Friday, January 23, 2009

Designing With Sustainability In Mind

  • Each new year is full of good intentions although I hesitate to call them resolutions. I will be more punctual this year. I will exercise more and eat healthier foods. I will start all my favorite vegetable plants from seed. I will not let the weeds get ahead of me – both in my own home garden – now occupied by non-gardener renters -- and in the vast landscape gardens that I tend in my job as a resident caretaker of a large estate. I will sustain my gardens and they in turn will sustain me.

    It’s a challenge to properly care for any garden. But especially middle-age gardens such as the ones I care for. The job requires understanding the vision of the designer and/or owner and performing tasks with the proper skills and timing. It is here that my intentions translate (hopefully) into well heeded resolutions. New gardens and landscapes have all their mistakes before them; middle-aged gardens display their mistakes for all to see. For instance, if I don’t control the rambling tendencies of Agastache, Monarda and Pennisetum alopecuroides then I’ll be forced to reclassify that area as a meadow. Of what use is that collection of lilacs screening the street if they barely bloom? That large grove of Pinus strobus has shaded them and needs thinning out to bring in more light. Designers and gardeners tend to think that gardens become picturesque and age gracefully over time. But the truth is that all landscapes need the intervening hand of a skilled practitioner who can reshape and rethink what was once implemented.

    Change is inevitable; trends come and go. For the past half century Americans fell in love with their pleasure vehicles as rural countryside was transformed from farmland into a landscape of suburban and urban sprawl crazy-quilted together with roadways and super highways. Along the way we’ve gotten lazy, fat, and now suddenly poorer. Goods and services once deemed essential -- listen up landscapers -- to our personal lifestyles and the economy are becoming unaffordable non-essentials for many. When W Bush took office a barrel of oil was $26.00; in July of 2008 the price for crude oil hit an all time high of $147.00/barrel before heading downward but heading who knows where?

    Clearly, from today forward, fossil fuels – and all the everyday essentials that depend upon them, such as transportation, housing, food – will grow increasingly more costly. Our current land pattern of living in single-family suburban homes, working in cities and getting to and fro via the private automobile has us in a real pickle: how can we transition away from our petroleum guzzling infrastructure and toward a more sustainable future? We’re not going to blow up our current suburban model, right? So let’s look at one issue we might all be able to actually influence – our designed landscapes.

    Many who employ sustainable thinking and practices are convinced that with diminishing oil supplies, climate change and economic irregularities, that it will not only be necessary but profitable for landscape professionals to embrace sustainable practices. What might the sustainable landscape of the near future look like…and how will they function? And just exactly what are sustainable landscape practices?

    “Sustainability” is such a buzz word today that it is in danger of being rendered meaningless, following in the footsteps of its predecessors, the vaguely defined “natural” and “going green.” Seemingly everyone is for “it,” yet few can really define what “it” is. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System defines object-oriented buildings as sustainable according to a standards ranking system (with a Plantinum rating being the best); ironically many of these highly rated sustainable buildings are built upon sites lacking in sustainable design practices, as are the majority of ordinary suburban homes.

    The Sustainable Sites Initiative ( ) – introduced by a partnership of the United States Botanic Garden, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – seeks to introduce guidelines for evaluating sustainable landscapes. The 179 page report includes a point system for rating a landscape as sustainable; much like the LEED system rates the sustainability of buildings. The Initiative seeks to address LEED-like requirements for landscapes by addressing issues such as water runoff from buildings and barring development within 100 feet of wetland areas. The report includes examples of successful restorative case studies where landscapes are created utilizing practices that protect and enhance soils, hydrology and vegetation, thereby protecting or improving the natural ecosystem. Locally, the Queens Botanical Garden, Flushing, New York, was applauded for designing systems where harvested rainwater supplies ornamental water gardens, and gray water – collected from sinks and showers – is purified by plants, and then utilized to flush toilets.

