I have a dream: A future in which green lawns are a rarity. Brown lawns, too.
No, my parents didn’t torture me through yardwork in a dark, demanding childhood. I actually enjoyed mowing the lawn and I loved the fragrance that would fill the air. I still do, actually.
And yet my lawn-free dream persists. It includes a future with yards full of biodiversity, creativity, and originality. It’s a dream of food gardens and abundant native plants.
Luckily, more and more people are joining me in this brave new dream for a future — and why not? Native plants and food gardens both are part of a solution for a greener, smarter world.
Why the lack of love for the traditional monoculture mowing-needed lawn? Read on.
A Brief History of Grass
The word “lawn” dates as far back as the 16th century. Lawns as we know them today first really came into vogue with English aristocracy in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The working man simply worked too much to fuss about things like grass for appearance’s sake, especially since lawnmowers really didn’t exist before the 1850s. “Honey, I’ll be out scything the yard” wasn’t a catchphrase of the era, I’m guessing.
As Wikipedia explains,
“In the early 17th century, the Jacobean epoch of gardening began; during this period, the closely cut “English” lawn was born. By the end of this period, the English lawn was a symbol of status of the aristocracy and gentry; it showed that the owner could afford to keep land that was not being used for a building, or for food production.”
In America, the proliferation of grass can be most strongly attributed to Levittown in New York, the first true suburb community, whose builders would go on to build 17,000 such homes, all with fully seeded lawns — a development that would change the way we thought of yards in the modern era.
Today’s grass is what you call a “monoculture.” It’s the opposite of biodiversity. Visit an untamed forest or unmanipulated shore, and look at all the varying grasses you’ll find. Native grasses are a far cry from those most of us see out our front window.
Wikipedia explains further;
“Lawn monoculture was a reflection of more than an interest in offsetting depreciation, it propagated the homogeneity of the suburb itself. Levittown is widely regarded by scholars as the birthplace of the conveyor belt-style, mass-produced suburb that is now quite common. Although lawns had been a recognizable feature in English residences since the 19th century, a revolution in industrialization and monoculture of the lawn since the Second World War fundamentally changed the ecology of the lawn. Intensive suburbanization both concentrated and expanded the spread of lawn maintenance which meant increased inputs in not only petrochemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides, but also natural resources like water.”
An idea whose time is past
Today, we live in a post-Dust Bowl world and we understand, or we should, that using non-native grasses and plants pose more problems than we long realized. The drought, starvation, and destruction that America’s Dust Bowl experienced in the Dirty ‘30s is today attributed to removing native grasses on sensitive plains, and planting wheat fields instead. They look the same, but the land knows better, and the wheat gradually stopped being feasible, turning sensitive ecosystems literally into dust.
There’s nothing more American-looking, though, than a fenced-in yard of green, green grass. Out there with a lawnmower and a cold beverage, chatting up the neighbors. It’s what we do, it’s the North American summer past-time found in nearly every home.
But the environmental impact is becoming more and more prevalent. Climate change is under impact in all areas of our lives, and lawns are a significant part of how we’re going terribly wrong with the environment.
We tear down trees and dismantle ecosystems that are decades, if not hundreds, of years old, all for the sake of having a “lawn.” We disrupt native plants, and in turn we force everything from birds to butterflies alter their migratory paths, which in turn affect insect control and other wildlife eating patterns. Today we face a dangerous decline in the Monarch butterfly, thanks to urban sprawl and the demise of natural habitat.
Even the gas-powered lawnmowers and weed-whackers used to maintain our yards, spew fossil fuels out and use already-precious energy.
It’s easy to look out at the window and say, “But the grass is green. It’s nature. Chill, Winston.”
It’s nature, but it’s not natural. Ripping up natural ecosystems and creating our own isn’t the same. It means we wind up using pesticides and other chemicals to keep the grass green, because we’re making a non-native plant try to thrive where we are, just because a couple centuries of trends begun by the wealthy are oddly still commonplace.
If no lawn, then what?
Don’t fret, yard-lover! There are lots of options you can consider for your yard.
Consider rock gardens, a garden full of unmanicured native grasses and other plants. Tear up the soil and scatter wildflower seeds. Ditch the grass and plant a food garden front and back, sharing your crop with neighbors. Turn to a variety of groundcover options broken up with elegant paving stones. Or even use pavers to make an entire yard disappear, while bringing in native trees and planters full of local favorites.
This year, rethink your yard and try to make your yard a part of your local ecosystem rather than a contradiction in terms. Soon, I’ll share a look at how you can use these alternative yard ideas and resources you can turn to for making it happen.