Defending Your Turf

Manicured plots or bountiful meadows? America re-examines the grass on the other side of the fence.

It was during the early months of our marriage that the shocking truth became clear: My new husband zig-zagged. With the lawn mower, that is. Just weeks after our spring wedding, he dutifully set out to mow the lawn around the old New England house we’d just moved into. When he was finished, patches of unmowed grass and wildflowers remained throughout the yard. I was horrified.

I come from a family of straight shooters, one that prides itself on a manicured lawn. I learned early on that cutting unwavering overlapping strips through an unruly lawn is therapeutic. My husband, on the other hand, scorned such perfectionism. He has a passion for color, variety – and nature. To him, mowing down bursts of dandelions, forget-me-nots, snowdrops, and other wildflowers was a crime. We were, it seemed, hopelessly at odds. I worried about our radically different approaches to mowing. Did a sloppy lawn suggest larger character flaws? Had I married the wrong man?

I survived that first summer – hastily cutting down the offensive tufts just before company arrived. Then, on our first wedding anniversary, I found a note slipped under the door of my home office while I was working. “Step out on the balcony for a surprise,” it said. When I did, I looked down on a huge yellow heart – a mass of buttercups in full bloom – carved out by my husband’s mowing artistry from an otherwise neatly cropped lawn.

That was the beginning of my conversion – or at least my softening. No longer am I a strictly geometric mower. I’ve even been known to leave behind flower-filled tufts. And my husband has proven he can mow a pretty mean straight line – if important company is coming. We’ve managed to resolve our turf wars and remain happily married. But for many people, it turns out, the battle is in full swing.

Arguments in favor of lush lawns are being met with rebuttals in defense of carefree meadows.

Not long ago on “The Connection,” a popular Boston radio show, people from Cape Cod to Iowa called in to defend their turf. You can’t play baseball in a meadow, argued the lawn enthusiasts. You can’t barbeque, run through the sprinkler, or squiggle your toes. Nor can you inspire the admiration – and envy – of your neighbors. But, countered the meadow champions, why waste time and money battling your way to an unnatural weed-free green carpet, when you could encourage wildlife, create something naturally beautiful, and do your part to curb the use of water and pesticides that go into lawn care?

It wasn’t always this way. For more than a century, there has been little debate. America has been completely in love with lawns. It began in the 1880s, with the arrival of the lawn mower. Unlike the sheep they gradually replaced, the new fangled cutting machines mowed down just about everything. Lawn lovers could now lavish fastidious attention on their plots.

During the early decades of the 20th century, maintaining that swatch of green around the house became far more than a pleasing pasttime. It was an obligation indicative of moral character. In her book,The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, Virginia Jenkins notes that any worthy member of society was out to “achieve the perfect front lawn that would announce that the owner was a good neighbor, a good citizen, and a good family man.”

After World War II, the lawn came to be a symbol of the peaceful, stable community and the family values that had been disrupted by the war. “Adversiters pictured the lawn as nurturing, welcoming, beautiful, and safe,” notes Jenkins. “By the second half of the 20th century, front lawns had become truly ubiquitous in America, a cultural landscape unquestioned at all levels of society.”

Lawn enthusiasts could choose from a menu of chemical enhancements that could control weeds, kill insects, and create a greener lawn. American homeowners had access to newly manufactured chemicals – thanks to the war.

Seed choices have also multiplied. In 1954 there were still just two Kentucky bluegrass varieties on the market. Today there are more than 100. The one perennial ryegrass available in 1960 now comes in an astonishing array of nearly 300. During the postwar years, as suburbia spread across the country and emerald golf courses became the standard to which everyone aspired, the pursuit of the perfect lawn became, as the title of Jenkins’ book suggests, an obsession. For many it continues.

At Susan Perren’s house just outside Washington, D.C., nobody is allowed to touch the lawn – except her. Not her husband. Not even her son, who runs a business maintaining other people’s lawns. Perren is a woman with a passion for grass. She mows her suburban quarter acre four or five times each week, varying the pattern each time. She waters deeply every few days. And she has devised a meticulous annual maintenance schedule. In February she puts down weed killer to get a jump start on the crabgrass. In April she fertilizes. Several times a year she scatters compost with a bowl, works it into the soil, then waters it down.

Her system works. Last year, she won the All-American Lawn Contest sponsored by outdoor power equipment engine manufacturer Briggs & Stratton and Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse. When the big winner’s sign went up in her yard, she began to pick up landscaping jobs. Plus, she converted her neighbors. “The ones across the street listen to everything I tell them,” she says. “And the ones next door – they never used to do anything. Now the couple fights over who’s going to mow.”

Perren epitomizes the American love affair with lawns. She is not alone. The spring 2000 issue of Scotts Lawn Care magazine – offering “Helpful do-it-yourself information since 1928” – features testimonials from lawn devotees. “Thanks, Scotts. You’ve made my lawn the talk of the neighborhood,” writes Paul Altamura from East Windsor, New Jersey. Next to his quote is a snapshot of his perfect lawn. “We never tire of the compliments and people telling us we have the most beautiful lawn on the block,” write Nola and Bob Laughery from Connelsville, Pennsylvania.

In their effort to keep the country’s suburban carpet thick and green and well trimmed, lawn enthusiasts tackle their turf with a dizzying array of gear. Sears, the nation’s largest supplier of lawn equipment, offers more than 600 items, from catch bags and mulch kits to aerators and dethatchers, from sweeper attachments and vacuums, to rollers and sprayers – the list goes on. According to the Environmental Protectoin Agency, Americans also pour 70 million pounds of chemicals on their lawns each year. And hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. A 1,000-square foot lawn, for example, demands 600 gallons of water each week to keep it green. These are the statistics that make the anti-lawn crowd cringe. They are convinced there’s another way.