    In its report, the Sustainable Sites Initiative defines sustainability as land practices “that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The Initiative “envisions that sustainable land practices will enable natural and built systems to work together to protect and enhance the ability of landscapes to provide services such as climate regulation, clean air and water, and improved quality of life. The report’s authors spent considerable time “identifying the specific and measurable criteria a site would need to meet in order to be considered ‘sustainable.’” Committee members “deemed it essential to acknowledge that different regions of the country will have different requirements, and to develop performance benchmarks that would shift the market toward sustainability while remaining practical and achievable. The subcommittees also took human health and well-being into account as they developed the measures of sustainability because healthy ecosystems are the source of the many less tangible benefits that humans derive from a relationship with nature. Throughout, the goal was to identify criteria based on performance outcomes rather than prescriptive measures, to encourage innovation, inspire a change in thinking, and provide flexibility.” The report goes on to say that “the intents and concepts underlying the guidelines…can be applied right away to support new sustainable practices wherever possible – with the understanding that the benchmarks today are still a work in progress. By 2012, the Initiative “expects to have three stand-alone documents that will also supplement existing green building standards and rating systems.” The US Green Building Council, a major stakeholder in the Initiative, anticipates incorporating the benchmarks into future versions of the LEED Green Building Rating System.

    Unlike most of our current landscape practices, this Initiative views sustainability within the context of an ecosystem where a site addresses environmental, economic and social needs. A central message of the Sustainable Sites Initiative “is that any landscape – whether the site of a large subdivision, a shopping mall, a park, an abandoned rail yard, or even one home – holds the potential both to improve and to regenerate the natural benefits and services provided by ecosystems in their undeveloped state.”

    Our challenge, as each generation must do, in the words of educator, author and landscape architect J. B. Jackson is “to redefine the beautiful and move beyond a narrow visual concept of landscape.” For Jackson, “the function of the artistry and beauty of a landscape was to provide a meaningful setting for social life and individual fulfillment.” In a down economy the challenge for any business is to maintain profitability and to identify new markets. One such market clearly is the sustainable landscape field. What trends will designers and contractors need to consider in creating truly sustainable landscapes beyond the current “green” practices of utilizing “the right plant for the right place,” incorporating native plants, integrated pest management practices, zeriscaping principles, etc.? Practitioners ahead of the curve will focus not on exotic eye candy trinkets but on truly emerging sustainable practices that: conserve, collect and utilize on-site resources -- water, soils and energy; maximize local products -- compost, building materials, locally grown plants; products that do not require vast amounts of energy to harvest, process or ship—ie, avoid tropical woods such as Ipe, exotic stone from South America, or landscapes with features that require vast amounts of imported soils, water, or chemical inputs for survival. Designers and landscapers can and have driven the market for goods and services. And we can continue to do so by educating ourselves and our customers about truly sustainable landscapes.

    In my work with the Department of Ornamental Horticulture at Farmingdale State College, I am currently designing a Sustainable Garden component within their demonstration Teaching Gardens. The Department views this new garden area as the cornerstone of an expanded curriculum that will address contemporary issues central to the burgeoning sustainable landscape development movement, including:
    · Resource Conservation – The garden should seek to minimize or eliminate the outside input of water, fertilizer, topsoil, toxic pest control tools, etc.
    · Recycling Principles – The garden should pursue soil-building strategies that utilize composting and living mulches/cover crops while employing water retention techniques that collect and distribute rainwater.
    · Proper Plant Selection – The garden should feature plant material that illustrates the “right plant for the right place” principle. Plant selections that demonstrate wind/salt tolerance – coastal/roadside conditions, windbreaks, etc.; heat/cold tolerance – testing the limits of USDA plant hardiness zones; various soil types- disturbed, urban/engineered soil, wet, sandy/thin, etc.; animal/pest-resistant – deer-proof, insect-disease resistant varieties; some plants selected would be recent introductions, -- smaller in statute – and suitable for today’s smaller residential lot sizes and explore issues of native and introduced plants.
    · Product Development – The garden will explore the myriad ways that plants can offer benefits aside from ornamental beauty. These may include edible landscaping (bamboo, fruit, herbs), useful plants (structural bamboo, dye and fiber plants) and, perhaps, plants that may provide fuel products.

