Lawn Order

The weather was so bad this spring that it took me until April to start mowing grass. (Last year I was mowing in February.) This leads to the question, why do I mow grass? Why can’t I just let it go natural instead of getting out this noisy little polluting machine all the time in some feeble effort to control nature?

In a broader sense, you might be wondering what we at the Desert Northwest think of lawns. There’s a nationwide movement afoot to replace, eliminate or otherwise annihilate your lawn. Food not lawns! Xeriscapes not lawns! Anything but lawns! Whatever.

So here is about where we seem to be settling on this subject: lawns should be organic, responsible, and functional.

Organic is obvious enough. We should not spray chemicals and poisons all over our lawns. Not only does a lot of this stuff run off and leach away to the detriment of the environment and various kinds of wildlife, but it also poses a risk to humans when this stuff gets into our groundwater and when people (particularly children) play in lawns. Perhaps it’s time to settle for a less than perfect lawn a tolerate a little bit more in the way of weeds. In some cases it’s even possible to pull them by hand, a fact that we often forget when it comes to lawns.

Responsible sort of relates to the organic part of things, but it also includes not using more water than we really need to. Some folks give their lawns far more water than they need – or, they water foolishly, keeping it constantly soaked with light waterings. The effective way to water anything is to soak it thoroughly then let it dry for a few days. In the Northwest this usually means to keep a lawn green we should give our lawn about an inch of water every week, preferably all at once, or maybe twice a week if were having a hot spell, which would usually only be about twice a year. Of course individual mileage may vary depending on soil type etc. but the basic idea is to give it as little as you can get away with before it turns crispy. Or maybe you want to let it turn crispy. That’s becoming a fad too, and not a bad one at that where water resources are limited, since it still always grows back and looks green again after a few good rains. We won’t tell you that water shortage is a huge, immediate crisis for everyone, such that we should stop watering all grass now; but as more pressure continues to be placed on water supplies, including groundwater, in the Northwest, it’s something to be mindful of.

Functional means a lawn should have a purpose besides just decorating your property. If you have kids and they play on the lawn all the time, great. If you are a 1940’s English family who uses their lawn to play croquet after tea every Sunday then great. But for most people the lawn is just the empty space on their property that they just feel is a necessary component of it. And why? Well, that’s the great mystery, isn’t it. I wish I knew! Did they run out of money for landscaping or plants? Did they run out of ideas? Do they think their yard will look bad without an open space of grass to look past? Maybe they shouldn’t have chosen boring plants. Or if the lawn is primarily negative space, why does negative space have to be a lawn? Something like rocks would be less maintenance (assuming weed seeds aren’t blowing in from the neighbors’ yard). Everyone has a lawn, so how about something more interesting. Dare to be different! As far as I’m concerned, the non-functional lawn is really one of the more nonsensical phenomena American culture has burdened itself with.

So why do we mow? The part behind the house is our play area, but that’s really the minority, and is the only area we ever water. There’s another good reason having to do with our other goals for the garden and nursery. We mow a lot (we don’t really call this area “lawn;” it’s more like the “uneven grass and weeds zone”) to prevent weed and grass seeds from blowing into beds and potted plants. We are also convinced that grass kept smaller and shorter poses less competition for water, light, and nutrients to new plantings. Eventually we may replace grass around these plantings with mulch of various kinds, but for now we must settle with mowing. So it’s sort of a “lesser-of-various-evils” situation. We really can’t have weed seeds taking over the potted plants: been there, done that; not fun. And new plantings have to be given a chance to succeed for everything to come together as a garden.

And there you have it. Lawn order.

Classic pointless, unimaginative, negative-space lawn; Watson’s Greenhouse, Puyallup.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mark and Gaz
    Jul 07, 2011 @ 03:01:54

    Not a lawn owner here but it does set off your borders really well!


  2. Loree / danger garden
    Jul 07, 2011 @ 09:24:52

    What? “pull them by hand”…seriously? Like actually bend over and get your hands dirty? That’s crazy talk.


  3. Ian
    Jul 07, 2011 @ 10:21:10

    I guess if your borders are thirsty enough the lawn could fit right in!

    Loree – yeah we’ve pretty much lost our minds around here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed!


  4. David C.
    Jul 13, 2011 @ 18:25:39

    Great points! The lawn-centered mode of horticulture (and I think bedding plant borders) are dated. Seems after 200+ years in this country, we should be way beyond this with a huge array of design styles. Xeriscape is probably furthest advanced in southern AZ and adjacent deserts areas, even in patches in Las Vegas. The reaction to all-lawns though, is as dangerous – in Abq, a Rocky Mountain High version of NE cottage gardens has moved in over the last decade, equally dated and weak in so many design principles. Sad.

    Thanks to the Internet and looking at different ways to create interesting patterns based on one’s unique ecology, I think positive change may happen sooner than we realize!


  5. Ian
    Jul 18, 2011 @ 14:12:48

    I hope some of these more sensible design concepts (and of course better plant selection) can gain some momentum soon, but for now a lot of folks seem content with the status quo, especially with the economy in a slump. I hope these same people aren’t spending money to water their lawns!


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