Neil Diboll, of Westfield, Wisconsin, mows his yard maybe once a year. What little grass he has is a low-maintenance fescue. But most of his property is devoted to a native meadow landscape that requires no maintenance whatsoever. Diboll was predicting that meadows would become popular some twenty years ago when he was just taking over Prairie Nursery. “People told me, it’s a fad,” says Diboll. “It’ll never amount to anything. But it was obvious to me that meadows make economic and environmental sense.”

Which explains why Diboll has developed a loyal corporate following. “Why have 15 acres of grass just for huge flocks of geese to walk around and poop on, when you can have a beautiful, maintenance-free meadow?” he asks. “We have clients who have converted from lawns to natural landscapes, saving tens of thousands of dollars a year.” Most customers, though, choose meadows to get chemicals out of their habitat and to create balanced ecosystems for wildlife.”We look at it as joint venture with nature,” Diboll says. “We try to work with nature, meet her half way.”

Diboll is one of the leaders in the alternative lawn movement, but he refuses to be labeled an “anti-grass man.” “I find the ‘us against them’ approach divisive,” he says. “I think there are places for everything.” Even when you have neighbors? “We recommend a buffer zone of mowed grass along your property line,” says Diboll, whose nursery helps design and install meadows for many homeowners in suburban settings. “You have to use appropriate plantings, he says. “Don’t antagonzie people by planting eight-foot grasses. Go with something appropriate to the space.”

Diboll’s nonconfrontational approach is reflected in the language of meadows themselves. Perusing the Prairie Nursery catalogue is like reading poetry. Sky Blue Aster, Nodding Pink Onion, Lavendar Hyssop, Purple Prairie Clover, Pasture Rose, Yellow Coneflower – the gentle rhythm of the names conjures up visions of scattered color like dabs of paint in an undulating sea of green. “If you’re diversity oriented, if you can relinquish a small amount of control, you might be a candidate for a meadow,” Diboll says. “But if you’re a control freak, keep your lawn.”

Keep your lawn, but lose the chemicals. That’s the philosophy at Gardens Alive!, a mail- order company catering to homeowners who can’t bear to give up their lawns, but want a more natural approach. “Our customers are hearing about the dangers of traditional lawn care and wanting to do it the environmentally correct way,” says Walter Logan, director of marketing for Gardens Alive! The company’s all-natural answer to traditional “weed-and-feed” inorganic products is Wow Plus, a mixure of corn gluten meal and animal and plant byproduct fertilizers designed to control emerging weeds and feed the soil, not just the plant itself.

Traditional turf enthusiasts disagree that chemicals themselves are a problem. “There’s an awful lot of lawn bashing going on these days,” says John McPhail of Gold Star Turf Farm in Canterbury, New Hampshire. McPhail likes to tick off the environmental values of the lawn, including the fact that 2500 square feet of lawn produces enough oxygen for a family of four. He also emphasizes that the real problem is not with the chemicals themselves, but with their application – specifically with homeowners who operate on the principle that if some is good, more must be better.

Whichever side of the chemical issue you’re on, everyone agrees on one thing: mow high. “We tell our students, ‘The higher the shoot, the deeper the root,'” says Pat Vittum, an entomologist at University of Massachusetts. Vittum explains that most lawn problems come from dropping the mowing height, which stresses roots and creates damage. “We seem to have this need to beat our lawns into submission by mowing once a week, but that really shocks it.” Keep it up, says Vittum and your lawn will be dead by the end of the summer.

The simplest solution to all this agonizing about lawn upkeep, of course, is to go the meadow route. And more and more people are doing just that. Diboll estimates that the planting of prairie on private land has increased more than ten times in the past fifteen years. “And the demand for prairie plants and seeds has never been stronger,” he says.

Even committed champions of the lawn agree that America’s vast green carpet is destined to fray about the edges. “The lawn will shrink, no doubt about it,” writes Warren Schultz, in A Man’s Turf: The Perfect Lawn, “and be replaced by meadows, prairies, woodlands, and hardscaping.” But Schultz also argues that, despite mounting criticism, we need our lawns. “Perhaps not putting-green short and totally weed-free,” he acknowledges. “But we do need the lawn, not just for our psychological well-being, not only for its practical value, but because of its aesthetic virtues as well.”

So while it seems certain that meadows will continue to crop up across the country, it also seems unlikely that Americans will ever give up their lawns completely. Who can explain what it is that draws us to our green spaces? Clearly there’s a satisfaction, a meditative quality in the simple act of mowing that nothing else quite matches. My friend John Tibbetts is particularly attached to an old electric mower he inherited. His favorite time to mow? After dark. He plugs in his machine, adjusts the miner’s headlamp his wife gave him for his birthday one year, and off he goes, silently communing with his lawn beneath the night sky.

We all have our lawn anecdotes, our favorite childhood memories, our stories. And, as the years go on, we will undoubtedly develop stories of our meadows – of butterflies and birds looping among the flowers, of breezes bending through the long, unmowed grasses. And more and more of us, it seems, will show off lawns filled with clover and other natural plants, maintained only by mowing, composting, and judicious watering.

So, no matter how you mow it – five times a week or once a year, one thing seems clear: Americans remain passionate about their personal plots. Short or long, weed free or flower-filled, in the midst of a changing lawn ethic, our love of the land remains. It is, you might say, our common ground.