Everybody's a Critic, Real Gardens

A Passion for Turfgrass, and other Matters of Taste

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I’m not thoroughly anti-lawn, unlike some of my Lawn Reform comrades, especially the ones who live in desert climates.  My beefs with turfgrass here on the Wet Coast are that it does virtually nothing for wildlife and that when it’s cared for in a certain way – the Scotts ideal of perfection and uniformity – it pollutes the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways I’m fond of. I also personally find it boring, but admit that’s a matter of taste.

So about that matter of taste, I recently got an email from my friend Jan describing her next-door neighbor Lucy’s love for her Scotts-perfect lawn.  Jan expressed amazement at the amount of pleasure Lucy gets from her lawn, about which she raves at length: “How beautiful it is, how much it costs her to get it that way, how much she loves her lawn service people, how beautiful it is, how she worked with them for years to get the perfect look, how beautiful it is, how she reads over the list of chemicals they apply, and again, how beautiful it is.”

I’ve never heard such passion for turfgrass expressed before, and would have been as agog at it as Jan was, but if that sheet of mown sod gives someone that much pleasure, I say go for it!  I hate to see land be wasted on people who don’t appreciate anything that’s growing on it, so this passion for turfgrass is better that than never noticing the yard at all, right?

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A study in contrasts – Lucy’s lawn, and Jan’s garden.

Well, maybe not – there’s all those chemicals she referred to benignly, though the chemicals surely aren’t.  Seems that Lucy is recommending her lawn service company to neighbors, and the neighborhood is becoming quite a chemical hub.  And besides the effect on waterways, these homes are pretty close together and Jan’s veg garden is just inches away from the end of that perfect, chemically treated lawn.  Yum!

Jan takes heart in the recent passage of restrictions on products that can be used on lawns, which will go into effect later this year.   The law will limit the amount and types of fertilizer that can be dumped on lawn, which should help restore the Bay and its inhabitants to good health.  But pesticides are still allowed – apparently anything goes.  The lawn-care company, whose name I’m withholding for good  neighborly relations, brags about its environmental stewardship – who doesn’t these days? – and about the owner’s degree in “Physical Geography/Environmental Science,” and even goes so far as to list all the products it uses.  The fertilizers are slow-release, as required by the new law, but look at the pesticides it uses, which come with plenty of warnings, especially about keeping grazing animals off the lawn.  But those warnings from the EPA don’t mention not using them near veg gardens – and shouldn’t they? Yikes!

So readers, what would you do or say to your neighbor if you were Jan?  Anything?

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Really just a matter of Taste
Now here’s another example of a difference in taste and this time it’s my own neighbor.  Her yard, a detail of which is shown above, holds spring-blooming bulbs and dozens of azaleas and hostas interspersed with over 100 chotchkas.  My own gardening style does not include figurines, especially en masse; I prefer natural products, like plants, wood and stone.  But hey, what harm do chotchkas do?  Not a whit.

And just as importantly, my neighbor loves her garden – possibly more than Lucy loves her lawn.  Now in her 80s, she’s still adding plants to her garden (recently, another dozen azaleas) and she spends hours a day in her garden just admiring it.  When I was taking these photos I complimented her on her garden and she complimented me back, saying I’d done nice things to my yard.  So I asked, “Do you think you’d ever have a garden like mine?” and she didn’t hesitate:  “Oh, no,” shaking her head vigorously.  She added that unlike other neighbors, she didn’t mind what I was doing to my yard, and the important thing is that I enjoy it.  On that point, we’re in total agreement.

Posted by on May 30, 2013 at 7:04 pm, in the category Everybody's a Critic, Real Gardens.
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21 Responses to “A Passion for Turfgrass, and other Matters of Taste”

  1. I was worried what the neighbors would think when I ripped out my entire front lawn, since we were suddenly the only house on the entire street with no lawn. But now a. the shrubs are finally growing in and everything is blooming, and b. the neighbors next door killed their lawn and left it. So I don’t feel as bad, and now I don’t look as bad.

  2. Liz says:

    On the chemical use: I think it would be appropriate to open up a dialogue on what pests are actually there and what controls are available. Too often people spray just because, and don’t know all their options. A little casual education could go a long way to prevent unnecessary spraying. I often refer people to our extension website, its very non-pushy and friendly and is easily tagged on after a long discourse of listening to a list of unnecessary treatments. A lot of chemcial use is simply the result of poor or non exsistent education.

