Death of a Lawn Mower

The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that Americans find public expression of their successful lives in a neatly groomed lawn. Jay Gatsby was so horrified at Nick Carroway’s ragged lawn next door that he sent his gardeners over to mow the offending sward. As the nation was more prosperous by the 1920s and homes were set back from the road, owners mimicked the greens of Mount Vernon, Monticello and the great estates of 17th and 18th century Britain and France. Inventions of mechanical and powered mowers to replace laborious scything offered much encouragement.

A lawn is an expensive investment, but realtors know the kerbside appeal of perfectly manicured grass helps house sales. It is a sine qua non for the modern suburbanite. Impressions of something familiar we grow up with are hard to budge, and when lost we feel bereft, but if we can step back mentally, it may be seen in new light. When I look at a ‘perfect’ lawn now my mind toggles between lawn and desert (call it cognitive dissonance if you like).

Looks more like a barren landscape on second thoughts

Why desert? Because among nuanced meanings lawns and golf courses are desolate and barren landscapes. If anything tries to nestle in a monoculture of non-native grass it is quickly doused in herbicides and pesticides, which gardeners use even more profligately than farmers. We fight frantically to conquer every weed and bug. Striving for perfection is a virtue better reserved for indoors because outside nature hates uniformity and tidiness.

Nick Carroway is more my kind of guy than his rich neighbor, although I came round lately. I am letting my lawn grow long and wild, like my hair and coronabeard. You might wonder if they are all reactions to the current contagion, yet I argue it is mindfulness and not just a lazy mower.

I love to watch knee-high stems swaying in a breeze. The sward is too dense for weeds to anchor, except the pretty polkadots of white clover and a few wildflowers on the lawn. Did I say lawn? I can now call it meadow. Deer and cottontail rabbits feed and fertilize; butterflies dance by day and lightning bugs cruise at night; goldfinches cram on seed heads; our dogs love to romp and nuzzle there. And, so, besides aesthetics and entertainment value, new and more abundant life sprouts from the death of lawn.

Ben approves of the lawn transition

It is no longer a source of noise and atmospheric pollution (gasoline mowers produce 10x more per hour than a new car). Clover is a bugbear of lawnists, but the virtuous plant boosts soil nitrogen and protects the crust in drought. Without a sprinkler system no water is wasted (more an issue in the West). Overseeding is natural and spontaneous instead of broadcast by hand from a packet, and better quality because the seeds originated from parents that thrive by natural selection. There are obvious savings from lawn chemicals, and precious time is captured from edging, raking and aerating. No more is surplus phosphate drained into streams that open into the Chesapeake Bay.

Lawns only feed pride, yet their collective acreage exceeds that of any food crop in America. What a terrible waste of resource! There is still no shame cultivating a chemical lawn (not yet!), and some homeowner associations and local authorities levy outrageous penalties when people neglect their front lawn, like the retired Florida man threatened with foreclosure when he didn’t pay fines. Lest my readers worry the lawn police will turn up on my doorstep my experiment is neither overlooked by neighbors nor is it kerbside. But I still need to observe politics at home.

There is another reckoning, however, when land is left fallow, and mine will arrive later in the summer with the scorching Virginia sun. That is the time to mow, and not a light task even with a lean and keen Austrian scythe. But it will be a day for looking back with satisfaction and enjoying a rare kind of pride by mowing as our ancestors did in the great estates of yore. 

Down on the Clover Patch

Woe betide the feet that trespass on the hallowed lawns of Oxbridge colleges! But you already know if you have seen Jeremy Irons as a Trinity Fellow nonchalantly striding across the Great Court in The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016). College lawns, golf courses, bowling greens and 40 million acres of American gardens are groomed to degrees of perfection by proud owners and hired lawn companies. The result is a green desert with as much biodiversity as a cornfield, but that is the point of all the effort and expense.

A closely-cropped carpet is no place for bees and other pollinators, something we admire for its greenness and never for fruitfulness. But the original lawns of medieval Europe were never so barren, nor could they have been before chemical fertilizers and powered lawnmowers and aerators. They evolved from meadows in the moist climate that suited them.

When lawns were tended around English manor houses and castles they were mixtures of clover, lily-of-the-valley, wild strawberry, violets, daisies, chamomile, thyme and self-heal among tussocks of grass. All are native plants that grow vigorously without a gardener’s care because they are well-adapted to the environment. Their blossoms used to feed bees before the scythe in midsummer, and some of the broadleaf plants were harvested for herbal remedies. But apart from a few favored grasses, they are marked for elimination in the modern lawn, as the Weed-B-Gon packet advises: “Clover is a perennial weed …” (Scott’s Garden Supplies).

Dickinson poem

The difference between early and modern lawns is like comparing Jackson Pollock’s fractal tracings in his early paintings to the dull murals of Mark Rothko. Didn’t Pollock declare, “I am Nature?”

Few people want a lawn looking early English or like Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952), though most of us admire a wild flower meadow. Perhaps something in between would better satisfy eye and nature— perhaps by encouraging clover in turf, for clover…

Dutch white clover crouches low
Dutch white clover crouches low

… needing no polluting chemicals, provides its own nitrogen fertilizer which improves soil quality,

… has deep roots that require less watering so it stays green even in drought,

… produces pretty blossoms to attract pollinators and doesn’t need to be reseeded,

honey bee visiting red clover… only slowly invades lawns and their borders,

… grows companionably with grasses while helping to squeeze out unwanted weeds,

… doesn’t yellow in our winters like Bermuda and other warm season grasses,

crimson clover is taller for a wilder-look
crimson clover is taller for a wilder-look

… doesn’t brown like grass where pets pee,

… tolerates the shade of trees where grasses struggle to grow,

… and looks lush the year round.

I know gardeners who will huff at this attempt to promote clover, but the monoculture lawn became fashionable only recently and will hopefully yield to esthetics and ecology. Pollock’s Blue Poles was purchased for a modest sum amid much controversy by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973, but it is now displayed in pride of place and worth anything up to $100M. As clover gradually colonizes the lawn I think our garden is going to look a million dollars.

Next Post: Crazy for Chelonians or Loving Turtles too Much