    Stay tune to these pages for continual updates about this garden, and others.

    Critics of virtually every present human managed system – agriculture, our energy usage, medicine just to name a few – object to current mainstream practices and label them as unsustainable. Despite what the status quo thinkers promote (“there is no environmental crisis”) what this really means is that each particular process or practice can’t continue indefinitely, without some major breakdown destroying the conditions required to keep it working. With so much talk of change being discussed – nationally and globally -- and welcomed by so many, seemingly the real test for us all will not be whether these systems will break down (in other words be unsustainable), but how can we enact the necessary changes to make sustainability real and more than just a buzz word.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Oiling a Slippery Slope Toward Economic Ruin or Turning Suburbanites Into Farmers?

I’ve been doing a lot of driving these past few months, after not driving at all for several months. Driving a pickup truck – without hauling goods – and using it like a passenger car is ridiculous and expensive. I’m not the only one weaned on cheap oil. For the past half century Americans fell in love with their pleasure vehicles as rural countryside was transformed from farmland into a landscape of suburban and urban sprawl crazy-quilted together with roadways and super highways. Along the way we’ve gotten lazy, fat, and now suddenly poorer. Goods and services once deemed essential (listen up landscapers) to our personal lifestyles and the economy are becoming unaffordable non-essentials. When W took office a barrel of oil was $26.00; today the price is $112.00/barrel and heading for $200.00.

Clearly, from this day forward, fossil fuels – and all the everyday essentials that depend upon them, such as transportation and food – will grow increasingly costly. Our current land pattern of living in single-family suburban homes, working in cities and getting to and fro via the private automobile has us in a real pickle: how can we transition away from our petroleum guzzling infrastructure and toward a more sustainable future? We’re not going to blow up our current suburban model, right? So let’s look at one issue we might all be able to actually influence – our food.

A century ago almost 40 percent of the US population worked on farms. After industrialization, the rise of cities and the growth of agribusiness -- fueled by cheap fossil fuels -- less than 1 percent of the US population still farms for a living. One study points out that today one farmer grows enough food for 100 other people. But at what real cost and what exactly is the quality of our food? Mega farming in most cases equals mega reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Sure, we have made inroads with organic farming practices as many consumers clamor for a healthier diet and environment but Americans aren’t going to run back to farming as a way of life. Without some miraculous new energy source, might someday soon muscle power again be a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels for growing food? Could blunt economic pragmatism turn the average joe/jane into farming their suburban plot?

The silver lining of suburban sprawl is that suburbia occupies vast swaths of former prime US farmland. According to studies by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s ecological forecasting research group, suburban land already in use as lawn that is irrigated totals about 30 million acres. That’s three times the amount of land planted in irrigated corn. These lawns average between one-fifth and one-third of an acre. Intensive food growing proponents such as John Jeavons have proven that a substantial amount of food can be grown on small tracts of land. Suburbia has the land and the infrastructure and it’s right where the vast majority of people live. It would not be an overstatement to say that growing as much of your own food as possible can be the cornerstone for fiscal well being for many households. And you can grow the varieties of food you prefer and utilize sound sustainable practices to boot!

I’m not na├»ve enough to believe that 50 million Americans suddenly will become part-time home farmers or that our entire country’s food supply can be derived from former lawns, parks and golf courses. Rather, we need to rethink what we mean by “farming.” Is “farming” the cultivation of a mono crop (like corn for food or fuel) on thousands of acres of land powered by gigantic diesel-guzzling tractors? Or can it be vegetable gardens, edible landscapes and chicken coops incorporated within platted suburban neighborhoods? Surely I’m not the only one who sees that “farmers’ who grow substantial amounts of food for home use, and perhaps for sale to neighbors, as supplemental income, will be better equipped to thrive in our petroleum addicted culture – in the short term and beyond. So, as spring arrives, plan, then plant your new garden of hope: the edible yard!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Same As It Ever Was? Renewing the Landscape...

