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.