Anna’s Garden: The mythology of the lawn
August 25, 2006
The headline in the current issue of High Country News asks: “Is There Life After Lawns?” Pretty melodramatic, but it captures the essence of our obsession and addiction to swaths of green grass. It captured my attention too and crowded out the topic I had previously chosen for this week’s column, prompting me to explore my own ideas on the subject. I have long regarded the lawn every red-blooded American homeowner is expected to tend as a monoculture of invasive introduced species – not a real popular view. Did you know that reportedly more land in the U.S. is planted in turfgrass than in corn – three times as much! It blows me away that lawn is our largest irrigated “crop.” Think about it: We have more lawn grass than the breadbasket of America has wheat. The biggest guzzler of water is agriculture. Well, that doesn’t sound like something an individual can do much about, does it? Besides, everyone needs to eat, right? But much of this “agriculture” is done by you and me in our yards …There is a clear line of sight down the old red brick paving of the entry porch from the busy, public life represented by the car and driveway to the soothing green retreat at the far end, elevated slightly above two broad steps. What feels like the light at the end of a tunnel is a small quadrangle of lawn, about 12 by 15 feet, outlined by railroad tie walls weathered over the years to a mellow gray, softened by flowering vines and shaded by box elder trees (Acer negundo), a blue spruce and chokecherries. In the background a volunteer Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) hangs its fruit over one of the walls like willows trailing into ponds in Oriental paintings. Clover in the grass is coming along nicely, an uninvited but welcome groundcover, the circular leaflets blending into a pool of overlapping dark green circles that are echoed by widening patches of the larger but similar shaped violet leaves. They contrast well with the soft slender grass spears and the violets are very pretty when they bloom after the crocuses.This lawn is one of the more formal elements I use to contain the chaos of the rest of my planting. It is at once striking and soothing to look at. Before it became a design element, it was, and still is, a place for babies to crawl and practice walking, for dogs to loll and keep cool, a place to hang a swing. It gets no more maintenance than other parts of my garden, probably less, and is small enough to be mowed with a weed eater a couple times a season, or clippers in a pinch if company is coming. Someone might be stung by a foraging bee, but no one will be exposed to poisons from a combination weed-killer and fertilizer, yet the grass seems to grow just fine with the occasional sprinkling of compost and water three times a week. Dog piss doesn’t seem to have done any harm.Lawns aren’t often used as focal points, and they are usually bigger than mine – even on smaller lots. There is no denying that we crave green, no matter how much we love the arid landscapes. Green represents water, a substance we humans cannot survive without. A lawn is also easy, not in the amount of time or energy it demands which is huge, but culturally. When I was young I was taught in home economics class that a little black dress would take you anywhere for any occasion. No need to think about what to wear. When we put in a lawn we don’t have to think about what our yard should wear, or if it will be acceptable to the neighbors. We need not think of the incongruity of bringing southern Ontario or upstate New York with us when we move to the mountains or the high desert.We need not think about the natural landscape, or our relationship to it. It is hard work to think about established notions. Yet Michelle Nijuis in her article “The Lure of the Lawn” persuades me that we must. We are able to imagine flowerbeds, vegetable gardens and container plantings. Perhaps if we can imagine a grass bed or a grass garden, it will help us to rethink the lawn. And to survive it.Anna is wondering whether she should replace her generic lawn in Basalt with more water-wise grass. She’d love to hear about your garden at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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