Your granddad’s wall-to-wall carpet lawn doesn’t have to be yours.
In the 40-some years since I began lawn care consulting there’s been a subtle but fundamental change towards a more forgiving approach of what a lawn actually is.
In just four generations we’ve gone from a mow-what-grows mishmash of various low-growing grasses and spreading wildflowers, to my grandparents’ era of newly-available, inexpensive gas-powered mowers and herbicides that enabled nearly anyone to have a neater lawn.
Throw in a heavy barrage of lawn product promotions that implied weeds were an enemy and social-shamed us into doing everything necessary to have a lush monocrop lawn. Go online and you’ll uncover countless studies and books on this wildly successful marketing phenomenon.
Trouble is, with rising costs in equipment, labor, fertilizers, herbicides and irrigation, and concerns over environmental issues, even folks who can afford to pay professionals to maintain their landscapes are questioning unsustainable lawn values. Fewer people feel that their social prestige is tied to the appearance of their lawn.
The never-ending Sisyphean tasks required to maintain a horticultural monocrop lawn is no longer the one true way.
Anyway, I’ve written before about the new laissez-faire atmosphere of tolerance for “meadow lawns” with their generous wiggle room for imperfection, color, beauty and attraction to pollinators and other wildlife. The popular push for this laid-back lawn style that deliberately embraces low-growing winter bulbs and wildflowers is being widely promoted at botanic gardens, flower shows and websites.
Granted, this isn’t for everyone; some people can’t breathe without order and perfection.
But truth is, the allure of easy fixes, including counterintuitive “weed and feed” concoctions (which work about as well as a sugary toothpaste), is fading. Herbicides really don’t work well in March on mature wildflowers, and can damage the lawn’s tender early growth. Experienced gardeners understand that and simply mow, which kills most weeds anyway.
But there is a way for these competing concepts to coexist, taking a cue from golf courses, of all places, which have three tiers of turf: Tightly-manicured putting greens, less perfect fairways, and mow-what-grows roughs, which are cut just every now and then. What makes them work is about size and shape.
I see this in English gardens, which typically have a small maintained turf carefully edged with low borders, small ditches or just mulch apart from the larger, less-intense lawn that’s mowed higher or less often; these larger areas right now are carpets of snowdrops, crocus and small daffodils, usually with meandering paths mowed throughout for contrast.
A respectable Mississippi landscape can have both types, too, by carving out a small lawn within the larger, freer area of rougher grass, mulch or flowers.
Right now, mine includes miniature jonquils, Tete a Tete daffodils, purple grape hyacinth, blue starflower (Ipheion, a very low bulb from my horticulturist great-grandmother’s meadow lawn), a few clumps of white clover, pink oxalis and even transplanted dandelions, henbit and violets.
They peak in the winter and early spring, and disappear with just one or two mid-spring cuttings as if they’d never been there at all.
This isn’t just giving up, or lazy. A smaller, edged manicured lawn really shines and is easier to maintain at a high level, leaving the meadowish area to look deliberate and more acceptable. Plus the butterflies.
At first, this may take some tactful convincing in covenant-controlled neighborhoods, so for social goodwill pay closer attention to make the manicured area really shine.
The world-view of lawn size, style and care is lightening up; it’s no longer de rigueur to tend a uniform wall-to-wall carpet, when a throw rug will do.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.