It may seem like hyperbole to compare growing a lawn with smoking (not combining the two, as in smoking grass), but when weighing the environmental and health effects of both rather useless activities, they may not be all that dissimilar. A lawn is purely ornamental and serves no practical purpose when it is not used as pasture for grazing animals. Deer may come out of the woods to clip parts of a suburban lawn, but for the most part keeping a lawn within the height limits deemed proper by neighbors is left up to the homeowner. Anything higher than about six inches meets with disapproval from neighbors and, in the case of a homeowners association rules, may merit a written slap on the wrist.
There was a time not long ago when most people smoked, and smoked everywhere. Movies of contemporary stories from the 1940s and 1950s showed actors portraying their characters as human chimneys. Few people thought much of it up until 1964, when the Surgeon General issued a report on the dangers of smoking. Even then, it took another generation for the momentum of social disapproval of smoking to build to a tipping point, largely because of the obstructive practices of the tobacco industry. In the matter of lawn growing, the balance is now tipped in favor of the people who dump fertilizers and broad leaf herbicides on their lawns to achieve an ideal of carpeted green perfection, and then burn up fossil fuels in order to keep that exuberant growth clipped to a manicured standard.
Sheep, goats, and a shepherd near Lake Vistonida in Thrace, Greece. Photo by Ggia.
Given the information available about the toxic effects of fertilizer and herbicide runoff, and the deleterious effects on the climate of continued burning of fossil fuels, it seems insane to idealize the perfect lawn and what it can take to achieve perfection. Yet as things stand now, the people with model lawns are the ones who look down on everyone else and appoint themselves as standard bearers. Perhaps if more people understood the destructive effects to their own health and to the environment of all their fussing over lawns, then the balance would start to tip the other way toward saner practices.
When homeowners apply fertilizers and herbicides to their lawns, there is no obvious puff of smoke to notify everyone else of the activity. It is not as obvious then as smoking, and therefore general social disapproval will take a long time to build, and may never build to a tipping point the way it did with smoking. Education will probably be the main factor in changing people’s behavior. There are state laws which require commercial herbicide or pesticide applicators to post signs on lawns they have treated. Those are the 4 inch cards on sticks stuck into lawns, and to the extent that most passersby and neighbors give them any attention, they can easily mistake them as advertisements for the lawn care company.
The opening scene of Blue Velvet, a darkly satirical 1986 film directed by David Lynch. Besides demanding large amounts of fertilizers and herbicides to look their best, lawns gulp huge amounts of water in order to stay green throughout the warmest months.
Most people are away at work when lawn care companies do their treatments, and so they aren’t around to catch a whiff of the cabbage smell of the typical broad leaf herbicide as it drifts around the neighborhood. And of course, the homeowner who does his or her own applications, usually on the weekends when neighbors are also home, does not bother with any formal notifications at all. A neighbor might ask such a homeowner “What’s that smell?” To which the enterprising amateur lawn care enthusiast might reply, without apparent knowledge of or concern about the collateral damage of his or her efforts, “That’s the smell of the green, green grass of home!”
“Gardening is the handiest excuse for being a philosopher.” ― from Ray Bradbury’s 1957 novel Dandelion Wine.
There is no end to the availability of advice, how-to manuals, and chemical poisons to help gardeners rid their lawns and garden beds of crabgrass and dandelions, two weeds most prevalent in late spring and early summer. Are they weeds? Only the individual gardener can say. If the gardener lives under the watchful eyes of a homeowners’ association, the association will say.
A meadow full of dandelions in The Netherlands; photo by Alias 0591 from The Netherlands. A meadow full of crabgrass would not be nearly as beautiful.
The guidelines of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) state that a pest is what the gardener says it is, whether plant or animal, and that each gardener has a tolerance level for pests. Those with zero tolerance spend a fortune and a lot of time pouring poisons on crabgrass and dandelions in an effort to eradicate them. Have they been eradicated? Maybe on a few tiny patches of the planet which are now toxic spill zones.
Mow high! That’s the cry which often goes unheeded because some folks don’t like walking through tall grass. Mowing high really does help desirable grass compete with weeds like dandelion and crabgrass, however, and if the grass is kept healthy with applications of compost and lime, so much the better. The main thing is to keep bare spaces to a minimum, because those are the places where weeds can move in and start to take over. Keep the applications of synthetic fertilizers to a minimum, or do without the stuff altogether, because in the long term they contribute to soil toxicity.
