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Pollan Takes on the Great American Lawn

"The lawn is a symbol of everything that's wrong with our relationship to the land," Pollan declares in today's NY Times.  Per acre, our lawns receive FOUR times as much chemical pesticide as any American farmland. 

Pollan goes on to call for the total removal of the White House lawn and its replacement with a meadow, more veg gardens, or – his preferred alternative – an orchard underplanted with meadow.

So readers, what do you think?  Is America ready for something that radical?  Or how about another alternative – getting that lawn off drugs?  The National Arboretum folks simply stopped putting anything on their lawn and it still looks good enough – and has reduced their lawn care expenses by 90 percent. 

By the way, if you haven't read Second Nature, Pollan's eye-opening book about gardening, DO.  Its chapter about lawns is unforgettable.  Ted Steinberg's whole book on the subject, American Green, is also terrific.

Posted by on March 22, 2009 at 4:45 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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46 Responses to “Pollan Takes on the Great American Lawn”

  1. tai haku says:

    Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with his general point some places just need lawns (primarily cricket pitches) and I think the white house is, to a certain extent, one of them.

  2. Ed Bruske says:

    You should alert readers that this piece by Pollan on the opinion page is from the NY Times archive. It’s 17 years old and addressed to the first President Bush.

  3. Susan Harris says:

    I couldn’t find a date myself, so thanks for providing it. And that’s edifying; it’s the NYT that choose to move the conversation beyond planting a veg garden to making the whole 18 acre more sustainable. I hope Pollan starts talking about this himself.

  4. Tara Dillard says:

    How old is the meadow idea? CENTURIES. European landscapes never stopped using them.

    I’ve been designing Tara Turf for over a decade. Tara Turf is low meadow with grass, dwarf bulbs, clover, what the wind blows in. It’s regional. It’s fragrant & attractive to honeybees and other beneficial insects.

    Watering? Never. Fertilizer? Never. Insecticides? Never. Mowing? Less than half what lawns demand.

    Cut at 2-3 heights Tara Turf supplies enough ‘formality’ to please Sissinghurst one of the world’s most acclaimed, and visited, landscapes.

    When Bush declared war from the White House lawn I was embarrassed, not at the war, but the White House lawn.

    How can America be a ‘superpower’ and not know how to garden?

    There’s a picture of Tara Turf on my blog, http://www.TaraDillard.com.

    And will the White House vegetable garden be as gorgeous as Sir Walter Scott’s vegetable garden? It’s doubtful at the moment.

    Why can’t America take proven templates and garden with form & function?

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  5. Susan Harris says:

    Tara, don’t make us look for it! You can copy and paste the URL for wherever that photo is right into this comment box.

  6. Sweet. It works!

    Now you do it Tara!

  7. http://nycgarden.blogspot.com/2009/03/how-to-make-8-loaf-of-bread-or-alice.html

    Susan, now you’ve got trouble, I’ve learned a new trick.

    I think we have a war of symbols going on and there is a major offensive by the “stewards.” I wonder if this was the kind of excitement and discourse Christian Fundamentalists had when Bush II was elected.

    The lawn is a few century old symbol of power and authority over the land (and its people and animals). I really do not see an orchard there. It would be really terrible to see George Washington chop down those cherry trees next time he is elected.

  8. Tara Dillard says:

    http://landscapeinventor.blogspot.com/2009/03/tara-turf.html

    Pic & description of Tara Turf.

    Thanks Susan!
    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  9. Jay says:

    Well, I like the yard, as long as it is useful and used. You need an area for kids (and the dog!) to run around in.

    I do think a lot of people tend to have a lot more lawn than they use. So I think lawns have a use; but I also think they are over used. So I “sort of” subscribe to the food-not-lawns school of thought; mainly to increase awareness and legitimacy of the alternatives.

    The lawn has a bad name with gardeners. Sure it is overused, but it has a use. I keep a lawn in the front, and the back is a bit, ahem, thicker with life ;)

    Now, as for chemicals being poured on lawns, I am against that, somewhat strongly. Visualized on the grand scale, it’s funny and sad that we pour these chemicals onto lawns across the country.

  10. I vote for the drug fee lawn. A nice, small orchard might be nice and more interesting too, but hey, at least they started a vegetable garden.

  11. Pam J. says:

    In today’s print edition of the NYT (Week in Review section), Mark Bittman tackles the ever-interesting topic of what “organic” means and doesn’t mean.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/weekinreview/22bittman.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=mark%20bittman&st=cse

  12. Lucinda says:

    Hey, Susan, Sounds like the White House could use a Garden Coach! Since you are in the loop anything is posible at this point! If the WH hired a coach, can you imagine what that would do for the profession?
    I educated my HOA and now we have an organic lawn. It’s the first step – lawn removal in public places is way too radical for most people. First get them off the synthetic fertilizers.