  3. Felicia says:

    It’s all about perspective. The lawn loving neighbor has a single chair on the front stoop the better to admire her sea of grass. Yet her window boxes remain empty. And why not? Her vantage point from the chair doesn’t see them. I imagine that Jan loves to be in her garden and admire her plants all around her as she works.

    If I were Jan I’d seek out stories of chemically induced health horrors happening to “a friend of a friend” or “Joe’s cousin Nancy”. I’d relate these stories to my neighbor explaining how these chemicals caused the cancer and the terrifying cures friend X now faces. Planting this seed of fear is the first step. Following it up later with news reports about the the connection of chemicals to health hazards is the compost that will make that seed grow. Then follow that conversation with a loan of a hort magazine with an article about non chemical lawn alternatives. Eventually, perhaps Lucy will make the connection and dispense with the chemicals.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Well, one thing about a well-kept sunny lawn is that it doesn’t tend to be a tick habitat. On the other hand, dense layers of beautiful shrubbery and the shade and cover created by such shrubbery can become a deer tick nirvana. The shrubs also give the mosquitoes a place to rest during the day. There are trade-offs for both styles. The tick and mosquito example is just one.

  5. Martha says:

    Although I completely support the to each his/her own theory, in practice it’s a different story.
    First one, then two and now three neighbors are having broadleaf spray applied to their acres in our subdivision and many of my native and cultivated plants are spotted and yellowing from the broad spectrum herbicide the big trucks spray all over the place no matter what the weather or wind velocity.
    This isn’t a gardener with a hand pump killing weeds in the sidewalk and poison ivy, which we do. It is tanker trucks backed up with high power sprayers.

  6. John says:

    At least I now live in a neighborhood where no one tells anyone else what they can or not do! The trade off is that most of my windows look across my garden and into my neighbors behind-the-shed debris pile. I keep my mouth shut. When I see someone doing something in their yards that I don’t find attractive, I console myself with the fact that at least they doing something outside, in nature, instead of sitting on the couch in front of the tv all day and night.

    It’s easy to claim “toxic chemicals”, but you’ll pack a bigger punch if you take a soil sample and pay the less than $100 fee to have it analyzed so that everyone can see what’s real and what’s not real about the issue. It bugs me to hear gardeners claim superiority over non-gardeners when they have no scientific facts to back up their claims. Every state has labs that will perform these tests. Don’t just repeat someone else, do the work, prove the point, back up what you say.

    Another thing that bugs me is when one slice of the pie gets the focus but the problem is way bigger than the discussion. Water ways are being polluted a million ways. All sorts of normal day to day activities are adding to the problem. Clean water won’t happen if you only focus on one tiny part of the problem. Go after the lawn chemicals, but go after industry too. Pollution is pollution no matter how it got there.

  7. BooksInGarden says:

    Perhaps Jan could share with her neighbor the pesticide information, particularly the information regarding precautions and hazards. Does the neighbor have children or grandchildren that play on the lawn? Would the neighbor be amenable to hearing about the movie “A Chemical Reaction” which evolved after a dermatologist, Dr. June Irwin, noticed a connection between her patients’ health conditions and their exposure to chemical pesticides and herbicides?

    In the England of my youth, (1950′s) lawns were everywhere, because they grow naturally in that region. They were not golf course turf. They included daisies (Bellis perennis) and other other non-grasses that are unfazed by mowing. Is there a way that we could get people who want lawns interested in that kind of lawn?

    Best wishes to Jan and all who are in her situation. I have neighbors and fellow gardeners that use pesticides to deal with gophers. Their response to my information about the toxicity to the wildlife that prey on gophers is that they have no choice unless they bury each plant in hardware cloth. However, most plants on my half-acre survive gopher predation. (Vegetables do have to be grown in raised beds that have hardware cloth nailed to the bottom.)

  8. Chad B says:

    I’d be concerned about the pesticides being used so close to the vegetable patch too, but I’d trade my neighbor for Jan’s in a heartbeat. At least in Jan’s case the neighbor is actually paying attention to their “landscape.” It’s not my cup o’ tea aesthetically but at least it wouldn’t cause me to be embarrassed about my neighborhood.

  9. It may be a matter of taste with the old lady with the tchotchas-her only offense is visual. The perfect lawn maintained by chemicals and carbon-spewing machinery contributes to destroying the environment and the world. In addition, lawns do not absorb much rainwater–it ends up in the waterways carrying toxins with it. The perfect lawn does not support any insect or bird life It’s not a matter of taste; it’s a matter of arrogance and sticking ones head in the sand.