What’s a conscientious, organic (or mostly so) gardener to do then in the good old summertime when there are patches of crabgrass and dandelions in the lawn? Well, if an hour’s worth of hand weeding once a week won’t take care of the situation, maybe that mostly organic gardener could consider turning some of that lawn on the property over to some other purpose, so that it’s more manageable. Either way, the situation calls for a more relaxed tolerance level, especially in the summer. A suggested tolerance level would be one that calls for lying in a hammock under a shade tree, drinking from a cool glass of dandelion wine, reading a good book (see above), and listening to the peaceful sound of the crabgrass growing.
Grass mowing time is here and many folks like to save themselves time and trouble by cutting their lawn very short. They give their lawn a “two week cut”, reasoning that it won’t be much different than an extra short haircut which will look good in two weeks and stay that way for a while before it needs cutting again. Some people cut their lawn short frequently because that’s the way they prefer it. Those are the ones who are outside on the job at least once a week, all season long, mowing the grass to within an inch of its life. Others are elderly and want the lawn kept short because it feels safer to them that way, long grass being difficult for them to maneuver through since they tend to shuffle their feet along rather than lifting them up, and they are ever fearful of falling and breaking a hip.
Tim Corcio, member of the U.S. Naval Academy’s incoming Class of 2019, gets his first military haircut on Induction Day, July 1, 2015. Induction Day marks the beginning of Plebe Summer, the six week indoctrination that transitions civilian students to military life; U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Wilkes.
Roger Cook from This Old House talks about seasonal mower height settings.
Personal preferences aside, the cool season grasses which predominate in lawns in the northern two thirds of the country really should be mowed at a height of two to three inches at least for the health of the grass and the appearance and lushness of the lawn. The warm season grasses which predominate in the South can be mowed shorter, at about one to two inches, though St. Augustine grass should be mowed higher than that. Regardless of North or South, a good rule to follow is to start with a short mowing height at the beginning of the season, increase the height as temperatures increase, and then lower the height again going into autumn. The worst mistake people inflict on their lawns is to keep the mower at a short height throughout the year, and the worst damage occurs then at the hottest part of summer, when grass that is too short burns up in the heat, allowing weeds to proliferate in the gaps.
The late, great philosopher comedian George Carlin riffs on golf courses and cemeteries, two enormous, grassy wastes of real estate in a bit from his 1992 show, Jammin’ in New York. Warning: foul language.
A good thing to consider as you are either out in the heat yourself this summer mowing the grass or paying a service to do it for you, is how much lawn you really need and whether what you have is enough, or too much of a good thing, also known as a maintenance headache. Plenty of time to think out there. There is just about no entity other than a snooty neighborhood association or nosy, indignant neighbor that will blame you for turning over some or all of your lawn to garden bed or some kind of no mow alternative. The critters will love you for it. You yourself may enjoy more free time away from a fume-belching mower or the few extra dollars in your pocket saved by not hiring out the work to a lawn service. Of course, the increased garden bed space will require some more time for weeding. It’s a trade-off, though not necessarily one that doesn’t benefit you in the long run. Whatever grass you keep, let it grow so that you can feel it between your toes.
Winter dormancy is settling in on lawns almost everywhere but the pampered ones in National Football League stadiums. The groundskeepers who maintain stadium turf have an especially difficult job this time of year because they are staving off the natural tendency of grass to retreat into dormancy and turn brown and stiff as winter approaches. Not only does that look unappealing on television, it is difficult for the players who have to compete on it. If the ground becomes frozen hard, natural turf can be as dangerous to players as the old artificial turf fields which had insufficient cushioning beneath them.
Preparing the pitch with grow lights at Stamford Bridge, London; own work by TheBlues
Modern NFL stadium natural turf stays green into December and January because groundskeepers take measures to prolong its growing season, from heating systems underneath to grow lights overhead. They effectively keep the grass in a condition most homeowners have not seen in their lawns since September. The “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a memorable phrase evocative of the hard knocks of winter football outdoors in the upper Midwest, but it hardly applies any longer to the actual playing conditions considering modern turf management techniques.
For the average homeowner who looks out at a brown lawn throughout the winter (when it’s not covered in snow), the remedy lies not in trying to replicate the green turf of NFL stadiums. That would require an enormous input of money, time, and effort equivalent to what an NFL franchise invests, albeit considerably scaled down. Better to let the grass go to sleep for winter, but to tuck it in with some lime, some compost, maybe a light application of preferably organic fertilizer, and then a last mowing at a short setting to mulch the last of the fallen tree leaves. For the rest of December and January it’s time to settle into a comfortable chair in the warmth indoors and watch the football games on TV play out on the greener grass of early fall, maybe with snow falling on it for added dramatic effect.
View of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin; own work by JL1Row