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A land of lawns

A nice piece of well-tended lawn is just the thing to introduce you to gardens, a patch of forest or perennial beds. A lawn is also a habitat for some creatures: robins thrive by using lawns as food buffets, as do rabbits (nasty nibblers) and swallows that swoop and dive for open-air insects.

A land of lawns

The problem with lawns goes beyond the "worst" weeds.

A nice piece of well-tended lawn is just the thing to introduce you to gardens, a patch of forest or perennial beds. A lawn is also a habitat for some creatures: robins thrive by using lawns as food buffets, as do rabbits (nasty nibblers) and swallows that swoop and dive for open-air insects.

Having just visited the U.S. Midwest I began to think about lawns in another way, however. Suburban houses were surrounded by perfect lawns. “Perfect,” that is, if you like trimmed, weed-free, thick turf with little signs on them saying, “Treated with pesticide.” Mixtures of fescues, bluegrass and perennial ryegrasses. Black medic – a legume – was one of the nastiest weeds, closely followed by the clovers and the curse itself: dandelion. 

Mother Earth News lists the worst weeds in this order: crabgrass, dandelion, bermuda grass, bindweed and chickweed; it also explains how to get rid of lawn weeds organically. Residents of Hamilton, Ontario, or Halifax, Nova Scotia (and many other cities), have no choice but to use approved organic methods because most herbicides are banned by law.

I think the problem with lawns is not weeds, however, but the mere ubiquity and extent of lawns. Folks who move to the country sometimes seem to be enamoured by lawns. They buy a small field and turn it into flower beds, shrubbery and massive stretches of lawn. In rural areas of the Midwest that I’ve seen, farmers have huge stretches of lawn surrounding their houses and buildings. These are not lawns mowed to “keep the grass down,” but lawns for looking at and for endless mowing.

Lawns are very poor at absorbing rain (ask anyone who tries to irrigate to keep lawns green): it takes large amounts of water to penetrate the sod to the soil below.

Roap map for change

If I were Gene Logsdon, “The Contrary Farmer,” I’d suggest that the suburban and rural lawns be turned over to vegetable production. Or perhaps that local children could be encouraged to produce organic corn and soybeans and given a subsidy for entrepreneurship and healthy food production. At the rate small-flock poultry is growing – especially in cities – a market for organic corn or small grain would be a sure thing and would not even need the encouragement of a subsidy.

Suburban and rural lawns are pretty but in many ways a blight. They use up land that could be home to wildlife, a source of food and a way to prevent floods. I envision suburban homes with community vegetable gardens (rather like the Victory Gardens of World War II) in front yards. I see yards with long grasses and mixed forbs among shrubs and native trees slowing run-off and increasing absorption of heavy rains. I see people living in wildlife refuges rather than visiting them. In my wildest dreams, I see people carefully and safely harvesting protein from deer, rabbits and wildfowl right from home as they simultaneously protect their plantings from too much damage.

Gene Logsdon is the Contrary Farmer. I’m content to be the Dreamer. A dreamer who loves lawns for their beauty, for the openings and edge habitat they front. I dream of farmsteads well-fenced, with livestock well-protected from coyotes and other predators, set in groves of trees, stretches of prairies or run-off catchments; and half-acres of productive gardens wild or tame.

Cornucopia, parks, backyard garden parties, orioles in the shade trees and the odd pheasant to bonk for next autumn’s Thanksgiving feast.
You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. 

About the Author
A land of lawns

Curt Gesch, Columnist

Curt Gesch is a farmer and writer living in Quick, B.C. He is a writer on environmental and agricultural topics. He and his wife Betsey attend the Anglican Church in Quick, which has a wood stove, no electricity, no bathroom, and which seats 33 people.