Now that spring is in full swing, a chorus is heard on fine days. It is usually played on Saturday mornings, but it happens when it is light and it is not raining. It’s the hum of the lawnmower.
I’ve been thinking about lawns recently. “Don’t cut mayo” has come to an end. This effort encourages homeowners to let their lawns grow and flourish to support early insects seeking nectar and pollen sources. Originally started in the UK in 2019, it is slowly spreading across the US.
I am also in the process of looking for a new house. We saw one with a three acre yard. It was a lot of grass. But it was also a blank slate for planting gardens, trees, native plants and more. However, it was in the neighborhood full of freshly cut grass. We have no interest in mowing 3 acres of grass. But really, the best way to maintain space while working on our dream garden was to mow the lawn. We also considered not mowing the lawn, but that has social ramifications. The last thing we wanted to do was be considered a bad neighbor because of a neglected yard.
How did we get to this place where a lush little green carpet around our homes, schools, parks, and businesses is desired and expected? While a freshly cut front yard seems about as American as apple pie, it was actually a fad brought over from Europe. Large expanses of lawns began in England and France in the 18th century. Because they were expensive to maintain and served no purpose other than beauty, they were only possible for the wealthy.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the first Americans to lay grass. Advances in technology and changes in the way we viewed land helped turf grow in popularity.
The first lawnmower was invented in 1830. Before that, cattle or hand mowed the lawn. Imagine mowing the lawn by hand! Most landowners probably didn’t. They hired or owned someone to do that. So having a lawn was a visible sign of someone’s status.
Lawnmower, sprinkler, fertilizer, and seed technologies were developed over time to improve lawns and make them more accessible to homeowners. Large public parks with extensive gardens inspired by communities. The rise of car and train travel also inspired people to make their yards attractive to passersby. And after World War II, the suburbs grew. The lawn became part of the American dream of owning a home. The lawn became part of our everyday culture.
I admit the appeal of a freshly cut lawn. The soft, even green carpet looks neat and well-cared for. The smell of cut grass transports me back to the carefree summer days of childhood. Somehow lawns are amazing. I have walked countless lawns with no visible impact on plants. The gardens are places to picnic and play. A tree-lined lawn is a great place to hang a hammock or sit in a shaded lawn chair.
However, grass provides little or no service to the environment. Lawn seed companies will argue otherwise. On its website, one company claims that lawns… “cleans the air, traps carbon dioxide, reduces erosion from stormwater runoff, improves soil, decreases noise pollution, and lowers temperatures”. Compared to a hard surface like pavement or concrete, maybe that’s true. I think we can do better than that.
Not all lawns are the same. A lawn measured in acres, made up of a uniform species of grass, sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers, trimmed more than once a week, and watered regardless of the weather, uses immense resources and does little to benefit the environment.
Other grasses are made from a diversity of plants. Look closely at some lawns and you’ll see dandelions, violets, bananas, clovers and more. They may have some benefit, especially if left to grow occasionally. But they are still made from mostly non-native plants that are cut down. But even those spaces are home to three times as many bee species as mowed areas. (Visit beecityusa.org/no-mow-may for more information.)
So what is the alternative to a mowed lawn? The truth is that it depends. It depends on preference, time, resources and where you live. Clearly, there are benefits to native plants and trees. They have evolved with the animal species that live in that space to provide them with food, shelter and protection. Along waterways and coastlines, they can also filter sediment and pollution and prevent erosion.
The orchards and orchards offer more than just something to eat. They provide a connection to the plants that sustain us, an experience of trial and error (and trying again), and pride in being able to support ourselves.
But I don’t want to sound arrogant or naive. Alternatives to grass also require work. They take resources in time and money that not everyone has or wants to give. And the least labor-intensive choice, letting the grass grow, isn’t for everyone, either.
On the small plots of land over which we have some control, we have a choice. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing choice. Even a small garden has its benefits for the animals that use it and those that care for it. How much grass do we need to make the things we want? What does he have to look like to look cared for? Maybe if we ask ourselves those questions we can make those little patches work for more than just us.
It is difficult to imagine our maintained spaces without grass. But maybe that’s just a momentary lack of imagination. The beauty of the lawn is an aesthetic that we have learned. Therefore, it is one that we can modify or even unlearn, even a little.