I live in Suburbia. I don’t care for it much, but I’m married to someone who thinks it’s the bee’s knees, so we’re staying for the time being. One of the things that drives me crazy about living in the ‘burbs is the lawn situation. Every time my husband spends money on something ridiculous like mulch or pine straw, I want to scream. Our HOAs require a certain level of upkeep in the yard, and I’m actually okay with that because it protects our home value from neighbors with horrible taste, but I’m counting the years until I can live on a piece of land all by my lone with no neighbors to worry about. The thing that burns me up about the lawn is that everything about it is at odds with what is good for both the earth and our souls.
Do you know the history of the lawn? Lawns were the idea of rich people in Europe as early as the middle ages. These fancy pants rich people wanted to show all the poor peasants that they did not need their land for food production because they were so wealthy. They used their land as a decoration with grass planted instead of crops and artfully carved shrubs instead of vegetables. Instead of livestock clearing the land, they paid peasants to clear it by hand with a scythe.
The lawn was a status symbol, and it still is. Can you afford to pay someone else to mow your grass? If so, you are most likely part of the middle class. The lawn has survived as a status symbol. Neighborhoods near me give out a monthly award for “Best Yard.” If you’re lucky enough to be chosen, you get a special sign in your yard all month long! (Someone hold my hair while I puke.)
Besides being a symbol of the Keeping Up with the Joneses culture, what’s wrong with lawns? Well, they’re pretty terrible for the environment. A lawn is basically a vegetative desert. Nothing grows except grass, and most of the time that grass is not a native variety which means it takes extra care to keep it alive. There is no diversity of vegetation which means that the number of animals that are supported by a lawn is nearly zero. There are ant hills, but that’s about it. The lawn is entirely different from the meadow. A meadow has hundreds of different types of plants all growing together. There are flowers for the bees, clover for the bunny rabbits and the deer, and all kind of things I can’t even name that grow right alongside the grass and provide food sources for small animals like mice and moles and the birds of prey that hunt the mice and moles.
Then there’s the issue of water. We in the suburbs use a lot of water to keep our lawns green. And to what end? Lawns do nothing except look pretty. They do not produce food, they do not contribute to a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals, and they’re a bit boring if you ask me. Meadows, on the other hand, have a diverse enough cover of crops that even in periods of reduced rainfall, some plants will still thrive. Meadows do what nature intended. Lawns do not.
If you think that we no longer need meadows, do some reading on the situation of the bee population in North America. It’s terrifying. Bee colonies are disappearing right before our eyes, and the people who know bees have attributed this in part to vanishing food sources. People simply aren’t growing enough flowering plants to feed them, and we’ve turned the meadows into lawns. Most people in the ‘burbs plant a few flowers in the front yard, but most of the yard is dedicated to grass which is useless to bees. Bees pollinate our food crops. Without bees, we starve. That makes me want to run right to the garden store and buy some flowers to plant.
Besides being terrible for the earth, lawns are terrible for our souls as well. What on earth could I possibly mean by that? For starters, most of us pay someone else to care for them. That means we have very little connection to the piece of land we’re living on. Someone else mows, someone else rakes the leaves, someone else carts the leaves away. We do not experience the changing of the seasons right along with our yards. We don’t pay much attention to the greening of the grass in spring, the leaves falling in autumn or the gradual change to brown in winter. We notice that our landscaping bill gets cheaper in the winter, but that’s about it.
We have two large trees in my front yard. Last summer my husband mentioned wanting to chop them down because the shade cast by their branches was killing the grass. I basically lost my mind and told him I would move out and never speak to him again if he cut down those trees. We are supposed to have trees. Trees oxygenate the earth, they provide nesting places for birds, and they root deeply into the soil and prevent erosion. We need trees. Guess what we don’t need more of? Non-native Grass!
I believe that there is something innate in us that is satisfied when we tend the earth. If you want to get biblical, God told Adam and Eve to tend the Garden of Eden. Our yards are our very own little Edens, and we neglect them. My husband wanting to chop down our beautiful trees is the perfect example of how clueless we become about how best to care for the earth when we don’t tend our own personal Edens.
If you’re like me and you want your yard to be more of an ecosystem and less of a status symbol, here are some ways you can transform from useless lawn to personal Eden…
- Plant flowers that bees love. This one is great because you don’t have to rip up your whole yard to do it. Most suburban homes are already landscaped with flower beds. It’s just a matter of filling them up with things that flower and feed the bees.
- Plant a vegetable garden. I have a small veggie garden, just 4 raised beds in my side yard. (I had to talk my husband into it because it involved killing grass.) I plant simple, easy to grow things like sunflowers, tomatoes and pole beans. I’m certainly not on my way to being self-sufficient by any means, but my kids are learning about gardening and I get tasty tomatoes in the summertime. The sunflowers are beautiful and I love sitting on my back porch and watching the birds pick the seeds from the heads of the flowers.
- Plant trees. If you’re in a warm climate zone, you can plant fruit trees. If you’re more temperate like me, you can plant something ornamental like Japanese Maple or flowering dogwood. Not only will it look pretty, it provides a habitat for animals and birds as well. Plus, the more of your yard that’s covered in trees, the less of it you have to mow!
- Put out bird feeders. Feeding the birds has been one of the best, most interesting things I’ve done in my yard. We have two feeders in the back corner of my backyard, and the whole family enjoys watching the birds. We get mostly cardinals, finches and chickadees, and it’s fun to watch them land on the bird feeder for a snack or peck around underneath it for leftovers. Even my golden retriever likes watching them. (If you put up a bird feeder, make sure you keep filling it. Birds will come to rely on it as a food source, especially in winter, and if you stop suddenly it will be bad for them.) We also have two hummingbird feeders on our back porch. Hummingbirds are fascinating to watch. They are territorial, so one will come in for a drink and another will dive bomb him. They are vibrantly colored and very beautiful!
If you have other ideas on how to transform your suburban lawn from a useless symbol to a thriving and beautiful mini habitat, please let me know! I’m always on the lookout for ways to be subversive in Suburbia!