Friday, October 4, 2013

On avoiding lawn care

I dislike lawn care. Unless I live to the statistically unlikely age of 95, I have already used up more than half the time on this planet that was allotted to me at birth. I therefore intend to spend as few of those dwindling moments tending the grass. This makes me very unlike most of my older-than-middle-aged suburban male neighbours, who are maniacally, almost mind-numbingly obsessive about their lawns. Like the men parodied in Viagra ads. Without fail, weekend mornings they are out there pushing around their two-stroke gas-powered mowers, which have to be the third-most noisiest, dirtiest, polluting-est, unpractical, valueless contraptions ever conceived. The second- and first-most such contraptions are the gas-powered string trimmer and the gas-powered leaf blower, which are also found in many garages in my neighbourhood.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like lawns. There is no finer surface on which to play, picnic, or lounge in the sun. They keep us from tracking mud and dirt into the house after we’ve been out in the yard. They look nice. A few years ago, I installed a lawn from scratch. The house I had bought in Ottawa was one-half of a downtown duplex. There was no backyard to speak of, just a large gravel parking area big enough for three cars. Fortunately, my neighbour down the hill was looking for a truckload of gravel to resurface his own parking area, so my father and I spent a weekend scraping off all the gravel from my place and wheelbarrowing it down the hill. Once we got down to the clay, I had a guy with a half-ton truck bring in 30 yards of soil and a load of sod. I set a single pair of lattice-brick tracks into the sod, leading up from the street and spaced so that a single car could park on them. A couple flower beds around the edges and a newly planted red maple in the middle and, voila, we went from a sterile gravel lot to a photosynthesizing, carbon-storing, bird-attracting, suitable-for-cartwheels yard in one weekend.

But getting back to my main point, I don’t like looking after lawns. However, I learned long ago how to have a lush, green lawn without fossil fuels or chemical fertilizers or weed-n-feed or backbreaking work or any of that nonsense. My lawn is greener all summer long than those of my obsessive neighbours, for the simple reason that I overseeded with clover the first spring. A clover-grass mix has many advantages over just grass. The first has to do with nitrogen. Plants need nitrogen to grow but, though the air around us is nearly ¾ nitrogen, they can’t take it straight out of the air, they need to extract it from the soil via their roots. Unlike grass, which over time depletes nitrogen from the soil and eventually needs supplementary fertilizers, clover makes its own nitrogen fertilizer. Around the roots of clover grow bacteria that are able to take nitrogen out of the air and fix it into the soil where the clover (and the roots of adjacent plants) can access it. Once the seed takes, you just stand back and watch it grow.

A second advantage of clover is that, as soon as things get a little dry in the summer, grass starts to go dormant, turning yellow and crispy unless you water it (but don’t worry if it does, it will come back in the fall). Watering grass to keep it green is a waste of water, period. But clover stays green even as the grass yellows. A third advantage is that, unlike grass, clover produces flowers that feed our native pollinator species, so that your yard becomes more than just a lawn, it becomes habitat. A fourth benefit is that, if you don’t like dandelions or other broadleaf weeds in your lawn, clover will outcompete them. It is true that some fuddy-duddies dislike the look of clover as much as they dislike the look of dandelions, and insist that their lawns consist of nothing but neatly shorn vertical blades. But that’s an arbitrary, subjective criterion. Some people may not like the look of fuddy-duddies or their manicured yards.

Speaking of shearing the lawn, I use an old fashioned reel lawnmower. Anyone who says that it takes more time or effort to push a reel mower than a gas-powered or electric push-mower simply does not know what they’re talking about. A sharpened, oiled reel mower is no more difficult to push than a baby stroller. By using a reel mower you avoid the air pollution and carbon emissions of the gas mower and are less likely to annoy your neighbours with the noise. When winter comes, you can store the reel mower in the basement and it won’t smell bad, and can start cutting in the spring without first changing the spark plug, cleaning the carburetor, or driving somewhere to buy gas.

Give me lawn enjoyment over lawn maintenance any day. Which is exactly what I’m doing in these final, glorious summerlike days before the ground freezes. Happy autumn, everyone.


NM said...

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on eco-lawn:

Robert McLeman said...

Thanks for linking me to their website. The products they sell are exactly the types of alternatives we should be considering for our yards and gardens. They also have a great blog posting on how to stratify wildflower seeds.