  13. Ted Steinberg’s American Green is indeed terrific–very readable and full of fascinating stuff. (Fences between yards were forbidden in the various Levittowns, the housing developments that more or less planted–sorry–the lawn at the center of middle class life. I’ll have to look at Pollen’s stuff.
    –Kate

  14. WOW! This is really great American Lawn..I like it

  15. Plantanista says:

    An drug-free lawn in the DC climate is a perfectly good alternative, as long as the climate allows the lawn to go without a whole lot of supplemental irrigation. With the right low-mow or no-mow species it could be downright meadowy.

    But what about the Easter Egg Roll?

    Total lawn conversions are definitely called for in areas where they require supplemental irrigation.

    Pollan’s “Second Nature” is a great read and I’ve been through various parts of it several times, especially the lawn piece, which is still revolutionary as it applies to the cherished suburban lawn. At least some of the larger institutions have seen the light. Cost savings have helped.

  16. I used to advocate tilling up the lawn and planting pretty weeds and herbs. But then I visited Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens again, a month or so ago, In Cape Town.

    http://66squarefeet.blogspot.com/2009/03/kirstenbosch.html

    The lawns are folded over the lower slopes of Table Mountain, between lush beds of native trees, shrubs and perennials. It was the middle of the week, a quiet day, and dotted about on the emerald grass were mothers and children, fathers and children, couples napping, someone playing beach bats. It was idyllic and sylvan. And I suddenly saw that one of the greatest blessings of a garden can be a lawn…it does not have to be toxic.

    My parents have an extensive lawn and never use chemicals on it.

    The idea of moving away from a chemical lawn is obviously a good one, but I would plead for some moderation. The Fundamentalist type of blanket-attack on lawns/conventionally produced fruit and vegetables/out of season produce is just that: intolerant and immodest. We are moving in the right direction, but we should not firebomb the people whose choices are not ours.

    It is also true that the great lawn uniting all American backyards, is usually the only feature of so many suburban gardens. The English are known as gardeners. Americans tend to be lawners. Let go some lawn and start gardening, is a good step.

    What I want to know is:

    What About Golf Courses?

  17. Bob Vaiden says:

    Well… I’ve spent a couple of days work clearing (and sometimes mowing) the prairie\woodland areas of my yard…

    Now, I’m just watching wild tulips and daffodils, Bloodroot and Hepatica bloom, as a hundred other types erupt out of the ground to join them…

    And…a LITTLE bit of lawn is fine; I have SOME:)

  18. Michelle D. says:

    Why are you against lawns ?

    They, like any other plant can be maintained organically and energy efficiently.
    Are you against the chemicals that are applied on the garden grass or are you just against grass as a garden surface ?

    When choosing a plant for any garden a well informed person will choose a plant specific to their site’s needs and the homeowners desires/ functions.

    The choice of a lawn is a perfectly well thought out option for the White House.
    It provides an easy flat greens span to walk across, play on, and hold receptions upon.

    A meadow , a vegetable garden, a shrub like groundcover or an orchard does not meet those criteria.

    There is an old adage , right plant right place.

  19. Pam J. says:

    Changing the way golf courses take care of their grounds (through state or county laws) seems like a feasible thing to accomplish. Or am I being naive?

  20. Susan Harris says:

    By “you” do you mean me? I’m definitely not against lawns and here’s my Standard Disclaimer about lawn removal, in which I defend it and just lobby for nontoxic lawn care.
    http://www.sustainable-gardening.com/lawn/Disclaimer.php

  21. Jeff Gillman says:

    There’s something a bit hypocritical about what Pollan says in this piece. First, his point that turfgrasses weren’t meant to grow here is a little silly. Sure, many turf grasses weren’t meant to grow here — but some native grasses (some fescues) are used for lawns. Second, he posits that we should replace our “introduced” lawns with something more appropriate for our climate and conditions — and suggests the introduced apple. That doesn’t make sense to me.

    Also, while I heartily agree that we should eliminate the use of pesticides on our lawns I don’t think that apple trees are the way to do it. To keep them as pristine as would be demanded by the White House might involve “offending nature” (something that Pollan thinks these apple trees won’t do). As a person who spent 20 years dealing with growing apples both with and without the use of poisons I can tell you that they’re tough trees to grow fruit on without the use of chemicals. How would the whitehouse look if it was full of apples covered with scab, fireblight, apple maggots, codling moth, or various other diseases and insects?

