Sunday, June 10, 2018

The tyranny of lawns


My lawn

Royal groundskeepers – and most North American suburban homeowners – would likely shake their fists at the state of my lawn. It is a lawn only by mere definition, being the untreed area immediately adjacent to my house. It is grassy, but contains many more plant species than just grass. In March I deliberately overseeded it with white clover, but to my great joy I discovered this spring (for my family moved here just last December) that lemon clover (more properly, yellow woodsorrel) was also flourishing amidst the grass. There are also a few dandelions and forget-me-nots, along with a low creeping violet-type plant with lots of purple flowers. With the exception of the grasses, these are all what people in the lawn care industry would call ‘weeds’.

I call it ‘pollinator habitat’. At this moment, there are five different types of flowers blossoming in my lawn, being visited by at least two different species of bees. I cut the lawn a couple times in early May (not with a gas mower, for I don’t own such a noisy, polluting device) and have since let it be. As can be seen in the first photo, in addition to all the flowers, the grass is now seeding itself. I will mow it again in another week or two once the seed heads have ripened, at which time the first round of clover flowers will have also gone to seed. In the meantime, I will enjoy how it looks (it reminds me of an impressionist painting) while my neighbours’ closely cut, monoculture grass lawns dry out and turn brown. As you can see from the photo below, their lawns look neat, but not especially attractive. And, more importantly, lawns like that are deserts for pollinators.

The neighbours' lawns

Why should anyone care? Insect populations generally are in steep decline, and many pollinator species are in particular trouble. Here in southern Ontario, our cities are surrounded by wonderfully productive farmland which is, for the most part, given to growing corn, soybean, and a bit of wheat, all in monoculture fields. Nature abhors a monoculture, and so heavy applications of agricultural chemicals must be made each year to keep those monoculture fields producing. A byproduct is that pollinator species are being wiped out, from the ill-effects of those chemicals and the loss of wildflowers.
 A bumblebee visiting my lawn

If our agricultural fields are to be maintained as monocultures, our ever-expanding urban areas must become polycultures: diverse mixes of plant species and habitats that serve as refuges for our native flora and fauna. A trim, Victorian-style lawn is no refuge. It is not quite a monoculture (it consists of a blend of 3-4 common grass species), but it is pretty close. And, more importantly, it is possible only through regular application of fertilizer additives and herbicides to kill the clovers, violets, and dandelions that would otherwise invade. Not to mention the poorly maintained ancient gas mowers that far too many people run over their lawns far too frequently. My lawn does not require artificial fertilization, for the clover plants fix nitrogen in the soil for the benefit of the grasses, which are unable to do so.

The suburban ideal of a trim green lawn is a bizarre cultural trait of North Americans that needs to be ditched as soon as possible. It makes no sense from an ecological or economic sense to waste a single penny or moment of effort to maintain one, except for specific uses like playing soccer or croquet. But on my street, I’ve never once seen a croquet or soccer match at any of the houses with the immaculate lawns. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: the few lawns that have kids playing on them are also the scruffiest, and so it should be. In my view, life is too short to waste on maintaining an immaculate lawn. Better to let your lawn feed the bees and do something else with your time  (such as sit in the sun and blog about not cutting the lawn). 

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