A major rap against landscape architects is simply that they don't know their plants. They may be able to devise landscape spaces but don't let them pick the plantings to go with those spaces. Can't say I disagree with this line of thinking in many cases for LAs often cram together selections that quickly bump into each other, or can't tolerate the dark, the dank or the blistering heat conditions they're put in. So plant lovers are often swayed toward the design of gardens by horticulturists whose very training is the understanding of plant requirements for proper growth, seasonal diversity, longevity, etc. Yet many horticulturists build a garden lacking context of a site and solely around plants, often times around mind-numbing collections of flowering plants or tightly clipped evergreen hedges. These gardens may wow us at brief times but more often than naught lack interest during the leaf-less months of the year -- a considerable portion of the calender year here in the Northeast. Further, these 'spaces' can be tricky to maintain properly: witness the degradation of so many residential landscapes by the 'mow and blow stewards' hired to care for them.

Well the groundhog saw his shadow recently and there are weeks of winter left before the ground thaws and many of us venture back outside again to enjoy outdoor living. Heck, it's snowing as I write this: a perfect time to contemplate what's wrong with our landscapes...(and ourselves). Maybe we need a new way of thinking...about combining spaces and create unique, soulful, site-specific intentionally designed landscapes. Fear not, if you search in the right places (hint: it's the start of "Flower Garden show season" here in the Northeast but don't look for inspiration there!) you'll find clues for how to do just that -- no matter where you live and what you love...we'll help you along the way in these pages by spotlighting designers who know design and plants. In the meantime contemplate these words by landscape designer Edwina von Gal:
"I think a lot of people should be forced to give up flowers for
awhile and create a landscape...people get distracted by flowers...they are just
the pillows and the ashtrays...people don't stop to think what makes a garden
last year round."

Friday, February 8, 2008

Where Do We Go With What We Have?

"Opinions are like assholes...everyone's got one" is a saying that rattles around my head constantly these days. I'm not really sure why, for it's an old familiar quote that I can't attribute to anyone in particular, though I first heard it perhaps twenty or more years ago while working as a contractor (btw: contractors have more witty and poignant sayings than philosophers, politicans and educators combined): maybe because it's an election year...or because the war continues to drag on...or because the economy is flailing, like some kid learning to swim in the ocean against the tide...or because the New Jersey Giants beat up on the New England Patriots...or maybe because I have just returned from a winter-time conference listening to 'experts' and pundits talk about the state of ecology, horticulture, business and humanity...seems everyone's got an opinion on where do we go with what we have...

Like politicians and economists, designers, builders, theorists and landscape gardeners realize everything is never quite what it seems, and so they gather together in their 'off-season' -- at least the thoughtful ones -- and wax poetic about "Creating Great Gardens;" "Re-Visioning the Landscape With An Ecological Approach;" "Building Raingardens;" "Organic Growth For Fun and Profit" and so forth. More and more these talks and conferences feature divergent schools of thought: those who see the world -- or at least their corner of it -- created largely by 'design' assessments predominated by aesthetic efforts deficient in environmental and social thinking (ie, exterior decorators armed with their bag of products); and those who look at the importance of building community and a sense of place (the whole-system processors). It can be great fun sometimes at such meetings to see how the divergent sides play it out. Like witnessing a horrific car accident and waiting for the ambulance to arrive, it's hard to turn away from the scene before you know the end result.

