Time to rethink the hospitality of our lawns

“Anyone new to the experience of owning a lawn, as I am, soon figures out that there is more at stake here than a patch of grass. A lawn immediately establishes a certain relationship with one’s neighbors and, by extension, the larger American landscape. Mowing the lawn, I realized the first time I gazed into my neighbor’s yard and imagined him gazing back into mine, is a civic responsibility.” ~ Michael Pollan, “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns” (1989)

Thirty years ago, Michael Pollan was considering whether or not to buy into the belief that living the American dream in suburbia meant having a tidy lawn. By the end of the article, he had talked himself out of it, as have many other American suburbanites since the turn of the 21st century, including me. In Sunday’s Literary Gardener article (April 9, 2017), I provided a

The last remaining section of my front lawn

brief history of America’s love affair with lawns, and I outlined the disadvantages of maintaining a lawn in a world where civic responsibility has more to do with conserving water resources and cutting down on pollution than keeping one’s lawn greener and more manicured than the neighbors’.

There are three basic ways of getting rid of the grass in a front lawn – digging, solarizing, and smothering and composting. See

Bye-bye lawn!

Sunday’s article for information about digging, which is the fastest way to get rid of a lawn. This is the method I used because I want to plant new groundcover this spring and needed to amend my clay soil with 4-6 inches of compost and loamy topsoil. Although some gardeners use thesod as compost, I didn’t want grass seed to germinate in the soil so I didn’t keep the sod.

Solarizing the soil is another way to kill the grass, but this process takes 6-8 weeks for best results, and it needs to be done during July and August, the hottest months of the year. Solarization uses heat from the sun to kill grass, weed seeds and soil pathogens. The bad news is that solarization may also kill beneficial organisms, so it’s important to add them back into the soil with compost that contains lots of organic matter. If you choose to go the solarization route, wait until after the 4th of July, then mow the grass and water it thoroughly. Cover the grassy area with thick, 1.5-2 mil. clear plastic, making sure the sheeting comes in contact with the soil, and then secure the edges with soil or rocks. At the end of August, remove the plastic. You’ll still need to remove the dead grass, but it should be easier to dig out or till under if you plan to use the sod as compost.

Vinca minor groundcover I've trialed for a couple of years in my yard. I know it will grow well!

The third way to go lawn-less is by smothering and composting right over the grass, a method called sheet composting or lasagna composting. The best time for lasagna composting is the fall, to allow layers of carbon and nitrogen materials to decompose n during the winter. The new garden bed will be ready for planting in spring. The OSU Extension Service recommends the following procedure:

Use 4-6 layers of wet newspaper or cardboard for the first carbon layer over the grass, followed by a one-inch layer of a nitrogen source such as manure. Cover the nitrogen layer with an inch of shredded leaves, straw, bark or other carbon material, and then add another inch of nitrogen from kitchen scraps or green plant material left from summer produce. Continue adding layers of carbon and nitrogen until the total height of your “lasagna” is between 18 inches and three feet. End with a carbon layer to provide protection from flies and other pests. If the pile becomes too wet during winter, cover loosely with a sheet of black plastic and anchor with rocks or stakes. The bed will be ready for planting when the layers have decomposed so the materials are no longer recognizable. What’s left should smell like fresh earth.

According to Michael Pollan, humans may have a preference for open, grassy landscapes encoded in our DNA from millions of years spent evolving on African savannas. He suggests the “Savanna Syndrome” explains why people have been hell-bent for centuries on remaking the wooded landscapes of Europe and North America to look like the grassy plains of East Africa. “[T]he urge to dominate nature is a deeply human one, and lawn mowing answers to it,” Pollan says. For many folks, “the lawn mower as civilization’s knife” and our lawn is “a hospitable plane  carved out of the wilderness.”

It’s time to rethink just how “hospitable” our lawns really are.

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  • About the Author

    Rhonda Nowak

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. With more than 25 years of gardening experience and a Ph.D. in literature and language arts education, she combines a love for plants, poetry, and prose in her Literary Gardener blog. ... Full Profile
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