It’s really time to rethink the green carpet myth of the American Lawn. Psychological theory links the lawn to prehistoric times so hunters could see their prey across the savannah. Some say the flag on the golf putting greens is a metaphor for prey. It’s like comfort food.
Actually the history of a fancy lawn began in 18th century Europe with a romantic idea of ancient Greek Arcadian fields. Landscape designers, particularly ‘Capability’ Brown in England, built large planes of grass with naturalistic vistas. (One private park had 30 acres of lawn.)
Washington and Jefferson liked the style. Olmstead spread Brown’s grassy vistas all across America. Today, lawns are a familiar, neat landscape, unifying street and road scenes, for sports, for firebreaks and to keep Mother Nature’s wilderness at bay.
The lawn mower was invented around 1830 and technology replaced sheep, deer and gardeners on their knees. By 2000, it was estimated that over 50 million Americans mowed 20 or 30 million acres of lawns. And that’s a lot of grass.
The truth is we spend more time and money per square foot-mowing, fertilizing, watering, treating and worrying about lawns than any other part of the landscape. It’s a pride of ownership, you know.
For a perfect lawn, fertilize 3 or 4 times a year. Mow regularly, at 2-3", taking off 1/3 of each green shoot. Water when dry. Treat insects, weeds, and crabgrass with pesticides. Edge neatly. Over-seed. And maybe buy a riding lawn mower. (A sod farmer once said to me," There’s testosterone in them there tanks.")
For an acceptable lawn, do as many of the above as you care to. Over seed on Labor Day. You can fertilize a couple of times a year, May and Labor Day, but do use organic fertilizers which are much less damaging to the environment.
For a freedom lawn, mow when needed to keep it as neat. Enjoy the weeds. After all they are green and most are wild flowers whose names you may not know. Buttercups, violets, dandelions, Canada mayflower, clover, cinquefoil,
hawkweed, English daisy.
If you leave the grass clippings on the lawn to decompose into nutrients, they equal about two fertilizings. There are some new lower care grass mixtures (mostly fine leafed fescues) that need less mowing. And lighter green annual crab grass is perfect for summer houses.
I have had a Freedom Lawn for over 40 years. In spring it’s a sea of wonderful color. Wildflowers. Mostly blue ajuga with white and purple violets. About June, the grasses get tall and messy, so I mow for neatness and to define the space. Then it gets mowed about every 2 weeks.
It does not look like a putting green or indoor carpeting. Instead, it’s an interesting greensward with shades of green. It’s easy, inexpensive and very comforting. But best of all I don’t worry about it.
So do you really want a putting green? And be a slave to the commercial lawn industry that pesticides your children and pets, and hurts the environment as well? Or is it time to have a Freedom Lawn?
A wildflower meadow is another way to become more natural than even a Freedom Lawn, but it has problems and complicated requirements.
It’s a fascinating concept but in practice doesn’t work well except if you have lots and land, and like things tall and messy. A meadow is romantic sea of waving grass, but is not neat up close. There needs to be a visual border, like a fence or a mowed strip, or some shrubs to define the edges.
Wildflower meadows have complicated ecology with generational succession and usually have to be sowed with flower seeds every few years. Different flowers flourish in different years, mostly due to the weather that year. The taller and stronger ones eventually come to dominate.
Also, when it’s mowed determines what blooms when, and what plants eventually take over the site. Mowing controls fields. Regular yearly mowing is necessary to keep the puckerbrush from taking over, and eventually the forest succession from returning.
There are many companies that specialize in seed mixes for different climates.
It’s great fun though to try to have a wildflower meadow and to control wild nature. Much like a Freedom Lawn, but not as simple.
Ruth S. Foster is a landscape consultant and arborist. More gardening information can be found on her website: www.mothersgarden.net.