Anyone who has ever read any of these rants here knows which camp I align myself with. Yet it's become apparent to me that if one is to be truly educated in a liberal sense, one needs to be lucid, mindful and 'open' to be an effective designer. The profession of landscape design requires all to be artists, technicians, problem solvers, team players, writers, speakers, community builders, financial brokers, historians, ecologists, and more. If we are to get to the issues of our times we must dare to be bold and see across the boundaries within planning and design, architecture and landscape architecture, ecological and social, technical and theoretical. Our hardest challenge may be to sustain the basics and the fundamentals in a world that is operating under the mesmerizing and seductive umbrella of fast and ever-changing technology. And to remember that people are the most important building blocks of life. For as Henry David Thoreau said, "What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" As we approach the start of a new baseball season, I hope my friends who are fans of the New York Yankees keep those words in mind as the Boston Red Sox raise their world series banner over Fenway Park on a fine spring day in early April. "Opinions are like assholes, everyone's got one," right?

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Sense of Wonder: The Season of Winter is the Time to Plan for Making a Green Thumbprint!

"It's easy to describe the leaves in the Autumn, and it's oh so easy in the Spring, but down through January and February, it's a very different thing... "
Van Morrison

Gardeners and designers tend to have an appreciation of nature and in turn have a greater stake in the future of our environment. With all the development around us, and the general mass consumption of resources, more than ever, we must think globally and act locally and thoughtfully, and put into our daily lives a way of designing green landscapes with lower environmental impact.

One such simple way -- in the warmer months -- is to plant trees. Trees are the lungs of the planet. What we breathe out, trees breathe in. Considering the amount of carbon humans produce per year, not just from our lungs , but from automobiles and all the industries that produce all the things we love, we are fortunate that trees have the capacity to do this. A healthy mature tree can absorb upwards from 26-50 lbs. of carbon dioxide per year and exhale enough oxygen for a family of four.

So during this quiet, down time of year, when landscape gardeners rest, plan and plot for the coming season of growth and activity, plan now for lessening your own personal carbon footprint. Become aware of and support the efforts of local organizations that plant trees...and get involved planting your own (and your community's) trees.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball: Are We Serious About Sustainability and 'Going Green'...or Just Paying Lip Service?

There appears to be a growing fervent desire, even within 'mainstream circles,' to rid oneself of conspicuous consumption, and attempt to live a more austere lifestyle. Perhaps you have a friend who decided to forgo Christmas-time gift-giving, or even displaying a Christmas tree...or know someone who rides the bus or a bicycle to and from work (toting their lunch to boot!), lives in a downtown urban core, or nor matter where the locale, is espousing the virtues of voluntary simplicity -- a life free from clutter and 'things.' Perhaps not since the days of Henry David Thoreau, or the 1970's back-to-the-land movement, have some people expressed such deeply felt environmental convictions.

Some of these convictions, cynics (conservative-government soothsayers) point out have shallow foundations. Put aside the present 'tough economy' and environmental fervor will dissolve, er, melt as quickly as the polar icecaps...let technology lead us, and we will grow a new economy...for isn't that what some of our 2008 Presidential candidates would lead us to believe? As the saying goes, isn't the real issue "the economy stupid?" But even these candidates know our economy and the environment are interconnected. The overwhelming environmental issue of our times is the warming of the planet and what the potential ramifications are -- for the country and the globe. The Democratic candidates in the 2008 campaign seemingly call for large (but unspecified) national sacrifices and for a transformation in the way the U.S. produces and uses energy. The Republicans barely concede that climate change could be a problem, and with the exception of John McCain, offer no comprehensive solutions. If the politicians can't agree is it any wonder Americans seem unwilling to grapple with the implications of a lack of any serious strategy to reduce greenhouse gases? Think globally, act locally?

