“‘Well, I must endure the presence of two or three caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.'”
— said by the flower in The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
This year it’s finally time to turn as much as you can of your lawn over to flowers. Go ahead and do it. If a homeowners’ association stands in the way, perhaps it’s time to reconsider being a member of such an uptight organization. Where zoning ordinances favor grassy lawns over flowers tall and short, crawling and upright, push to the limit and grow flowers right up to the curb. Your neighbors may grumble about your yard’s new look, or they may be pleased. You’ll never know unless you grow it the way you want.
The Moon Gate of the Chinese garden, in the Hidden Realm of Ming within Hortus Haren, one of the oldest botanical gardens in The Netherlands. Photo by Dominicus Johannes Bergsma. Not a blade of grass in sight!
If you live in the countryside, you may already be familiar with the joy of minimal mowing and maximal flowering plants because neighbors and public officials are less likely to impose on you their views of how you should care for your land. In the cities and suburbs the situation is different, as is well known by too many people forced to spend too much of their time with lawn mowers and weed whackers. Push back! Where there had been 75 percent lawn and 25 percent flower bed, flip that this year and blanket over half the yard in flowers.
Plant densely with flowers so that weeds have a difficult time taking over. Use walkways, stone edges, benches and other features to define the space so that it doesn’t appear to your neighbors and public officials to be an undifferentiated meadow which will spew weed seeds onto the rest of the neighborhood. Busy bodies have an easier time accepting flower borders than meadows. It’s just that your yard will be mostly flower borders, and very little lawn, maybe none if you can arrange it and it suits you. Go ahead and do it. Surround yourself this year in floriferousness.
The expansive, pastoral cemeteries we are familiar with today came into being in the nineteenth century when municipal officials dedicated large amounts of land in the suburbs or just outside cities to landscaped burial grounds. Church graveyards within city limits had become overcrowded, prompting worries about public health and the integrity of nearby building foundations. The rural cemetery movement took its cues from English garden design of the eighteenth century, with vast expanses of mowed grass broken up trees and shrubbery, and taking advantage of vistas where possible. Since there were no public parks when these new cemeteries were designed and built, they soon functioned as parks at a time when enjoyment of the outdoors was more restrained and dignified than it is today. No one in Victorian times was jogging past the gravestones in shorts and very little else.
Those Victorian era rural cemeteries became part of the suburbs and then eventually were swallowed up by their city when urban growth expanded to encompass them. They can still be islands for quiet contemplation within a city if they are large enough for visitors to get away from the noise and bustle of surrounding streets. Their park function has been usurped by purpose built parks that allow a greater range of activities, such as jogging or playing softball. No worries there about disrespect for the dead. Since the fine old garden cemeteries of the nineteenth century have become incorporated within cities their boundaries have been limited and now they are either full or nearly full of permanent guests.
A monument at Lowell Cemetery in Lowell, Masachusetts. Photo by Bernie Ongewe.
The serenity invoked by well tended grounds and beautiful vistas is of course for the living, not the dead, who presumably are beyond caring. The same can be said for the fine caskets and embalming services offered by funeral parlors at a fine price to the lately bereaved. Nothing but the best for the dearly departed, and by extension to the social standing of those paying for it all. Cremation offers one way out of some of the unnecessary expenses and fuss of burial in a recognized cemetery. Where people have space available at home, a family plot is often outlawed by zoning regulations, and anyway the new custom of moving from one house to another several times throughout life makes it impractical. House buyers are understandably queasy about moving into a place with a stranger’s recently interred relatives just outside the back door.
The Loved One, a 1965 film based on a satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh, was directed by Tony Richardson and in this scene starred Robert Morse affecting an English accent as Dennis Barlow, who must see to the burial of his uncle while on a trip to Los Angeles, California. Liberace played Mr. Starker and Anjanette Comer played Miss Thanatogenos, both of the fictional Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary.
There is another option, one that chucks all the trappings of the funeral industry and the land grabbing of permanent cemeteries, and that is natural burial. The dead are not embalmed nor are they buried in monstrously expensive containers that prevent or delay decomposition of the corpse and casket. The dead are buried in a cloth shroud or a simple wooden coffin which will decompose readily without contaminating the soil. Grave markers are not permanent reminders such as the headstones found at a conventional cemetery, but low key natural markers meant to degrade within a generation, or plantings such as a tree which will eventually supersede its function as a mere grave marker. The land is conserved as wild space rather than subject to continuous environmental destruction by modern landscaping practices.