    All this said I like his meadow and wetland ideas — and the vegetable idea too though once again it’s somewhat hypocritical depending on what vegetables are planted (many are not native).

    I’d recommend a small forest — A mixture of both native and introduced trees selected because of their usefulness to man and the environment. And I’d recommend showing off the damage created by pests — The message being that we’d rather suffer a little damage than use environmentally insensitive pesticides.

  22. Susan Harris says:

    Jeff, I was also surprised to see Pollan’s objection that turfgrasses aren’t native. Esp. considering his well-known rant “Against Nativism” from 1993:
    http://www.michaelpollan.com/article.php?id=31

  23. I think a meadow would be beautiful. In addition to the points made above, (1) it would be a great way to showcase native American plants and flowers, (2) it would look beautiful, (3) it would support animals, birds and insects that would in turn help keep the new vegetable garden healthy, and (4) once it was established it would take less work to maintain than acres upon acres of lawn.

  24. greg draiss says:

    Thank you for supporting the Great American Lawn

    Greg Draiss

  25. greg draiss says:

    My lawn thanks you……….
    as does the Bocce Ball Society,
    The Croquet Club,
    and children everywhere gazing at cloud formations or chasing night crawlers with dad after a good rain.
    These anti-lawn crowds are inherently un-American as well.

    greg draiss

  26. vicki says:

    my small, “drug free” lawn is full of clover, which attracts the woodchuck more than my ornamentals/veg do…and supports a hotly contested, annual family badminton tournament. And, I never irrigate it. If we have a drought, it goes dormant and comes back with the first rains. We live with it and play on it just fine.

    “Either/or” is not a requirement for a healthy, responsible garden/yard. But I’m all for ripping out most of the White House lawn and replacing it with other plantings. I believe in the power of symbols, and that a vast, weedless, always green lawn is symbolic of waste and indulgence.

  27. Marte says:

    Well, I am in the fourth year of my lawn removal project; replacing grass with flower beds and ground cover, so I am no friend of lawns in general. But in this specific case, I am not sure the secret service would appreciate having to crawl through meadows or hide behind fruit trees in an orchard. I believe lawns were originally at least partly a defensive planting, were they not? To be able to see what was coming? I guess I would rather have the White House surrounded by bare green grass for the most part, except for the veggie garden of course!

  28. Elizabeth Stump says:

    Turning teh WHite House lawn into a more naturalistic “meadow” would probably be as dignified as Michele Obama buying “chipped” seconds china for the White House. This is the symbol of our nation. Should we dump tons of chemicals on the White House Lawn? No. Should we have it look like a well kept hippie commune? No. I think we can employ some good gardening practices to keep it nice and lush without dumping chemicals on it. Worm casting and well rotted manure/compost mixture would supply a nice part of the fertilizer element. For water conservation, I recommend sub surface drip irrigation (SDI). I attended a seminar on SDI and was impressed by the reduced water consumption. I let my lawn die last year due to water restrictions here in Nor. Cal and I am going to look into a company to install SDI before I re-sod my lawn. With SDI, weeds can’t root as there is not surface water, thus no need for weed killers – therefore, less chemicals.

    Keep the lawn, change the fertilizing/weed control and watering practices.

    And if they water to revisit the Wilson administration, they can put goats instead of sheep on the lawn to keep it low (and fertilize). *Wink*

  29. And power, don’t forget power.

  30. You said it! Let’s remember its the white house.

  31. I suppose the argument is rhetorical in its truest sense being the political nature of the White House. Let us remember that Ronald Reagan did NOT have to remove the solar panels that Jimmy Carter installed, but he did anyway. Wow, what a point he made. If the political change is like the wind in America, it seems that Americans in general want to see the White House never change. Like institutions with Greek Columns, the lawn is before our time and after it as well. Long Live the Lawn.

  32. here, here! But I think Golf Meadows would work against the sport! Oh, wait, I see: golf meadows on the fairway, short greens
    at the hole. Four over the oat grass. Hole in one!

    Beautiful.

    People do need a place to sit and stroll. Grass works.

  33. The city of Santa Monica created two adjacent landscapes: a traditional lawn-dominated landscape and a “heritage” water-saving native garden. The project is called Garden/Garden. On their website: http://www01.smgov.net/epd/residents/Water/gg/gg_index.htm
    there is great information on how these gardens compare in water usage, green waste, cost, etc.

