Jun 12, 2022
Photo by Katie Finch Cuckoo Flowers and Dandelion are just a few of the things that bloom in May when a lawn is left uncut.
Now that spring is full swing, there is a chorus heard on nice days. It usually plays on Saturday mornings but happens anytime it’s light and not raining. It is the buzz of the lawn mower.
I’ve been thinking about lawns recently. “No mow May” has come to an end. This effort encourages homeowners to let their grass grow and bloom to support early insects looking for nectar and pollen sources. Originally started in the United Kingdom in 2019, it is slowly spreading across the US.
I am also in the process of looking for a new house. We looked at one with a three acre yard. It was a lot of grass. But it was also a blank slate to plant food gardens, trees, native plants and more. However, it was in the neighborhood full of freshly mowed lawns. We have no interest in mowing 3 acres of grass. But in reality, the best way to maintain the space while we worked toward our dream yard was to mow the grass. We did consider just not mowing too but that has social ramifications. The last thing we wanted to do was to be considered bad neighbors because of an unkempt yard.
How did we get to this place where a short, lush carpet of green around our houses, schools, parks, and businesses is both desired and expected? While a freshly cut front yard seems as American as apple pie, it was actually a fashion brought from Europe. Large expanses of lawn started in England and France in the 1700s. Because they were expensive to maintain, and served no purpose other than beauty, they were possible only for the wealthy.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the first Americans to put in a lawn. Advances in technology and changes to the way we viewed land helped lawns grow in popularity.
The first lawn mower was invented in 1830. Prior to that, grass was cut by livestock or by hand. Imagine cutting grass 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.
Lawn mower, sprinkler, fertilizer, and seed technologies were all developed over time to improve lawns and make them more accessible to homeowners. Large public parks featuring expansive lawns inspired communities. The increase in car and train travel also inspired people to make their yards attractive to those who would pass by. And after World War Two, the suburbs grew. The lawn became part of the American dream of owning a home. Lawns became part of our everyday culture.
I admit to the appeal of a freshly cut lawn. The smooth, even, green carpet looks tidy and cared for. The smell of cut grass takes me back to carefree childhood summer days. In some ways, lawns are incredible. I’ve walked across countless lawns with no visible impact to the plants. Lawns are places for picnics and play. A lawn with trees is a great place to hang a hammock or sit in a lawn chair in the shade.
However, lawns provides very little to no service to the environment. Grass seed companies will argue otherwise. On their website, one company proclaims that lawns … “clean the air, trap carbon dioxide, reduce erosion from storm water runoff, improve soil, decrease noise pollution, and reduce temperatures”. Compared to a hard surface such as pavement or concrete, perhaps that is true. I think we can do better than that.
Not all lawns are created equal. A lawn measured in acres, made up of a uniform species of grass, sprayed with pesticide and fertilizer, closely cropped more than once a week and watered with no regard to weather uses immense resources and does little to benefit the environment.
Other lawns are made of a diversity of plants. Look closely at some lawns and you’ll see dandelion, violets, plantain, clover and more. They may have some benefit, especially if left to grow occasionally. But still are made of mostly nonnative plants that are mowed short. But even those spaces support three-times the amount of bee species than mowed areas. (Visit beecityusa.org/no-mow-may for more information.)
So what’s the alternative to a mowed lawn? The truth is, it depends. It depends on preference, time, resources and where one lives. Clearly, there are benefits to native plants and trees. They have evolved with the animal species that live in that space to provide food, shelter and protection. Along waterways and shorelines, they can also filter sediments and pollution and prevent erosion.
Food gardens and orchards provide more than just something to eat. They provide a connection to the plants that sustain us, a trial and error (and try again) experience, and pride in being able to provide for ourselves.
But I don’t want to sound cavalier or naive. Alternatives to lawns also take work. They take resources in time and money not all have or want to give. And the choice that takes the least work – letting the grass grow – is also not for everyone.
In the little patches of land that we have some control over, we have a choice. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing choice. Even a small garden has its benefits to animals that use it and those that tend it. How much lawn do we need to do the things we want? What does it need to look like to still appear cared for? Perhaps if we asked ourselves those questions we can make those little patches work for more than just us.
It is hard to imagine our maintained spaces without lawns. But maybe that’s just a momentary lack of imagination. The beauty of lawns is an aesthetic we’ve learned. So it is one we can modify or even unlearn, if just a little.
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