Beginning a post about lawn care by referencing Niel deGrasse Tyson may appear to be a stretch for a play on words but bear with me. There is some logic to this. In the TV series Cosmos, Niel emphasized the importance of questioning everything in science as a part of advancing knowledge. Admittedly, Tyson lives near the forward edge of what we know about the universe and it is where the theories are often altered or refuted, however the approach has relevance for all of us.
It’s all about paradigms. A paradigm can be a defined pattern for accomplishing a task most efficiently, or on the downside, it can be a pattern for conducting tasks that if repeated without question, can adversely affect quality of life. A person can get trapped in a paradigm and not realize it. How does this relate to manicured lawns? Having the default manicured turf grass lawn is a tradition that is too often perpetuated without question. It is easy to become so preoccupied with the proper fertilizer, the lawn tractor with the tightest turning radius and in killing critters that resist our efforts, to question the entire activity. In order to question everything, as Niel advises let’s question the process from another perspective. Seeds are planted and replanted, the crop is regularly fertilized, watered, and treated with herbicides. Pesticides are applied that wipe out beneficial soil organisms, kill birds and put people and pets at risk. Then the crop is harvested, packaged and… thrown away. All in denial of nature by attempting to grow a high input exotic monoculture where alternatives are available.
While questioning the sanity of maintaining immaculate turf grass think about what you could be doing with more time and money rather than spending your Saturday bouncing around your yard on a two thousand dollar tractor. Think about the trucks hauling chemicals in massive quantities to every hardware and big box store in America. Think about the kids playing on the lawn that was exposed to an estimated ten times the concentrations of chemicals used on commercial produce farms. And very importantly, think about what happens to the large surplus of chemicals your lawn does not immediately absorb. The chemical industry and the lawn equipment manufactures would have you think that having a perfect turf grass lawn is an activity worth the cost and effort if not a matter of personal pride.
As long as we are talking paradigms, lets consider another big one. The mantra of Urbanites and Suburbanites is that nature should be tidy. I live in the woods. Take my word: Nature thrives on chaos. Not that the alternative for a yard should be chaotic by any means. It only means that variety is healthier for both nature and people. Variety in the form of native landscaping is far more tolerant of dry spells, insects, animals and poor soil. They evolved to be compatible with the local conditions. Using native plants also encourages the presence of native species. After the beneficial life forms in the dirt recover from the poisons, and the dirt once again becomes soil, a switch to more variety will be a healthier place for you and for wildlife.
What if you live in a controlled community with rules that prohibit yards with too much variety, or what if you simply don’t know how to proceed with the switch? The next move is to challenge the paradigms. Challenge the wording of a local restrictive covenant or get help creatively working around it. Express your desires to your local university extension office and district conservation service and give them the opportunity to work with you. You may have to do a little learning but don’t think you will need to become a hobby gardener to have less turf grass.
In short, if your free time is dominated by pampering a surface of turf grass that has no practical purpose simply because you are expected to, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself some basic questions.
Apologies to Niel deGrasse Tyson for borrowing his name.
A coming post will discuss the role of lawns and other man made objects
in Nonpoint Source Pollution.