Are Americans willing to change their lifestyles to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and all things related? As reported in the New York Times on January 13, 2008, in an article entitled 'The Afterlife of Cell Phones,' "Americans threw out just shy of three million tons of household electronics in 2006. This so called e-waste is the fastest growing part of the municipal waste stream and...contains substances that, though safely sequestered during each product's use, can become hazardous if not handled properly when disposed." The article states that "the E.P.A. says that modern landfills are designed to keep toxics stewing inside from leaking out, so they don't contaminate surrounding soil or drinking water. But landfills do fail, says Oladele A Ogunseitan, an environmental-health scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and an author of last year's study. More important he notes, such landfills don't exist in the developing world. In many places, garbage is tossed into informal dumps or bodies of water or burned in the open air -- all dangerous ways of liberating and spreading toxics..." As with most environmental issues there are no simple solutions. Wherever humans go, it seems that something, somewhere, to some extent, always ends up being depleted or damaged.

How much are we willing to pay for energy to heat our homes, power our vehicles, fuel our landscapes? As global economic forces limit America's power and wealth what will the future bring? Are we serious about sustainability and 'going green'...or just paying lip service? If 'we' are serious then we better envision a way of living that's ecological in nature. In his Boston Globe Magazine article 'Tall Order,' Tom Keane suggests one possible solution: "Building tall is building smart...when land is expensive, it is far cheaper to build upward. The taller you go (at least until you hit 80 stories), the less the cost per square foot...newer skyscrapers are being designed in ways that dramatically minimize their impact on the environment, allowing them to achieve the highest rank possible ('platinum') under the LEED Green Building rating system. Water and heat are recycled. Solar panels reduce the need for outside energy. The entire life cycle of the building is managed, from construction to obsolescence, with some of the original materials getting reused to build other structures. This is all possible because of the building's size, which makes it economically feasible to do things that in a smaller structure would be far too costly. But even if a skyscraper isn't LEED certified, it is the way the building is used that makes it so profoundly green. When people are packed together, the services needed to support those people are easier and cheaper to provide. Less travel is required. Everything can be provided in bulk. That's why, as David Owen argued in a seminal New Yorker piece in 2004, Manhattan on a per capita basis may well be the most energy-efficient place in the country. The reason largely boils down to the fact that it is also the densest."

A number of us who employ sustainable thinking and practices are convinced that with diminishing oil supplies, climate change, economic irregularities, the rise of 'green buildings and green maintenance' that it will not only be necessary but profitable for landscape professionals to embrace sustainable practices. What might the sustainable landscape of the near future look like...and how will it function? What trends will need to be considered beyond the current practices of utilizing green roofs, native plants, composting, grey water recycling, zeriscaping, etc? As with most environmental issues there are no simple solutions. Stay tuned to these pages for further in-depth discussions...and let us hear from you!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lawns, Steroids and Roger Clemens: Reclaim Your Turf -- Reassessing America's Past Time!

Lawn grass requires an inch of water a week – a 25’ x 40’ lawn needs about 10,000 gallons per summer.

Americans are passionate about grass…and baseball. After today’s release of the George Mitchell report, American baseball fans are reassessing the merits of Roger Clemens’ long standing achievements and baseball’s abilities to deal with its own turf. Though it is almost winter, and a winter storm is bearing down upon us, and gardening minds here in the Northeastern United States are far removed from the boys of summer and lawns, it seems as appropriate as any time to reassess the lawn. I may have raved against paving but nothing gets me riled up as much as the American lawn…

Americans are passionate about grass. Just ask any homeowner about their lawn and you will quickly uncover their attitude about gardening, their home and neighbors.

I have no lawn, for reasons I’ll explain later, but my childhood recollections of grass are memorable: the pungent smell of grass-stained pants while playing football; the brilliant, blinding green grass of Fenway Park; earning pocket change cutting lawns in my neighborhood; my Dad always fussing and fiddling with our lawnmower, inevitably enlisting me to go and borrow the neighbor’s machine.

Today, more than thirty years later, my parents’ “lawn” is mostly moss, violets, clover and crabgrass. All the real grass is gone. A “good” lawn is no longer desirable, its present condition the result of neglect, old age, and shifting priorities. Yet when viewed from the driveway or the kitchen window, it still looks like and functions as a lawn (at least the Canadian geese, who forage there most spring seasons, haven’t complained.)

