green space lawn

Put some GREEN in your green space this Weekend


sketch from  classic levittown image

The holiday weekend is just around the corner and sunny weather is predicted here in Chicago.  With a day off work for about three quarters of Americans, and a national tradition of having friends over to grill out, you’re likely planing to do a little sprucing of your green space if you have any.  So, the $64,000 question is: Are you going to be watering a vegetable patch, planting perennials or … watering, fertilizing, weed killing and mowing your lawn?

Researchers at NASA estimate that there is three times as much acreage of lawn in in the continental US than irrigated corn.   Some of it is certainly very pleasant – it’s a wonderful feeling to have access to open space, and a mown lawn can be ideal for playing catch … or fetch … or just spreading out a picnic.  But much of it isn’t used for anything but spacing out your house from the one next door and the sidewalk.  So maybe it’s time to consider some landscaping alternatives because while grass may be green in color, it’s not very “green.”

“But, wait,” you say, “the Jones!  How will I keep up with them?”  

Well, for one thing, if you aren’t planning to pour your heart into your lawn care, preserving your grass for fear of neighborhood censure may backfire.  In case we needed reminding, the front page of DNAinfo today was a (somewhat lighthearted) scold of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn for letting the dandelions get out of hand in his Chicago lawn.  Since he’s been out of town for the legislative session, his potentially camera ready lawn has been attempting to go back to nature.

dnainfo_quinn lawn

And that’s really the problem with the concept of the perfect lawn, that most American of fetishes, it is so very unnatural that it takes a lot of work to maintain.

Not only do they require hours of labor that constantly needs to be repeated but they have become an expensive and potentially dangerous drop sites for crazy quantities of pesticide and fertilizer.  Lawn care chemicals tend not to stay in the yard where they have been applied but seep into groundwater and run off along surface water channels to clog local lakes and rivers with algal blooms and nasty toxins.

Keeping the grass clipped requires gas (for all but the curmudgeon push mower aficionados) and water, (10,000 gallons per year), which is often in short supply in summer. Plus the acres and acres of green grass provides little fodder for friendly native pollinators.  And, a week of neglected lawn care can do nearly as much harm to neighborly relations.  (For more philosophizing about the politics of lawn care, check out Michael Pollen’s 1989 article for the New York Times Magazine “Why Mow: The Case Against Lawns.”)  In short, its overrated.

50_single family cartoon

Ironically,  own little slice of the American Dream is actually  in import from the British peerage.  The history of American landscaping (both in personal lawns and “public” golf courses) is closely tied to the designs for English Landscape Gardens which were made popular on the estates of wealthy landholders during the 18th century and used artful layouts and extreme earth works to generate the impression of a casually flowing natural landscape.

The most famous landscape designer of that time, Capability Brown, constructed lakes and moved hillsides to create his naturalistic rolling greens.  But despite the high labor cost, he did it all without recourse to fossil fuel power and his lawns were kept in check by grazing animals rather than riding lawnmowers, so his efforts were much more environmentally low impact than an average suburban lawn.

Does this image look a little bit familiar?  Remind you of any suburban subdivisions you know?

english landscape garden

This Memorial Day, why not strike a blow for freedom and consider reclaiming a little of your lawn (or the whole darn thing) for some other use.  Native plantings, shade loving ground cover, permeable paved patios, or vegetable gardens are all great ways to replace grass with lower impact (and lower effort) greenery.