Is our lawn evil?
The great American lawn has a bad reputation, environmentally speaking. The perfect green rectangle fronting the perfect suburban home in all those commercials (for almost anything) does require a lot of care that is potentially harmful to pollinators and watersheds alike: fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides. The desired result is a closely cropped carpet, a near-monoculture of selected hybrid grasses.
But that’s not the lawn we have.
We live on a small lot in an aging suburb, where we have just about the number of shrubs and flower beds that we can manage. We have two small trees: a crape myrtle and an ornamental crabapple. We have a clump of viburnum shoots that aspire to be small trees too. In between, we have what we like to call a lawn, defined as a vaguely grassy area covered with plants that are short, green, and close together. In addition to mixed grasses, including some of the weedier varieties, we have clover, dandelions, plantain, and violets. One year we had a volunteer yellow zinnia. This lawn is short because we pay someone to mow whatever gets tallish. We do not fertilize it. We do not, for the most part, weed it. We watered part of it only when a small section had to be seeded following some work that disturbed the ground. Our first and only venture into lawn-related pesticides was an application of milky spore to control Japanese beetles over 20 years ago. We did regretfully use RoundUp once along the edge of the lawn to get ahead of bindweed that was taking over the fence, but have managed to stay ahead of it since without further resort to chemical warfare.
We have a lawn partly in lieu of having a patio. We grow the plants we have partly because they have survived. On weekends we move our environmentally questionable plastic lawn chairs from one patch of shade to another, where we drink beer and admire the butterflies, including the skippers who tend to light on the grass. On summer nights we watch the fireflies rising from the lawn. At dawn and dusk we may be visited by a rabbit, who nibbles the grass, and sometimes the petunias. We’ve had a succession of rabbit visitors over the years, so we think we have done them no harm.
Whatever this part of Maryland may have been like in some pre-settlement past, it’s now a place of tough clay soil and a climate ranging from snowy to tropical, and from soaking to arid. We’re open to ideas, but we don’t have the time or energy for a lot of labor, nor the money for a whole lot of help. When we think of sustainability in lawn and garden design, we know that means: sustainable by us, in our limited spare time. So anything we do to make our property more suitable for birds, bees, or butterflies will have to fit those limits.