For me a “good” lawn is no lawn. I live on a small urban lot (6400 sq. ft) perched on a steep hill, with thin, sandy soil, not exactly ideal conditions for growing and maintaining grass. When we moved here awhile back, I spent the first two years methodically removing the existing grass (mostly crabgrass and pernicious dog grass), replacing it with big perimeter borders, giant sweeps of groundcovers, vegetable parterres, a rock garden, patio, driveway, even large expanses of mulch to smother the grass in the remaining areas, until we could get around to planting them. My goal was simple: get rid of the grass so I could spend my time growing food.

Many people spend and hour or two a week mowing the lawn. Some even claim to enjoy it. Others consider it drudgery, and look forward to it about as much as a visit to the dentist. But they do it anyway, for a variety of reasons (community peer pressure, status, familiarity, mass advertising by the lawn-care industry, zoning ordinances). And in some neighborhoods it must be a “good” lawn: a plot of grass of one species with no competing weeds, uniformly cut low, neatly edged, a dark even green color, sustained by regular doses of water, fertilizers and pesticides. These lawns use lots of energy and cost big money. As a culture, Americans are obsessed with their lawns. So much so that it is difficult for many Americans to imagine residential yards without large expanses of low-cut grassy areas.

But there are alternatives to the above scenario. The American landscape of the single family home surrounded by grass – our current model – became widely popular only after World War II, with the growth of suburbia. By the 1990’s, the collective size of lawns cultivated in the United States equaled the size of the state of Michigan! (For a fascinating read on the topic of how the lawn has single-handedly transformed the ordinary landscape in the 20th Century, see Virginia Scott Jenkins’ excellent book, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.) Regrettably, it only takes a generation or two to obscure history. Prior to the Civil War, it was rare for Americans to have a lawn. In most towns, houses were built close to the street, some with small fenced-in front yards. In rural areas, the farms, houses, and outbuildings were surrounded by fields, pastures, and gardens, or the packed, bare grounds of farmlands (Jenkins). European immigrants, accustomed to domestic living conditions where privacy is valued, oriented their gardens inward or behind the house. Yards often were enclosed by walls or fences, and the lawn was not seen from the street. Even now, in other cultures around the world, the idea of cultivating a lawn seems strange (Jenkins).

What do our uniformly-laid out front lawns say about our present American culture? For a growing segment of people, our residential landscapes need to change to reflect a new concern for ecology, responsible resource use and the choice of individual homeowners. Why have a lawn if you are not going to use it?

Who needs a lawn? Lawns are superb for serving as a multifaceted area in the yard for many activities – a play area for sports and kids, a place for the dog, picnics and barbecues. And they can be a time-saving device: simply mow it as needed and spend your free time doing more enjoyable activities. Yet most yards are either too small to effectively incorporate multiple activities, or so big that mowing becomes a serious chore. In most cases, you can get by with less lawn – or it you’re bold, no lawn – and increase the beauty and efficiency of your yard. Here’s how:

• Eliminate the lawn in areas where it simply won’t grow or is impractical. If you’re not sure where these areas are, go out and visually inspect your yard. Or better yet, think about those areas that are a pain to cut with your mower. Sloped terrain, areas where tree roots are exposed (trees will win the battle for water and nutrients), large shady patches of ground beneath mature tree canopies, soggy or seasonally wet soils, gravelly or very thin, sandy soils are difficult areas to keep grass growing.
• Eliminate grass in areas where it doesn’t improve aesthetic appeal. The front and side yard areas and entryways are such places. Reconsider those narrow foundation beds where you’re constantly cutting back (hacking and disfiguring) shrubbery when it protrudes into the lawn. Why not remove the lawn, extend the beds, and give plants room to grow a natural shape (This brings to mind another silly current American obsession: foundation plantings, where plants are crowded tightly together against the house and pruned into balls, boxes and lollipops. Why?)
• When you grow a lawn, switch to a polyculture of drought-tolerant and insect-resistant grasses and plants (the opposite of many lawns that have one or two varieties of grass, requiring a steady onslaught of chemicals and water to keep them lush and green. While there is no such thing as a natural lawn (think about it: lawns are inherently unnatural) you can build a lawn that requires less water, chemicals and care, and even one that flowers during the seasons!) The widespread hybridization of grasses and technological advances make it possible to grow grasses in every region of the country. Select a grass that will thrive in your existing conditions or modify your conditions to match the needs of a particular grass. Educate yourself about grass varieties and their cultural requirements. It’s interesting to note that most gardeners and homeowners know the names of at least some of the plants in their yards; yet for most people, grasses are anonymous, lumped together as one species, devoid of change and development. Choose grass varieties appropriate for your particular climate. Or consider an alternative to a lawn, such as a meadow or groundcovers. (see these pages soon for a listing of grass varieties and alternatives to grasses.)
• A successful lawn is dependent upon the ability to grow grass and the aesthetic desire to have one. If you want a lawn, improve your soil (this applies to everything you grow) and eliminate wasteful maintenance practices. This is contrary to the lawn-care industry practice of chemically inoculating a lawn, feeding the plant instead of the soil. Chemical fertilizers are like my morning cup of coffee. Once your lawn gets hooked, it will be irritable whenever it doesn’t get its “fix.” Soil science is complex and takes many years of hands-on work to fully understand, but if you want to raise a hardy lawn, start by enriching the soil. (For an explanation on how to improve your soil, look for an in-depth discussion in these pages come late winter!)
• Consider installing an irrigation system for both the lawn and ornamental/ vegetable areas. There are lots of do-it-yourself kits on the market or you can hire a professional to install one. The proper irrigation system will help conserve water but it’s up to you to water at the proper intervals. Avoid watering during the heat of the day or near dusk; early in the morning and late afternoon is best. When watering a lawn, try to keep excess water away from the foliage of vegetables, fruit trees, perennials and shrubs; this is a quick way to spread diseases. Better yet, replant your lawn with drought-tolerant plants and save the water for your valuable trees, shrubs and edibles.
• Finally, ask yourself two important lifestyle questions: What are my priorities for the yard? Do I have the time, interest, energy and money to devote growing large carpets of lawn? While it is undeniable that a freshly cut, well watered, dark-green lawn appeals to many and evokes a flood of pleasurable feelings, few people have the “know-how” to keep their own lawn looking consistently “good,” particularly in some geographic regions (the humid south and northeast, the arid southwest), or during weather extremes. And after all, why waste water on the lawn? If you’re serious about growing some of your own food in an edible landscape (as this writer is), it might not make sense to have a lawn (particularly if your yard is small). On the other hand, if your yard is sizeable – over 10,000 square feet of open space – or your time and gardening skills limited, a lawn can keep outdoor chores to a minimum. The down side: if lawns are not cut carefully, clippings go into borders, time-consuming edging must be done and the watering of the lawn can be detrimental to adjacent plantings (powdery mildew).

For a large segment of the population, a yard full of grass provides a connection to nature but keeps it at a safe distance. It’s alive yet fully under control. Ironically, under its duff in many a suburban development sits fantastic topsoil teeming with life built by generations of farmers who cultivated a complex and close relationship with nature. The soil life (and that of the farmers), snuffed out and forgotten, hermetically sealed in seemingly unending suburban plats, the lawns serving as coffins. The widespread proliferation of the lawn may very well be our number one cultural icon, supplanting more far reaching achievements of the latter 20th century – medical breakthroughs, air and space travel, the invention of the television and the personal computer. So next spring when the baseball season begins anew, resist supporting lawns and baseball players hooked on steroids; and instead, when visiting the ball park, or mowing your lawn, allow yourself time to imagine, to dream, about what has been and what could be. Reclaim your turf…by reassessing the lawn!