    The White House could do something similar to demonstrate that 1) non-lawn landscapes can be beautiful and 2) lawns are costly. If we are unwilling to give up acres of monotonous green lawn, then we certainly are not serious about addressing our environmental challenges.

  34. commonweeder says:

    When I think about first steps in the lawn debate I think we would do a good thing if we could just get people to stop fertilizing their lawns. It is totally unnecessary. And if they stopped watering their lawns if they go dormant during a dry summer spell, we would be doing two good things.

  35. Bob Vaiden says:

    “These anti-lawn crowds are inherently un-American as well.”

    What an insane comment…

  36. Brie says:

    I think that’s the most effective and realistic approach to the lawn debate. I just heard someone this morning say they threw down a bunch of weed and feed over the weekend, then they were going to go back and “nuke it” one more time. That’s what needs to change, not the fact that people have lawns.

  37. I agree with Jeff G. that Pollan’s premise of meadow with fruit trees to replace the lawn is silly in that the pesticides to maintain any health and fruiting on those trees in DC’s humid, buggy climate would negate any benefits as an ornmanental or food source. Plus I have a soft spot for the traditional Easter Egg Roll and know that the Obama girls will enjoy cartwheeling across that great lawn at their age.
    What I would like to see:
    - organic lawn and garden care
    - switching the irrigation system to collect rain water in cisterns
    - more experimental bulb and annual plant choices – does it ALWAYS have to be red tulips every year? how about a new color palette once in awhile?
    - more open public access – esp. when the first family is out of town – afterall the grounds are a national park

  38. greg draiss says:

    Yes I am insane over gardening.
    I am able to retire at 55 thanks to this insane industry.
    The anti-lawn crowd consists of those who want to tax cow farts in America while letting third world nations deficate in their drinking water….
    Now what is really insane?

    The TROLL

  39. greg draiss says:

    Thank you DC gardener for adding more cmmon sense to an oft insane topic as some decalre………

    The TROLL

  40. greg draiss says:

    I am insane over gardening. I am able to retire at 55 due to such insanity.

    Remember though that the anti-lawn crowd consists of those who want to tax cow farts while allowing third world nations to continue deficating in their drinking water………
    Now what is really insane…..?

    The TROLL

  41. b says:

    god, greg draiss needs to get a life.

    personally, i can’t get rid of my entire lawn because i rent. because of the mythology surrounding the lawn, my landlords freak out over it and make all kinds of demands for its care.

    my lawn is therefore a symbol of my poverty. it is an emblem of my lack of freedom.

    at the same time, they won’t discuss repairing the chimney with us and we have no central heating. yeah, it’s california, but for 4 months out of the year, our house never gets above 50 degrees.

    that’s insane. the idea that we can choose to do something besides carpeting the land around our houses with high maintenance plants, that’s finally normal. that’s freedom. in my opinion, it’s unamerican to celebrate sameness, even if it does make a nice place to play croquet and bocce ball.

  42. zephyr says:

    I’m still pondering this issue…
    Question:
    does anyone know how the orchards, gardens–and yes, lawn–of Jefferson’s Monticello are maintained? Do they use loads of chemicals? Is the lawn allowed to go dormant during dry periods? etc. I took a quick look at the website but did not see any obvious answer.

    The American Lawn definitely needs a makeover of its image…and a new diet. Right now, I’m afraid it is still the poster child for everything that “was” wrong with the American garden–and the industry– for far too long.

    A green swath is a very soothing image for many,including me…but I am always highly suspicious of them when I drive through certain neighborhoods…knowing, as I do, that far too many Americans believe that “I can do anything I want, where and whenever I want.”

    It really is, I believe, an image issue, since it is not absolutely essential to buy and spread lots of toxic chemicals to enjoy a pretty lawn or athletic field (many of our local schools now employ a company that “feeds” the fields with locally created compost)…but the knee jerk response when seeing all that green is to picture a bunch of sacks with “Scotts” on the labels. But what company has the $$ to back a multi-media campaign to foster a fresh image of the American Lawn?

    By the way, you can’t have it both ways: if you are FOR kids getting outside and having fun/playing more…most of their games (when they aren’t in the garden with you) require something tough and nice like lawn.

  43. Bob Vaiden says:

    I am retiring at 57 to continue MY prairie and woodland (and vegetable) gardening full time…

    The “anti-lawn” crowd consists of those who restore native plants and landscapes, providing habitat, for butterflies and birds, and creating a greener, more colorful place for all to live…

    YOU have invented an enemy, and are attacking a fantasy. Tackling windmills next, are we…?

    You should keep in mind that a “mowed world” is a dead, sterile, world.

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