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Exercise #17: Things That Matter

Back to the Garden

Grass. I have a real problem with grass. For starters, it’s not much to look at. Sure, it’s green. But it’s a monotonous, uninteresting green. And then we have a few weeks of drought, and it’s not even all that green. And what does it do? It’s not a food source. It doesn’t provide much in the way of food for insects or animals, either, since we don’t let it get tall enough to flower or produce seeds. In fact, you can make a good argument that it’s actually bad for insects and animals, since it supplants natural vegetation that would be more likely to produce something they can use for food or building material. A grassy lawn is a monoculture, a genetically vulnerable and unnatural creation incapable of supporting the kind of complex ecosystems that evolve in the wild. Some scientists have speculated that the rise of monoculture lawns may be one of the stress factors that have decimated honey bee populations.

Grass is a thermodynamic disaster area. To keep it looking decent year after year, we have to apply fertilizer and pesticides. It rewards the effort by growing, transforming the fertility of the soil into tall blades. Then we lop them off and haul them away to a composting center—or worse, a landfill. We deplete the soil to produce a useless crop that we then discard. And as if that weren’t enough, we use gasoline and electricity to do the harvesting, spewing air pollution and noise in all directions, replacing the peaceful sounds of a summer evening with the shrill whine of the weed-eater and the deafening roar of the leaf-blower.

Not all of the fertilizer and pesticide get metabolized by the lawn, of course. Some of them leach out—along with the copious amounts of fresh, clean water from the municipal supply that are required to keep the grass alive in hot weather—into the storm drain systems, adding damaging levels of nitrogen to the ecosystems downstream and moving ever more of our limited supply of usable phosphate down to a lower and less useful position in the planetary ecology.

And what’s it all for? Oh sure, occasionally you see children playing on a lawn. But most lawns seem to be empty of people most of the time. Even if there’s some local and occasional demand for patches of grass for certain activities—croquet, volleyball, playing in the sprinkler—the supply of grass-covered ground seems to vastly exceed the demand. All of our grassy lawn needs could probably be easily met by one or two grassy lawns per block of houses.

So what should we have instead of grass? Considering all the negatives that go along with grass, one could make the argument that we’d be better off with nice, smooth expanses of low-maintenance concrete. But concrete prevents the absorption of rainwater, so it leads to increased flooding. Also, pavement is a sink for solar energy, and our cities are too warm already. So how about some nice gravel or river rocks? That would solve some of the runoff problem, but they’d still soak up too much sunlight and turn it into heat.

Gardens seem like an obvious choice. The average garden might require a little more work than a lawn of the same size, but it can also yield flowers, herbs, vegetables, or fruit. But the right kind of garden can actually be maintained with considerably less work than an equivalent amount of lawn if care is taken to incorporate some low-maintenance, slow-growing elements. Trees, shrubs, ground covers, and vines can provide cooling, shade, soil and water retention, and beauty with nearly no work at all after the initial investment of effort. Nurseries can supply drought-tolerant native plants to facilitate “xeriscaping”—a form of landscape design that requires minimal amounts of supplemental watering.

Or we could let our lawns return to nature. We could let wind-sown and bird-born seeds take root in the soil. We could let native flora make their way back into the city. We could help nature along with diverse plantings to replace our monoculture a little at a time. We could watch for the return of bees, and butterflies, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals. And we could enjoy the peaceful sounds of a summer evening.

Note: The assignment was to write about something that’s important to you that doesn’t get talked about much. I get fired up about this subject every time one of the neighbors fires up a leaf blower before 10 a.m.

© 2009 Edward F. Gumnick

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