  10. I’m so amused by this small, nondescript post-war house sitting on a lawn worthy of a grand English estate or a major-league baseball field (look at the plaid mowing pattern).

  11. In my new subdivision folks have lawn up to the house walls. I don’t completely begrudge them lawns, but I do begrudge them for having no trees and shrubs (which should all be native), or anything at all benefiting wildlife (like pollinating insects, which sorta feed us, period). And oh the lawn care trucks that come, spraying poison, spewing hearing loss and lung disease and cancer and low sperm counts and…. I don’t mow but twice a month and have tall fescue. This means my lawn may be 6″ at any given time. This summer my neighbor has slowly mowed over the property line — right where my fence ends he carves over into my line 1′, then by the time he gets to the street he’s 5-6′ over, all the way to a flower bed island (that’s mulched) which he used to never get near, probably because it’s 3′ from the property line. A subtle passive aggressive move? Well, we’re leaning toward ripping up the high maintenance fescue and seeding buffalo grass — that should make the property line quite clear. I may have to put a sign out front saying what we’re doing, and why. I’d rather mow twice a year than twice a week, thank you. All day, the constant drone of mowers and whackers, so that I can’t enjoy my prairie garden.

    • Erik says:

      I don’t know where you live Benjamin, but where I live, if my grass is too tall and I don’t do anything about it, and neighbors complain, I’d get written up by the city and pay a fine. Is it worth to mow the grass? Yes. Is it a pain in the butt to mow once or twice a week? Absolutely, but a responsible home owner should keep up with their lawn.

      • Beth says:

        Responsible homeowners should gently tend working ecosystems. Let’s issue fines for reckless use of “cosmetic” pesticides & loud machinery instead.

    • Do you hear that Benjamin? I don’t know where you live, but six inches is too high. Take some responsibility. Saving the planet can wait until after your lawn is mowed.

    • Pam J. says:

      Benjamin: “And oh the lawn care trucks that come, spraying poison, spewing hearing loss and lung disease and cancer and low sperm counts.” Well said. I live next to someone who enjoys the sounds of high-powered machines too so I’m in full sympathy.

      Christopher: excellent comment.

  12. I like a good balance between lawn and garden. But it really depends on the land too. In some cases I can see where people would only want a garden or only want a lawn. I also don’t believe you need tons of fertilizer or pesticides to boost either’s performance! My lawn/garden is doing perfectly fine with just routine maintenance.

  13. Gail says:

    My newish neighbors use a very alternative lawn care practice. They fence their horses around their yard as they have no gas or electric lawn mower. I live in a rural farm area with no zoning on this type of lawn care. Needless to say i do not know what the turf will look like by end of summer. Lucky for me I have extensively landscaping along the property line so I cannot see their property.
    On the other hand I have another neighbor kitty corner from one of my properties corner that rolls his lawn (now that’s a waste). This year he had a lawn service come and spray this spring. Me I have 5 acres and would rather put my effort into my flower and shrub borders and vegetable garden rather than have a perfect lawn. What we have is totally acceptable to me.

  14. Astrid Bowlby says:

    I think Jan might do best to appeal to the pocketbooks of her neighbors. They may be using expensive inputs that are not even necessary to maintain their lawns. One can have a beautiful lawn without those expensive inputs by aerating, using the right grass seed for the climate, compostinglightly in the fall and adjusting the mower blade height up a bit. So, expressing concerns regarding the chemicals is a good way to start, but follow up education about the possibilities for alternative, successful methods at less expense, may do more to change minds.

    And the neighbor with the sculpture garden is an artist through and through, using her creativity very personally. As a sculptor, I love to see this. She is not following the fashions of the day, but is clearly making aesthetic choices.

    • cynthia says:

      Our neighbor on one side applies Scotts “Step whatever” much too frequently and mows every other day. The result is a scalped burned mess of abused turf grass , but he can’t restrain himself, I guess. Retired and bored.
      On our other side, the neighbor has granular herbicide applied a few times every summer. She is especially concerned about that dreaded clover.
      We do nothing to our lawn except mow it. It’s bursting with clover and greener than the lawns on either side. I have tried to explain that clover is good for the lawn because of its nitrogen fixing properties, but people around here have been brainwashed.
      Another thing that drives me crazy is the the fertilizer applications so close to a salt pond. By August, it’s choked with algae, but no one is willing to do anything about it.

  15. Rick hoffer says:

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