Monday, August 16, 2010

The grass is greener ...

... outside my property lines! Green grass lawns are a nearly ubiquitous element of middle-class suburban America, and have been all my life. I grew up mowing the lawn of my folks' huge yard with an unpowered push mower, which taught me an undying hatred for green, healthy grass. I've really disliked mowing lawns most of my life - we lavish time and money on them, watering and fertilizing them so that they grow fast, and are 'rewarded' by having to mow them more often! It seems like a really stupid treadmill, siphoning resources for the sake of a green monoculture that has little redeeming value. It offers only a carpet of green, at best, with no flowers and no edible product to repay our expensive attention. It does nothing for us, and yet demands much from us.

When we lived in Colorado, I found whole neighborhoods (including ours) where the dominant type of lawn was Kentucky bluegrass!! This seemed just about the apex of irresponsibility and/or stupidity for those within the arid rain shadow created by the Continental Divide to our immediate west. The only way to keep such a lawn from croaking during the summer was to water it virtually every day. The house we bought already had a sprinkler system, and I struggled on a regular basis to keep it working, just so that I could mow my beautiful green pasture as frequently as possible. The enormous waste of water associated with the prevalence of such lawns still rankles me, years after gratefully putting elitist, hypocritical, yuppie-dominated Front-Range Colorado in my rear view mirror.

This year, another hot, dry Oklahoma summer is deep into its doldrums, although today we're enjoying a temporary modest abatement of the heat. Triple-digit temperatures and weeks without significant rain are turning my yard's Bermuda grass into a wonderful light brown shade. Bermuda doesn't die for lack of water, though - it just goes dormant, to resurrect itself should copious rainfall return in the fall (which it often does here). I'm devoted to not watering my lawn, even as some neighbors stubbornly water theirs on a regular basis. Of course, the crabgrass is a lot more tolerant of dry weather, so some patches of green remain in my lawn, despite my intentional neglect.

In some years (like last year), we have a relatively cool, wet summer and the grass stays green all summer and well into the fall, smiling sweetly in the face of my willful negligence. I'm perfectly willing to let the grass grow, though, as we now pay someone to mow it regularly for us. But I'll do nothing to help it persist through a hot, dry summer. If it were entirely up to me, I'd seed our yard with native grasses and wildflowers - turn it into a miniature shortgrass prairie preserve and let wild creatures have a refuge to tickle their species' memory of a time when stupid humans didn't force pointless monocultures over vast regions to satisfy some completely inexplicable desire for having a golf course-like environment.

Don't get me started on golf courses, though. Ecological obscenities at best, and completely detestable when created in arid or even semiarid climates, just for the sake of what I see as a game with no point. But I digress ...

What's really annoying is that city ordinances and neighborhood covenants insist that lawns be mowed and that wild plants not be allowed to prosper according to their own abilities to cope with our continental climate. I've toyed with xeriscaping, but have been overruled by higher authority ...

Nevertheless, I'll never give up my wish to be free from the suburban American standard that imposes green lawns on me.

7 comments:

jimmyc said...

I like this post a lot. I have seen your dream, in a neighborhood in Ames, IA where there was no grass at all. Wildflowers were planted and mid-summer you could not tell if there was a driveway to that house. The flowers easily reached 4 ft tall. Come winter it was evident just how much space was occupied by the wildflowers. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but having lived in an apartment where virtually no one uses the green grass to play on, it does seem like a waste to water and mow.

superstreamingtweetingfacebookingstormchaser said...

There is nothing better than cutting the grass that you have put some love into, then turning on the sprinklers and sitting back with a cold brew to admire it while the sun is setting. It is like taking care of a nice car! Like a Gran Torino! Good Movie!!!

Chuck Doswell said...

You're entitled to your opinion, superstreaming ... I just don't share it.

Gary said...

I take the Lazy Man's way out. I think I've watered twice this summer (although that is a bit unusual given the wet May/June). I do this by being very lazy - I keep raising the mower blade up and up. I'm not yet at 6 inch height, but almost always leave the front yard at 4 inches plus most of the summer. Less sun hits the ground, less evaporation, less need to water. Voila! Cheaper AND lazier!

Kenny Blumenfeld said...

Chuck, the town I just moved from would have been more your speed. The yard was viewed, largely, as a *functional* space. People grew vegetables, and let the "lawnies" be damned!

Personally, I can think of about a thousand better things to put love into than turf grass!

===== Roger ===== said...

I'd just as soon let the Bermuda go dry too, and more often than not, do. I mow about an acre (out of 2 total) with a push mower, including a long strip of a steep slope. This provides much-needed exercise but which also consumes lots of time I'd rather devote to more meaningful, relaxing and/or fun endeavors. The exercise is the only real reward, since the noise of the mower drowns out the birds and wind, and it seems half the exhaust goes into my lungs. Why don't I use a lawn tractor? As I tell my neighbors who ask: 1. I'm too cheap and 2. I'm not old enough to need one yet. :-)

As for turning the lawn into native land, there are two nontrivial problems with that here in central OK that you might have forgotten: ticks and chiggers -- the former being a notorious disease vector, the latter offering excruciating and relentless itching for many days. Copperheads, pygmy rattlers and scorpions like to hide in tall grass also; and you might not know you've gotten too close to one until it nails you.

Go "native" at your own peril, and only if you wish to get ravaged by bloodsucking parasites in said yard. I'd rather mow (but not very often), and leave a part of my property upon which I almost never set foot for the biting, stinging varmints.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I have often wonder why people (namely real estate developers) plant non-native species of grass?. How tacky! And with that I wonder why some
municipalities prescribe a maximum grass blade height for its residents?. What's the purpose? (I vividly recall my father requesting that I mow the grass in fear that municipal officials might hand out a ticket.)

In contrast to this I had an experience while living in the "high desert" (steppe) of western New Mexico a few years ago. During that time I was fortunate to live in an small adobe style house surrounded by a yard filled with very vibrant lava rocks and sand. (I suppose this is what to expect when your living within a Caldera.) Besides the lava rock grew several native shrubs and a few highly elongated blades of grass. Having spent a good part of my life east of the Rockies living in New Mexico was a very unusual sight.

However, one morning just before running a few errands, I stepped outside to find an army of ants parading around in large ensembles! It was a rather unnerving sight! As it turned out the people that I had rented the property from decided to pull all of the grass blades (or weeds as far as they were concerned) without much regard for the ants habitat. It's not so much that I expected the owners to take notice of the small creatures, but that pulling the "weeds" had little purpose other than to expose a bed of lava rocks on a dead end dirt-stone road. Needless to say my fiancée and I wound up spending much time and effort diverting the ants away from our house!

The experience described above acted to reinforce the concept of living as passively as possible with the environment. If more effort where placed here (living passively and maybe not "green" in a literal sense) I believe that we'll all benefit in the long run through enhanced environmental diversity.

In a more practical sense I can't help but ponder how many plant species are disregarded when they might very well be the next best remedy for a particular disease?. We need to think about the longer term and consider a wider range of solutions...