Natural burial is a return to the practices of our ancestors. In some parts of the world, people have never deviated from natural burial practices. Returning to dust is inevitable, and it might as well happen in a way that preserves the economic and environmental resources of the living. Memories of the departed can be kept alive in ways other than the permanent reminders of headstones and the expensive and often environmentally destructive tending of a cemetery landscape designed to appear natural, though upon reflection it is hardly that at all, any more than the neatly clipped lawns in the suburban and city lots surrounding it.
Sting wrote “All This Time” in 1990 about the recent death of his father and about his memories of growing up near the shipyards of Wallsend in Northumberland, England.
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!”
At mid-winter it’s still too soon to start preparing garden beds for spring planting, even in areas of the country that aren’t under permafrost. There are cleanup tasks, as always, and if the garden beds are in need of edging this would be a good time to do it as long as the soil isn’t too mucky and hard to work. For gardeners who will do the work themselves, the kind of edging to do, or whether or not edging is desirable, depends on tolerance for heavy labor. Those easy-to-install plastic edging strips are also quickly and easily heaved out of the ground by frost and soon become useless.
Garden vase, flower beds, and stone edgings in the Avenue Gardens, Regent’s Park, London, in July 2010. Photo by Rept0n1x.
Almost every heavy duty and reasonably attractive garden edging is going to take back breaking labor to install, though it’s true that installation may last a lifetime. There does appear to be one fair compromise between heavy labor, appearance, and durability and cost of the installation, which is to use a low profile nylon no-dig edging material that is staked down on the grass side of an edge made up of paver blocks laid on fast setting concrete. Dramatically decreasing the preparation work takes out much of the heavy labor, leaving only the lifting and setting of paver blocks, which can weigh up to 25 pounds apiece, and wrangling 50 pound bags of concrete mix.
Roger Cook of This Old House gives an overview of the easier ways to edge. The durability of such edging can be increased by resorting to some of the shovel work and use of drainage rock or sand that is the method for standard paver installation. Without a drainage base under the concrete, no-dig edging, and paver blocks, there will inevitably be some cracking of the concrete and consequent heaving of the materials. As mentioned earlier, however, this type of installation is a compromise between all of the elements of an edging job, and is particularly intended to cut down on back breaking shovel work and cost of additional materials. The best way to ensure the eventual frost heaving does not render the edging completely useless and unattractive is to deploy paver blocks that are as large and as heavy as possible without themselves being back breaking.
No-dig gardening is a method that has been gaining adherents for over a half century now, and it makes sense for gardeners interested in saving themselves some labor and possible injury to apply the same method elsewhere when possible, such as in edging garden beds. The simplest method of edging, and certainly the cheapest, requires digging an edge straight down three or four inches into the lawn, and then shaving that edge back in a slope toward the garden bed. This presents an attractive edge for a few months, but grass and weeds from the lawn inevitably infiltrate the bed, muddying the clean line of the edge, with the result that the gardener has to renew a cut edge at least once a year to keep it looking its best. That is obviously the opposite of no-dig gardening.
Mark Powers of This Old House demonstrates the full on labor and expense method of edging a garden bed. The editing makes the job look easier than it is, and while the edge looks great, this method is only for the most dedicated gardener. A gardener who is healthy and strong and unafraid of hard work can certainly install a beautiful and durable garden bed edge and stand back to admire it as a job well done when it’s finished. The extensive materials required for a really top notch installation may cost quite a lot, but since the goal is lifetime durability, then the cost is a one time expense. For the gardener who may not be entirely healthy, or very strong, or interested in expending enormous energy in the garden, there are easier and cheaper edging alternatives, but such a gardener should beware foolishly wasting money and time on some of them advertised as cheap and easy.
No-dig edging seems a reasonable compromise, though one thing to be aware of when installing an edge on top of the ground rather than level with it is to avoid grading soil down from the top of the paver blocks toward a building. To avoid improper drainage toward a building, soil should always grade away from it. It would appear to be a rather obvious error to avoid in theory, but it is an error too often made in practice, though usually gradually over a long time. That means there may still be some shovel work necessary to finesse a no-dig edging installation. It would be nearly impossible to do every job in the garden without wielding a shovel at all, though some can thankfully be made easier on the gardener’s back.
Pause from Work, a road sign diagram posted to Pixabay with the Portuguese caption Pausa no Trabalho.
It can be upsetting for a gardener or homeowner to see mounds of turned soil and sinuously trailing lumps in a lawn that has taken a lot of human care and maintenance over a long, hot summer. Tunneling moles! It can be hard to realize that the little critters, which in the eastern United States most likely go by the name Scalopus aquaticus, are in fact paying you a compliment by visiting your yard to partake of your tasty vittles. You apparently have grubs and earthworms in abundance, signs of a healthy lawn ecosystem, and the moles have appeared to take advantage of the situation.
