Driving south on Naper Boulevard from the East-West Tollway you’ll see a string of houses plopped on grass trimmed so short it hurts just to look at it. Grass, even Kentucky bluegrass, is humiliated by harsh mow jobs. It wants to grow tall, have flowers, have sex the same as any plant. But mowing prevents the messy sexual parts of the grass from ever forming. In his recent book Second Nature Michael Pollan jabs, “Lawns are nature purged of sex and death. No wonder Americans like them so much.”
That’s just the first reason those Naperville lawns make me wince. The grass plants’ roots are stunted from years of too-close mowing, leaving them sitting ducks for drought and disease. And yet the grass has it good compared with everything else that tries to live there. Any plant that isn’t a grass is poisoned by the home owner. Insects bold enough to enter the yard are gassed with chemicals or electrocuted by bug lights. In short, when it comes to the lawns in Naperville–in fact, lawns everywhere–nature is under totalitarian rule.
More than 50,000 square miles of America–an area larger than the state of Indiana–are mowed grass. The preferred lawn grass, Kentucky blue, is found in every state in the union and every county in Illinois. It’s by far the most common plant in the Chicago region, according to Morton Arboretum botanists Gerould Wilhelm and Floyd Swink. And it isn’t even native to America–its’ Eurasian.
Like any subject of a dictatorship, a lawn requires rigorous control or the system breaks down. The average home owner spends 40 hours a year keeping the lawn firmly in hand through mowing. Conventional lawns are also expensive: Americans spend $30 billion every year on seed, sod, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, sprinkler systems, weed whackers, lawn dye, mowers, leaf blowers, professional treatments, and God knows what else to maintain lawn and order.
But on the corner of Naper Boulevard and Staunton Road is a yard that isn’t like the others. The landscaped prairie around the house stands out like the only healthy finger on a hand of sore thumbs.
This lawn belongs to Patricia Armstrong, an advocate for natural yards. Her front lawn isn’t a green blanket of Kentucky bluegrass or any other turf grass. It’s buffalo grass, a plant native to western prairies that doesn’t need mowing because it grows short naturally, an adaptation evolved to prevent its critical parts from being munched off by bison.
The shortness of the grass in the front is a nod toward tradition, but in the back and side yards more than 200 species of native plants flourish at varying heights. Pale purple coneflowers bloom next to lilies that brush against switchgrass. Wild plum trees frame the deck. With different wildflowers in bloom all through the season the place is spectacular in the warm months. When I was there in the winter I was struck by the contrast between it and the neighbor’s gray dormant lawn. Armstrong’s yard was full of fruits, seedpods, strawberry-blond grasses, and wild birds attracted by the food.
Her yard makes so much sense that it’s hard to imagine why the suburban paradigm for short grass lawns exists. Many improvements to the environment are bitter pills: organic produce costs more, recycling bins take up space, unbleached and undyed cotton is boring after the first shirt or two. But Armstrong’s environmentally correct lawn is far more beautiful than a conventional lawn–there’s no negative trade-off.
The writers of Redesigning the American Lawn, a book by three Yale professors that came out last year, call the conventional lawn of one species of grass mowed short the Industrial Lawn, because of its dependence on heavy industry to support it. Any monoculture–an artificially constructed ecosystem with just one plant in it–is in a precarious and weakened position. So the Industrial Lawn needs fertilizers and sprinklers to keep it green. And pesticides to fight off fungi and insects. Most Industrial Lawn owners also use gas-powered lawn mowers, which this summer have been attacked by the EPA as terrible polluters: a typical two-cycle mower engine emits in one hour the same amount of pollutants as the average car produces when it’s driven 350 miles.
Armstrong’s yard requires none of these aids from corporate America and has only positive effects on the environment. Yet planting this type of yard does require a lot more thought and planning time. And patience. The first couple of years a prairie yard doesn’t look like much. Once it’s established, you don’t have to weed, water, or fertilize, but that’s three or four years away. And the first years require as much if not more work than a conventional lawn. You have to know you’re going to stay in one place for a while to make the effort worth it–and the average American home owner doesn’t stay put that long.
There’s also an unnerving unpredictability to a prairie lawn. I know just from my experiments with gardening in a tiny urban space–I don’t have a lawn of any type because I don’t have land–that some plants do well while others that you have great hopes for wither and die. A plant you thought would politely grow knee-high with delicate flowers will sometimes grow higher and bigger than your head. Things move around without your permission. Seeds scatter in places you didn’t expect and roots run underground, sprouting plants far from where you intended.
There’s a chaos in a prairie lawn that’s mostly pleasing, but at times it’s bound to be disturbing. In gardening in general there’s an ongoing intellectual challenge in analyzing where to draw the lines between your will and nature’s whims. This debate is mostly absent in an ordinary lawn.
In other words, planting and maintaining the prairie lawn forces a person to think in a way that mowing doesn’t. When I had a lawn to mow, I thought of it as a single entity. I didn’t think of it as a collection of plants. I certainly didn’t think about it as 800,000 individual plants, which I now know it was.
Pollan writes in Second Nature, “If lawn mowing feels like copying the same sentence over and over, gardening is like writing out new ones, an infinitely variable process of invention and discovery.”
Since the yard is the place that most people’s major interactions with the natural world take place, wouldn’t it be great if it were a more engaging relationship than a human being plodding around in straight lines back and forth, pushing an engine that cuts off the sex organs of plants? Rather than being mindless dictators over dull monocultures, home owners could become participants in diverse ecosystems.
Of course since I don’t have to do the work, any Napervillians reading this will have to regard it as merely a suggestion.