Changing your ideal of a perfect lawn

(Photos by by Lee Reich)

Lawn lovers, prepare for battle. By now, your defenses surely have been dulled by the weekly mowing ritual. 

Ecologically, the “ideal” lawn is not much better than an asphalt parking lot. A recent study by Yale University estimated that we here in the U.S. use about 600 million gallons of gasoline to mow and trim our lawns. And millions of tons of fertilizer, whose manufacture also is based on petrochemicals, are used each year to keep grass green. Much of this fertilizer is carried away by rain as a nutrient-rich solution which eventually trickles into lakes and streams, causing them to become choked by excessive weed growth. Too often, lawns are drenched with insecticides to kill such insect pests as chinch bugs and grubs; with fungicides to knock out leaf spots, brownpatch, and snow mold; and with herbicides to stop crabgrass.

And what about noise? I still remember the musical clickety-click sound of the push mower on weekend mornings when I was a child. Now the angry roar of gasoline-powered mowers and the high-pitched whine of power trimmers fill the air.

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The lawn of today is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to the middle of the 19th century, the lawn was not the close-cropped, homogeneous phenomenon that it is today. Rather, the lawn of yore consisted of wild grasses and wildflowers, maintained with the swing of a scythe four or five times a year, or with grazing sheep. 

Once the lawnmower was invented, in the middle of the nineteenth century, you no longer needed to own a flock of sheep or have hired gardeners to maintain a greensward. There are over 30 million acres of lawn in the U.S., and the number is growing. Much of that acreage is watered, making lawns the largest irrigated crop in the nation.

Less obvious is the effect of lawns on wildlife. It is no surprise that the lack of diversity of plants in these large expanses of green support little wildlife.

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, I can admit to loving the fresh scent and the attractive appearance of a freshly mown lawn. And what a nice surface a lawn is on which children can tumble. Lawn Institute research found that people feel “green is clean.” A beer can is less likely to be tossed onto a lawn than an unkempt field.

The quintessential use of a large expanse of flat lawn is, in my opinion, that social institution familiar to many towns of the Northeast, the town common. Here, the lawn is at its best, providing a place at which to eat, to read, to meet friends, and to stroll.

How can the good be balanced with the bad when it comes to lawns?

First, treat a lawn correctly. Grow a grass adapted to your site’s soil and light conditions. Mow regularly to a height of about two inches (high mowing inhibits crabgrass). Unless the clippings are longer than an inch, leave them where the mower blows them. Less fertilizer is needed if the clippings are not harvested. Do not apply chemicals routinely. And, if you must water, water deeply and infrequently. 

Second, consider alternatives to a lawn, or at least some of your lawn. Ground covers such as euonymous (E. fortuneii) or sedum grow well in the sun; for the shade, creeping myrtle or pachysandra are de rigeur. For something a little different, how about a deliciously edible groundcover, such as cranberry, lowbush blueberry, or lingonberry (another plus: the last three are native plants). Or a deliciously scented lawn, such as creeping thyme or chamomile, both of which also grow low enough to walk on and tolerate some foot traffic.

Third, change your ideal of a perfect lawn. Let some clover and ground ivy mingle with your grass. Are dandelions really unattractive? A perfect lawn can be boring. The perfect lawn easily slips over into looking like nothing more than artificial turf. My lawn has received compliments (in spring and fall, and in summers when sufficient rain has fallen), yet the only care I give it is correct mowing.

And fourth, convert a part of the lawn into a meadow. A meadow consists of grasses with a healthy dose of annual and perennial flowers. The grasses for a meadow would include bunch grasses (such as sheep fescue or chewings fescue) which stabilize the soil but do not spread as do lawn grasses. Annual flowers such as plains coreopsis, cornflower, icelandic poppy, and corn poppy splash color in the meadow their first season, then resow themselves for subsequent years’ blooms. Biennial and perennial flowers — yarrow, chicory, purple coneflower, butterfly weed, evening primrose, even such commonplace beauties as chicory, buttercup, Queen-Anne’s-lace and goldenrod — remain year after year.

The meadow need not be large, for even a small back yard can be brightened by a small patchwork of wildflowers. The only care demanded by a meadow is once-a-year mowing (with a hand scythe — a mower, depending its power and the height of the vegetation, might get bogged down) and occasional weeding by hand. In my The Pruning Book, I write about sculpting out these two tiers of mostly grassy growth, something I have termed “lawn nouveau,” with the crisp boundary between tall and low grass keeping everything neat and avoiding the appearance of an unmown lawn.

A wildflower meadow is the obvious choice for large fields. On a backyard scale, use a small meadow as a transition between, for instance, mowed lawn and tall trees, a stream, or a property line. And if your meadow has any size to it, occasional swaths cut through it beckon a stroll.

I am fortunate to have a meadow as part of my property. Like many pieces of reasonably fertile, well-drained land around here, this field became a meadow not because it was deliberately planted as such, but because annual mowing has prevented the encroachment of forest. I periodically scythe parts of my meadow and rake up the mowings for mulch and for food for my compost.

From spring to fall the grasses are livened by colors from wildflowers, the progression of which changes somewhat from year to year and depends on the weather and the timing of its annual total mowing. A mowed path invites a stroll through the meadow and a closer look at the goldenrods, bee balm, yarrow, Queen Anne’s Lace, Joe Pye Weed, New York Ironweed, and — yes — dandelions, also.

New Paltz writer Lee Reich, Ph.D. is a garden consultant specializing in soil care and growing fruits and vegetables. He hosts workshops at his New Paltz farmden and webinars, via Zoom. For more information, go to www.leereich.com.