When moles eat earthworms, they may not be doing you such a great favor since earthworms enhance soil fertility, but they definitely help out by eating the grubs which would otherwise be munching on the roots of your carefully tended grass. There is collateral damage certainly, such as some brown patches in the lawn where the moles have damaged grass roots in their zealous search for grubs, and also the unsightliness to human eyes of the lumps they raise in the lawn because of their tunneling. Rest easy, because the tunnels aerate the soil and will settle back in time.
In Chapter 3 of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, called “The Wild Wood”, timid Mole ventures out on his own into the woods and has a scary time. Illustration from the 1913 edition by Paul Bransom.
Lawn aerator attachment on a garden tiller. Photo by Lovesgreenlawn. Moles happily do the same work at no charge.
People attribute a lot of the damage they see in their plants and bulbs to moles, but really the damage is mostly the work of voles and shrews. Most moles are mostly insectivorous: they usually don’t eat plants. Voles and shrews, on the other hand, will eat just about anything given the chance, though they largely stick to a vegetarian diet. Voles and shrews will also take advantage of the tunnels that moles industriously create. This can make little difference to a gardener who notices a tunnel leading to a freshly planted tulip bed. Arguing before the court of that gardener’s censorious gaze that a mole excavated the tunnel in innocent pursuit of grubs, but it was the voles and shrews who exploited its proximity to the tulip beds to pad their own provisions, often makes no headway with the gardener, who declares war on the oblivious mole.
Traps, poisons, and medieval implements of execution are all pointless and expensive wastes of time and money. You have what moles want, and if after much effort and expense you manage to remove your nemesis from the premises, another will come along shortly to take his or her place. Taking away what the moles want, which means negating the naturally derived soil fertility that earthworms and grubs dig, would involve essentially turning your lawn into the soulless desert waste of a golf course. Green above by virtue of chemicals, but below, in the soil, the home of practically no creatures.
Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, Jack Haley as The Tin Man, Ray Bolger as The Scarecrow, Bert Lahr as The Cowardly Lion, and Terry the dog, as Toto, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.
Let the moles be, and thank them for their service. Watch out for the voles and shrews, however, and do what you can to mitigate the damage they cause. Get a cat, if that is suitable for you and the cat, and the neighborhood you both live in. Meanwhile, keep mulch and, if possible, snow away from tree trunks, because that denies cover to those creatures while they gnaw at the bark. Clean up leaf litter and brush piles where it seems sensible that these are nesting places and cover for runways. Most of all, let the grass grow to 3 or 4 inches, which should keep the lawn healthier overall, and make those lumps in the lawn less noticeable and not worth fretting about.
“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.
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
Imagine going to the grocery store as usual and discovering after ingesting some of the food you brought home that it made you ill, weakened the immune system of some of your family, and killed others. You had no way of knowing what was about to happen, and if you want to eat you have no choice but to return to the same grocery store next week, taking your chances. There is no alternative. This is the situation for bees and other pollinators, whose grocery store consists of the flowers they have visited for thousands or millions of years. Massive die-offs of bees and butterflies have been in the news for many years now, and recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the yellow-faced bees of Hawaii on the Endangered Species List, the first bees to be included.
Sand bumblebee on red clover. Photo by Ivar Leidus.
Pollination of dandelion by a bee. Photo by Guérin Nicolas.
Use of broad spectrum pesticides in agriculture is partly responsible for the decline in bee populations, but an often overlooked contributing factor is the part homeowners play when they distribute similar pesticides on their lawns and gardens. Unlike the use of pesticides in agriculture which is done in the name of food production, homeowner use of pesticides is solely in the interest of aesthetics. Individuals can change this behavior more readily than they can the practices of large agricultural concerns.
Change starts in our own yards, and it starts with a change in perspective about what is acceptable and beautiful. Instead of insisting on a monoculture of grass in the lawn, change the definition of the lawn to include some flowering plants. Look on dandelions and clover as beneficial for the bees, rather than as weedy pests to be exterminated at whatever cost in time, money, energy, and collateral damage. An important aspect of Integrated Pest Management is tolerance of a certain amount of pest damage, however “pest” is defined, and the realization that perfection is neither attainable nor even desirable. Nature is messy. The bees prefer it that way, and will thank you for your part in letting it be. The hard part will be in convincing your neighbors of it while fluff from your dandelions drifts into their yards.