Grow food and Native plants instead.
When I was a child of the suburbs, I enjoyed our family’s lawn. We lived in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, and in the summer my brothers and I would play football or croquet, or just wrestle around on the green grass. But when we got a little older, the playing stopped, and now what?
What is the actual point of lawns? Neighbors might compete over who has the greenest, best-trimmed, weed-free grass, but lawns don’t bring life; they suppress it. University of Wisconsin biologist Hannah Lembcke writes, “A mono-culture lawn is basically a green desert to most animals — there’s no food, no cover, it’s just a dead zone.”
I guess streets lined by expanses of green are kind of attractive, but nowhere near the beauty and pleasure evoked by natural spaces like meadows. Yet, lawns are legally required by many Home Owners Associations (HOAs) and even by local laws, which may fine people who let them grow too high or allow healthy weeds to share the space. Why do they make laws like those?
Lawns in North America are pathetic imitations of British aristocracy, with their castles and huge amounts of land that fed nobody, while earls and duchesses played on their empty spaces. Suburbanites could imagine themselves as royalty if they had a lawn like the Brits’. But we are not aristocrats. We fought a revolution to get rid of royalty. Why are we imitating them?
The extreme example of the British/American lawn fetish is the golf course, equivalent to hundreds of lawns strung together, watered frequently, while people knock little balls around on it with sticks. How much life could such land sustain; how much food could it grow? How much carbon could it absorb?
If you haven’t noticed, the US climate is much dryer and less lawn-friendly than Britain’s. Outside a few wet zones, American climates do not welcome lawns.
As a result, lawns require frequent watering, even in seasons of drought like those experienced in the West. They need large amounts of chemical fertilizer to grow, and large amounts of pesticides to keep out weeds and insects. Amazingly, suburban lawns are even worse than industrial farms in the amounts of toxic chemicals they use.
The carbon-absorbing capacity of the soil is greatly reduced by all those toxins, whose only purpose is to create a patch of green that looks just like everybody else’s. Meanwhile, we pay higher prices for food that we could be growing ourselves. What else can we do with land that God has temporarily put into our care?
In her book, We Are the ARK, Irish garden expert Mary Reynolds advises replacing lawns and gardens of imported flowers with a 50/50 division. Half the land under our control should be used for growing food, and half returned to the indigenous plants that belong there, plots she calls ARKS (Acts of Regenerative Kindness.) If we bring land back into service — providing food for people and animals — we can have more beautiful and productive yards and probably happier lives.
Plant food, go to jail
Lawns, like prisons, homelessness, and wars, are part of our status quo. Generations of propaganda have convinced people to maintain them. Now, if you want to create an ARK, or a food garden around your home, you might run afoul of some powerful forces.
HOAs notoriously enforce regulations on home owners requiring lawns and limiting what else can be planted. Some police departments fine people for letting the wrong plants into their lawns. People have been jailed if they couldn’t pay their fines. There might be informal but severe pressure from neighbors concerned that property values will decline if streets are not universally lined with mowed grass.
Does this sound to you as though owners see their land as a source of power and money, and not a source of life? It looks like that to me, and we need to take powerful people’s reaction into account when considering replacing a lawn with a food garden and/or native plants.
Replacing a lawn
From books and videos I have seen, removing a lawn is a lot of work. Some people rent a machine to do it, but people with enough available labor power can do it by hand. The removed turf can be composted over a year or two as natural fertilizer. You might not want to remove a lawn all at once, to give yourself time to rest, learn, and adapt your methods. You’ll probably want to keep it looking good as you convert it.
Most sites say the best time to start the process is in the Spring. You want the lawn to be a little damp but not soaked. A less labor-intensive approach starts with digging holes and planting Native trees, which will bring other life. Trees and other plants native to your region can be found on web sites, books, at colleges or native plant societies.
If you plant Native vegetables, herbs, grasses or wildflowers, there are sites, books, and local organizations that can guide you. You might want to have legal advice available, especially if you’re in an HOA area. Laws about lawns vary by state and locality. In California, where I live, the law says, ”An HOA cannot enforce architectural or landscaping guidelines or policies that prohibit the use of low water-using plants as a replacement of existing turf.”
So, they can’t legally stop you in CA, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try. You’ll need to look up the law where you live, and you might need to fight to change it, a worthwhile cause for sure. Water conservation seems an effective legal argument in support of non-lawn alternatives.
You might want to organize your neighbors, to get them on your side. Tell them what you’re doing, put up a sign explaining why your new garden is a good thing. Encourage them to do the same. Reynolds says if next door neighbors create ARKs, they can open pathways or tunnels for creatures to move between them, greatly increasing their range and the amount of life you will see. You might form stronger friendships as part of the process.
Bringing back indigenous life includes supporting indigenous people’s struggles to return and practice traditional land use. They may also be willing to advise non-Natives on best land practices.
People are actually doing this
Last week, I went for a walk in a couple of surrounding neighborhoods, and I was thrilled to see how many houses and schools had gotten rid of turf grass and planted native grasses and wildflowers and trees. Or maybe they just let nature take its course, but I could see butterflies and bees buzzing around, hear birds singing and smell the scent of wildflowers. These were small patches, but what a nice break from concrete and lawns!
Small lawns have their place
I’m not saying get rid of every square foot of grass. Yes, kids can have fun on a lawn, so small lawns are OK, but how much space do you really need for that? Kids and adults can also have fun observing life in the meadow; they can eat the food they raise in a patch. They can learn about life from helping things grow, or observing what grows best where, and why.
Lawns are like highways. They’re like military establishments. There were reasons for them, some good and some sick. But it’s time to cut them way back now. There are so much better ways for land to be.
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