Rethinking the modern lawn

Published 10:00 am Sunday, November 6, 2022

Whether you go with ancient Latin’s autumnus, or prefer the American slang “fall” a common chore this reflective time of year can lead to how we approach our landscapes.

As we corral plummeting foliage into compost piles or bags to be hauled off, they can also be a tool for starting a positive redo of how your garden looks and works. It’s simple: Create temporary drifts of leaves to redesign your lawn, which can impact part of how you spend the rest of your life and your footprint on the world.

I got started on this when a fella asked on the Mississippi Gardening FB page about the pros and cons of modern lawns. Being trained in turf management as MSU and the Scotts Lawn Institute, steeped in the history and science of lawn care, I appreciate the values of well-tended turf.

Lawns provide places to play and socialize outdoors, open gardens up visually, confer positive social signals and status, and provide personal feelings of accomplishment even when the actual work is hired out. Lawns reduce mud, dust and roaming snakes, emit oxygen while sequestering carbon, absorb rainfall, reduce air pollution, create safety zones along roadways, and more.

However, while I understand that no raindrop thinks it’s responsible for the flood, hard facts show that, collectively, our beautiful and beneficial personal and public artificial grasslands are extreme net negatives to the environment. My personal opinion is, we have to find a compromise.

I’m not addressing here the practical needs of golf course, roadside, airport, or cemetery caretakers, or the psychology of those who mow and edge zealously as a way of dealing with the pressures of life. I won’t touch the third-rail highly restrictive social landscape mandates of homeowner associations; I deal mentally with the chaos going on in the world by just making my bed every morning.

But our unique obsession with lawns is well documented in countless heavily-researched studies and books which outline how over just the past four or five generations we have been taught what to think about them. Between those who market modern mowing equipment, fertilizers, herbicides, and irrigation systems, and the groupthink of civic-minded garden organizations, we have come to believe that a large, neat, weed-free lawn is a collective community mandate and personal responsibility, and that those veering from this are antisocial.

Yet each square foot represents millions of acres of unnatural monocrops of non-native grasses forced into submission in a climate that naturally supports trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, and other flowering plants that provide shelter, food, nesting sites, and more for native wildlife. Being the lowest level of plant succession, they require regular mowing, which, even without counting the thousands of tons of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and millions of gallons of potable water, which admittedly are not used by all lawn owners, takes a huge hit on resources (machinery, fuel, time, and effort), and produce huge amounts of exhaust emissions. noise, and scrapped equipment.

Am I suggesting we have no lawn at all? Nope. But a good compromise would be to redo the shape and reduce the size; a smaller “throw rug” or walkway or play area of turfgrass, set off with mulch, groundcovers, shrubs, or groups of trees, can really shine, and satisfy all but the most dogged personalities, with a lot less maintenance!

And you can play around with the idea this month, enlarging shaded areas, connecting trees, creating new beds along the side or front of your property. Add better mulch, groundcovers, trees, or other plants later, but the leftover lawn will instantly look neater and more sensible.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.