by Frank Hyman

You can’t have read about gardening for the last 5-10 years and missed the stories about how lawns have  gone from being a symbol of the American Dream to becoming the nightmarish instrument of the corporate horticulture industry. What had been the greenest portion of the American Dream is now undermining our clean water, clean air and our peace and quiet while we read the morning paper.

In the good old/bad old days of our grandparents, lawns were mowed aerobically and peacefully with reel mowers (what a friend calls “acoustic” mowers), leaf blowers hadn’t been invented and fossil-fuel based fertilizers were expensive and rarely applied. And nary a discouraging word was heard.

But like garlic mustard gone to seed, times have changed. And as any anti-lawn nazi or student of the environment can tell you, the Standard Operating Procedure for an Ego Lawn (think habitat for McMansions, corporate HQ’s and 50 acre public school sites) calls for:

  1. Mowing with a noisy and dirty two-stroke engine on a self-propelled mower (that no doubt will soon come
    with cup-holders for our hi-fructose-corn-syrup-infused fizzy drinks),
  2. Fertilizing with an excessive amount of water-soluble nitrogen and phosphorus that causes algae
    blooms that poison the water and kill fish,
  3. Irrigating with timers that throw out water even on rainy days and wash more fertilizer into waterways,
  4. Bagging grass clippings and dumping them in landfills where they can produce climate disrupting methane gas,
  5. Saturating the soil with herbicides that kill many of the microbes that would improve the soil unbidden,
  6. Spreading lawn fungicides to kill the diseases that are generated by the excess fertilizer,

Rinse, lather, repeat.

But as a reformed member of this tribe, I have to say these folks are taking their goal of exterminating lawns too far. (The story of my conversion is here in the Oct./Nov. issue of Horticulture magazine.)

To say all lawns are bad, are you also saying that every turf grass plant is bad as well? Would it be an environmental crime against nature to keep one fescue turf grass plant in a pot? To mulch it with some pretty gravel, feed it some lovely worm-compost tea, water it with leftover dishwater and creatively prune its individual leaves with bonsai scissors? And then let it go to seed late in the year for a festive holiday appearance?

Of course not. (Note to self: pitch story idea to magazine editors regarding newest hot trend in container plants.)

So let’s go a step further. Instead of a modern oceanic lawn, would it be bad to keep a tiny bed of maybe 5 fescue grass plants? How about 50? Or maybe just enough for an adult to lie down on and watch the clouds go by? Better yet, enough for 2 gardeners and a 13 year-old, arthritic, black Labrador Retriever named Molly to lounge on with a couple of gin & tonics and a dried pig’s ear respectively? Somehow, it’s just not quite as comfortable to lie on the anti-lawn Nazis’ preferred alternatives of flagstone patios and xeriscape gardens as it is on a bed of grass. 

Only a real Nazi would be heartless enough to want to grub out such a sweet little garden bed of turf. Especially if the grass is maintained on a lean diet of organic fertilizer, mowed with a  quiet cordless mower, watered from a 300 gallon rain barrel, and hand weeded for about 5 minutes every month or so by a gardener with a cold beer in one hand. What reasonable person could begrudge such a garden?

Our “lawnlet”

So maybe the anti-lawn Nazis can just take a deep breath, dial back the rhetoric a bit, and in addition to damning the Ego Lawns, they could endorse the occasional Eco Lawn (or what we call our Lawnlet), and sit down with more reasonable gardeners over cocktails to talk about some other worthy problems. Like what can we spray on invasive exotics like Microstegia vimineum (Stiltgrass) to make them taste good to deer?

Frank Hyman is a Durham, NC landscaper, garden coach, and teacher of gardening AND politics.