Thursday, August 25, 2011


The scrofulous Fitzgerald lawn
             As regular readers already know, my coastal town of 6300 souls recently installed a $165 million (and counting) state-of-the-art sewer system in its bid to become the next Myrtle-Beach-like tourist mecca. As a consequence of our governing council’s edifice complex, water now costs residents three times as much to go out as it does to come in. Needless to say, the formerly grassy area at my house—can’t really call it a “lawn” because we never did much in the way of maintenance—has received no supplemental water throughout this droughty season. Although it looks scrofulous at the moment, I’ve already ordered the berry bushes and dwarf fruit trees to fill in some of the voids. New raised beds for sun-loving tomatoes and peppers are in the works. By spring, lawn will be all but gone.
            I’m of two minds about turf, though. The inputs required to maintain monocultural grassy swards waste water, employ noxious chemicals, add to air and noise pollution levels, squelch biodiversity, offer little to wildlife, and are a never-ending chore. On the other hand, lawns slow down and filter runoff, have a cooling effect, look pretty, and all that maintenance gives some people pleasure.

            There’s got to be a happy medium between the two.

            Tim and I both grew up in neighborhoods that looked very much like this suburban street. Tim’s dad loved his lawn, and he worked hard to keep it looking like velvet. He’d be out there most clement evenings, spreading fertilizers and weed-killers, digging out the odd rogue dandelion, waging war on moles, voles and insects, mowing, edging, patrolling, keeping the green perfect.

            My dad didn’t much care about lawns. He kept the weeds mowed (“It’s all green,” he’d tell my mom), but would rather spend his time planting nut trees, tending his vegetable garden and sitting in his little boat on the Poquoson River, fishing.

            A true child of my old man, Mr. Fitzgerald’s avocation was not what I’d call fun.

            Therein lies the crux of the matter. As Saxon Holt points out in his latest post at Gardening Gone Wild, gardening is supposed to be fun. Alter your perspective, he admonishes: you’re not “maintaining,” you’re “gardening.” Does tending a lawn make you happy? That’s gardening, not maintenance. Go for it. Although you may want to adjust the regimen so that you ratchet up your environmental responsibility a notch. Paul Tukey’s Organic Lawn Care Manual offers useful information in that regard (see Good Reads list at right). 


Are we having fun yet?
            On the other hand, do you regard taking care of the grass just one more job in an unending series of seasonal chores? If mollycoddling the lawn isn’t on your list of pleasant ways to spend time outdoors, then don’t do it.  

Tim and I fall into the latter camp most of the time. However, we know that grass can be an integral part of an overall design. Lawns offset planting areas in ways hardscapes can’t always pull off. Grass paths make for soft, cooling and serene spaces between beds, as we learned the hard way. (We surrounded our first gardens with brick chips—a nightmare to pull weeds from, a misery to kneel in, and the screaming orange color added 50 degrees to the backyard in summer. We dug it out and replaced it with grass after three years.) Grassed areas offer recreational opportunities, too. Nobody, for instance, enjoys a rousing round of croquet played on pavement. Plus, a lot of us just like having some lawn around: the texture and especially the smell of new-mown grass always remind me of being a kid during the summer.

             Conflicted? Go to’s website. A coalition of writers and activists of both anti- and pro-lawn persuasions, they gently urge you think about the rationales underpinning our lawn fixations. They point readers toward organic turf care, low-maintenance grasses, water-wise management and plans for reducing or replacing all that grass. Evelyn Hadden, one of the founding members, has written a book entitled Shrink Your Lawn (see Good Reads), full of ideas for transitioning from cookie-cutter suburban-mindset grassiness.
              For a historical perspective on Americans and their relationships to their yards, you can’t do better than pick up a copy of From Yard to Garden: The Domestication of America’s Home Grounds (see Good Reads) by Christopher Grampp. Starting with the agrarian Founding Fathers and moving through industrialization and urbanization to the rise of suburbia, Grampp shows how people relate to the land around their homes. He’s not anti-lawn, which may be one reason his book isn’t more widely known. (Like in the art world, gardening elites fall into trendy traps too.) 

 Still, getting rid of all or part of your grass can open up a world of pushing-the-envelope possibilities for the adventurous. Rosalind Creasy’s classic Edible Landscaping: Now You Can Have Your Gorgeous Garden and Eat It Too (see Good Reads) gives lots of suggestions for turning your yard into an artful—and delicious—cornucopia. I’m rereading it at the moment.  

A claustrophobic-feeling
grassless garden
            Not all lawn-reduction projects are created equal, however. Some lawnless gardens feel claustrophobic to me, all encroaching vegetation, narrow paths, and airlessness. Some seem overly arid and barren—especially Southwestern-themed gardens located anywhere other than the Southwest. A cactus garden in a swamp jars the sensibilities, as do palms juxtaposed with deciduous trees.

A Fitzgerald-designed
grassless garden
            Ultimately, it comes down to individual taste—what you think looks nice, how hard you’re willing to work at it, and how much you enjoy the labor. Here’s a photo of one turf-free garden Tim and I designed and installed some years ago when it was just completed. This one is softened and shaped by the woods it backs up to, and has worked well over time.

See how the grass makes
this garden stand out?
            How much grass is too much grass? No one knows. Manicured or missing, the main thing is to make sure you’re having fun with whatever’s happening on your patch. Me? I’m planting fruits in the front yard.

Thanks for dropping by. Will wrap up August next time, if Irene doesn’t wash us away.

No comments:

Post a Comment