What is cutting edge in the field of sustainable lawns? Much of it is forgotten lore from the late 19th/early 20th century, I have been discovering.

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I came upon this revelation while preparing for the talk I am going to give this month at a conference organized by Larry Weaner that is to be hosted in Philadelphia by the Morris Arboretum and in New London, CT by Connecticut College.

The basis of my talk will be my own experiences with alternatives to Kentucky bluegrass and the two or three other turf grasses that are the default choices for lawns today. My thesis is that if you broaden your sights and find a grass species that is naturally adapted to the soil and location, you shouldn’t have to cater to it with constant chemical applications and endless irrigation. Grassland, after all, is one of the toughest types of plant communities, commonly flourishing where conditions are too difficult to permit the growth of woody plants.

This, I believed was an original thought, until I spent a couple of days reading late-19th-century gardening books at the New York Botanical Garden library. Published before the advent of the modern chemical industry, these presented a much more sensible and relaxed view of lawn care.

For example, Lawns & Gardens by N. Jonsson-Rosé (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897) included a list of two dozen wildflowers you can include with the grass when you sow a new lawn. Jonsson-Rosé might not have recognized the term “biological diversity” but his lawns were certainly no monocultures and definitely pollinator-friendly.

And in Lawns and How to Make Them by Leonard Barron (Doubleday, Page & Co. 1914) I found recommendations for 13 different grass species, each one accompanied by a description of the type of soil and conditions that suited it best. Included in this list are several species such as sheep fescue that I have been using to create self-sufficient, low-input lawns. There is even one species in Barron’s list, sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) that was mixed with other grasses simply to give the lawn a sweet odor when it was cut. That might make you almost look forward to mowing.

My favorite tip from these books: control dandelions by inviting Italian immigrants in to harvest the greens every spring.