and often flower, and keeping the height high, I believe my lawn is a net positive, both for the environment, and for my family. Thanks for the comment! – MW

  6. Like every horticultural fad, hatred of lawns went too far. At the heart of the criticism was actually a distaste for lawns that were “maintained” to death. When you stop using fertilizers and pesticides, lawns are as friendly to pollinators as any landscape. Dandelions, English daisies, clover, etc. are favorite bee foods and lawns dotted with them are far more interesting than a golf-course lawn. But the best defense of lawns is that they invite PEOPLE into a landscape. They are invitations for picnics, sun-bathing, summer naps, impromptu ballgames, etc. The native meadow craze was not a landscape friendly to people. It is a landscape that confines people to the trails. Thanks for publishing this article.

    • You’re so welcome Mary. The pendulum ALWAYS swings too far – and while I adore meadows and am having so much fun with my own mini-meadow project and wild woodland garden, the fact remains that it is the lawn area where non-gardening guests want to linger. It’s calming. Or it could be the drinks in the cooler. 🙂 Thanks for adding to the discussion! – MW

  7. Excellent! And what I’ve been saying in response to the lawn-is-bad verbiage. One correction I’d pose, though – I’d say it’s not “gardeners” who obsess over lawns. It’s their husbands. Or more precisely, nongardening men.

  8. Ticks. Lawns provide a tick-free buffer zone between the home and the wilder areas with long grass and other plants, where ticks are just waiting to grab onto the next warm body that strides through. (Trying again, as my previous comment was not accepted)

  9. Swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction? Let’s be honest, how many lawns really have been replaced with meadows in our neighborhoods? I actually wish there was an urgency for this Rant, but I don’t see one.

  10. Great article. Lawn spaces are vital components of functional and sustainable landscapes. We want to change the approach to establishing and managing lawns – not eliminate them altogether. Monoculture lawns require intensive inputs and rarely if ever satisfy the expectation of perfection that they imply. Alternatively, mix species of native and non-native plants can coexist in a lawn and can be maintained with regular mowing. The diversity of species exponentially increases eco-system services and resilience but challenges us to look at our lawns differently. Our nursery in Florida is conducting trials to grow mix species of ground covers that can be installed in rolls and pallet squares as an alternative approach to conventional monoculture lawns. Our hope is that we can offer a sustainable approach to preserving lawn spaces where they are appropriate while reducing the need for chemical and irrigation inputs.

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