by Stephen Morris
[I wrote this article for Mother Earth News more than 25 years ago, but, as you will see from tomorrow’s post in the Silverback Digest, the topic is still current even if the season is more about raking leaves than cutting grass. Not that I’m competitive, but which article do you think is better? SB SM]
How did we become a nation of manicured, toxic lawns? How did a lowly perennial that imitates a carpet become our dominant ground cover? My personal theory (I make it personal to avoid the rigors of research or fact finding) traces the perfect lawn back to World War II. Our boys returned from the Big One with expectations of peace, prosperity and perfection. This vision included a trophy wife, nestled in a neat suburban home, surrounded by a flawless lawn and a picket fence. Peace reigned, and since the big enemies—Adolph Hitler and Isoroku Yamamoto—had been vanquished, only crabgrass remained.
Grass is an inoffensive perennial that is minimally decorative, inedible, provides no shade and attracts only the “wildlife” that subsists on kegs of beer. It is also overwhelmingly the ground cover of choice in North America. Its virtue is its uniformity. This is the Marine haircut of the plant world.
Since I’m on the soapbox: Why do we grow lawns in regions intended for cactus and Gila monsters? Why are there golf courses in Phoenix? Whose idea of sanity is it to pump fresh water from ancient aquifers so we can make the desert look like the rain forest? And why do we nurture our lawns with water and fertilizers so that we can then attack it with an arsenal of lawn tractors, weed whackers, bazookas and mortars. Our neighborhoods sound like war zones on Sunday afternoons.
We’re living the American Dream, internal combustion style, but we know the dream has to change. We’re using up the oil; we’re using up the fresh water; and we’re putting the waste into the air we breathe. If you want to do something about it, take a look at your own back yard. If it’s covered with grass, then you have an opportunity to take dramatic and effective environmental action by joining the revolution to lose your lawn.
I signed on after reading a delightful manifesto by Toby Hemenway called Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (published by Chelsea Green Publishing, originally in 2001, revised 2009). Permaculture is a system that works with the ecosystem to maintain permanent horticulture by relying on renewable resources. Hemenway shows that by treating Nature as an ally instead of an enemy, you can create a beautiful, productive, ecological garden in your own back yard. Hemenway takes the teachings of permaculture pioneers David Holmgren and Bill Mollison and makes them accessible to the average person living in the average home. The result is deceptively simple, deceptively beguiling and completely revolutionary. It makes so much sense you’ll never look at lawn care or gardening the same way again.
The natural world is neither flat nor rectangular. The natural world is not uniform, but diverse, with plants grouped in complementary ways that fill ecological microniches. In Gaia theory the world is treated as one huge, interconnected and interdependent system. A garden of Gaia is one in which the cultivation mimics the layers of growth you see in a forest. From the roots to the treetops you select plants to play mutually supporting roles in a rich gardening system.
Getting from here to there is not as difficult as you might imagine. You do not have to dig up your yard with a backhoe or pulverize the sod with a rototiller. If you are a patient person, you can just do nothing. In a few years natural processes will be well on their way to restoring biodiversity to your back yard. You can speed the process, however, by following Hemenway’s advice.
A key concept is to build soil by adding organic matter. No digging. No power tools. No chemicals. Put down a layer of cardboard or newspaper, then add up to a foot of straw, seaweed, wood shavings, or any combination thereof. Then plant into the mulch, not the soil. Eventually the roots will penetrate the enriched topsoil. By planting perennials, maintenance is minimal.
As with all new and revolutionary ideas, the lose-your-lawn movement will be threatening to some. We’ve been conditioned to distrust things that don’t require motors, medicine or pasteurization. The companies that profit from the sales of fertilizers, herbicides and lawn tractors won’t embrace the idea of Gaia’s Garden until they figure out how to make money on them. Millions of marketing dollars have been spent to perpetuate the myth that a weed-free lawn, along with even teeth and 2.1 children, is essential to personal happiness. We dutifully mount our lawn steeds to keep Nature at bay. Then we water like crazy so we can do it again next week.
We are still firmly ensconced in an age when our species removes any impediment to comfort through the addition of more power. Too hot? Too cold? Just add power. Need to go higher? Faster? Step on the accelerator, unleash the power. The size of our lawns, once limited by a human’s time, energy and patience for pushing a mower, has grown in direct relation to the horsepower of our lawn tractors.
Permaculture advocates are challenging the myths by offering delightful and superior alternatives. Your lawn does not have to be an extension of your living room, but rather can bring Mother Nature to the back door. You can design your outdoor space for visual appeal, edible yield or attracting wildlife. The choices are infinite so long as you embrace the one inviolable principle: You must work with, not against, natural processes.
If this revolution is successful, our back yards will be converted into mini-nature preserves offering beauty, harmony and delicious food. Sunday afternoons will be for relaxing to the soothing sounds of songbirds, not the hue and roar of warfare waged on grasses struggling toward the sun. With organic produce growing in your back yard, your food bills will go down and your health will improve. Moreover, you won’t have to drive to the store, and the grocery store won’t have transport your fresh produce from hundreds—sometimes thousands–of miles away, meaning less fossil fuel will be used transporting what’s essentially water (the primary component of fruits and vegetables) across the planet. All because you lost your lawn, and replaced it with Gaia’s Garden.
The revolution is barely a conspiratorial whisper at the moment. However, a new story is emerging that we can embrace, not conquer, nature in our own back yards.
Stephen Morris is a primate who publishes Silverback Digest and lives in The Jungle of Central Vermont. He is also the co-creator of Grendel: The Four-Chord Opera, soon to debut in this publication.