A lawnless garden somewhere in DC.

Finding myself with nothing handy to read at the pool, I picked up my extremely marked-up copy of Henry Mitchell’s The Essential  Earthman – an Expanded Edition of a Gardening Classic, a 1981 collection of his Washington Post columns. In case you’re too young or far away to know the name, Mitchell was the paper’s beloved garden writer from 1976, when he replaced Jack Eden (best known and reviled for his great love of chemicals in the garden), until he retired in 1991.  Mitchell’s 1993 obituary described his column as “infused with common sense, good humor, modesty and a certain durable skepticism,” and no wonder it was a hit from the start.  I learned a lot about Mitchell from that beautiful obituary, and my favorite line is: “He died, with dirt on his hands, helping a neighbor plant daffodils.”

Soooo, how do we think his writing stands the test of time, these 40+ years later, with what we know now? Remember, 40 years ago gardeners knew next to nothing about the ecological pros and cons of our gardening choices and practices. But after years of being urged by his predecessor to launch chemical warfare on our gardens, we were thrilled to discover that Mitchell gardened with a lighter touch and unexpectedly, was fun to read! 

I found his thoughts about lawns in The Essential Earthman to stand up pretty well in these anti-lawn times, though thanks more to common sense and disdain for conformity than an overtly environmental purpose. But what do YOU think?

I’ve illustrated Mitchell’s text with photos of the kinds of gardens he mentions – small city lots in Washington D.C.

Mitchell on Lawns

“There is something to be said for lawns, but it does strike me as obvious that lawns are work and that several million blades of grass all together can be monotonous.”

He mocks the notion that “all the best people have lawns. I can remember quite well when all the best people had cows – Mrs. Taft, as you know, had her cow brought up every day from Foggy Bottom to graze on the White House grass – and before that all the best people had deer parks.  All I am saying is that you don’t have to grow grass if you don’t want to, and in many cases, especially on small lots, it makes more sense to eschew it.”  (We can thank the Library of  Congress for photographic proof that the Taft cow grazed on the White House lawn.)

“I hate to see anybody badgered and shamed by unholy pressures into growing grass simply because everybody else does.”

A backyard in Georgetown

Lawn Alternatives for City Lots

While Mitchell concedes that on large properties lawns are “pretty inevitable, it is also true that in tiny 40- and 50-foot lots, to say nothing of those minuscule little warrens of Georgetown and Capitol Hill, a lawn can be rather silly, in terms of labor versus final effect.”

He opined that on tiny lots “it often makes more sense to treat the outdoor space as simply an extension of the house, and to pave some of it or most of it, and to wind up with what is really no more than an outdoor room furnished with plants instead of tables and chests.”

For shady spots he suggests: “Why not azaleas and camellias, with a little clearing (covered with duff of the forest floor) sprinkled about with Virginia bluebells, lilies of the valley, Solomon’s seal, veratrums (if it were damp) and grand little bulbous things like anemones, crocuses, and the like? The number of shrubs that enjoy light woodland conditions is vast and, while nothing is labor-proof, still it is much more satisfying to care for camellias, viburnums and so on, grown to perfection, than to work like the devil for a scraggly patch of lawn.”

Another back yard in Georgetown.

In full sun, “What could be more delightful than a large lily pool with a terrace on which to spend much time observing the fishes, toads, water lilies, and other treasures of such installations? Back of that could be roses or vegetables or what you preferred, and there would be no need for a lawn. I am speaking, still, of tiny plots.”

“Obviously if you want the effect of a million blades of grass shorn uniformly, only shorn grass will produce that effect.  But I suspect many gardeners would do well to think of something besides grass and the little noisy juggernauts that you cut it with.”

The back yard of botanist and garden writer John Boggan, seen from the top floor.

Mitchell on English Ivy – Aargh!

Remember, we knew nothing about the harms caused by English ivy, especially when it’s allowed to grow up into trees, set fruit, and be spread widely by birds.

Our dear Henry calls English ivy (Hedera helix) “the most beautiful and practical of all evergreens grown in Washington,” and he “suggests a wider use for it…In my view the ivy is never so beautiful as when it is old or has reached the top of the tree or wall or other support; and has begun to grow heavy woody branches and to flower and to fruit.”

Oh, there’s more. “In Washington, ivy grows on walls facing any direction….It is very nice on brick or stone…Ivy should not be allowed to grow on young trees since it will smother them; it is ruinous on dogwoods for instance, but on old trees it does no harm and is beautiful.”

But I’m telling you, on most topics Mitchell’s advice holds up surprisingly well! I’ll be sharing his thoughts on designing for low maintenance in another post.