Going Green in The Big Dry
July 30, 2012
Is this hilarious or sad? Don’t get me started on the tyranny of lawns. Ok, well, you did get me started, so here I go.
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When this summer’s drought turned her prized lawn brown, Terri LoPrimo fought back, but not with sprinklers: She had it painted green, making her suddenly lush-appearing yard the envy of her neighborhood.
The Staten Island, N.Y., resident and her husband, Ronnie, hired a local entrepreneur to spruce up their yard by spraying it with a deep-green organic dye. By Monday, the couple’s property was aglow with newly green blades of grass and no watering needed to sustain it.
“It looks just like a spring lawn, the way it looks after a rain. It’s really gorgeous,” said LoPrimo, a 62-year-old retiree.
With two-thirds of the nation covered by a drought that stretches from coast to coast, residents and businesses in normally well-watered areas are catching on to the lawn-painting practice employed for years in the West and Southwest to give luster to faded turf.
LoPrimo paid $125 to green up her roughly 830-square-foot lawn. She said it was worth every penny to keep her home of 33 years graced by an attractive yard.
Of course, there were residents of Southern California who didn’t bother with lawns. They filled their yards with green concrete, gravel, or redwood chips. But these people were about as popular as homeowners who parked pickup trucks in the front yard or kept their Christmas lights up year-round. They had violated the iron rule of lawns, which may be stated as follows: SHORT, GREEN GRASS IS THE ONLY NORMAL, RESPECTABLE THING TO HAVE IN YOUR FRONT YARD .
Nancy and Walter Stewart of Potomac, Maryland, discovered this truth in 1986. That was the spring their tractor mower broke down one time too many, and they decided to let most of their seven-acre yard grow. Soon shaggy meadow grasses and wildflowers overtook the lawn. The Stewarts loved the natural look and the low maintenance—twice-a-year mowing and no watering or pesticides. But in their posh Washington, D.C., suburb the meadow garden stuck out like a jalopy up on blocks. The neighbors were furious. One sent an anonymous note calling the yard “a disgrace to the entire neighborhood.” Someone started a fire in it. The county cited the couple under its weed ordinance. After the Stewarts threatened a legal challenge- Nancy is a U.S. Justice Department attorney—the county finally amended its weed law to permit meadow gardens with a mowed strip surrounding them.
The Stewarts’ is only the most recent of several well-publicized cases over the past decade in which meadow gardeners have had to fight in court for their unorthodox lawns. They tout the economic and environmental advantages of going natural, and they may have reason on their side. But law and tradition favor this country’s forty-five million lawns covering some thirty million acres. In many communities, if you grow your grass too long, a homeowners’ association may cut it for you and send you the bill. The Stewarts got to keep their meadow, but they didn’t win much understanding from their neighbors. Nancy summed it up: “Every father was once a son who had to cut the lawn. If we are right [about meadow gardening], then what have they been doing for the past fifty years?”
There’s also the lawn-as-display hypothesis, which holds that the modern lawn originated on the estates of the British aristocracy and was copied first by upper-class Americans, then by the middle class, and finally by the working class, so that even our tiny cottages and bungalows feature estate lawns shrunk to throw-rug size. Thorstein Veblen touched on this idea in his classic 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class .
Veblen explained the lawn as an example of conspicuous consumption. In an age that valued land for its productivity, the lawn’s nonproductivity was the whole point. It advertised its owner as rich enough to own land that he didn’t have to put to practical use. A status-conscious American of Veblen’s time would never have allowed a cow to graze on his lawn; “the vulgar suggestion of thrift” would have undercut the lawn’s purely decorative function.
Even if some or all of the above hypotheses do explain our attachment to it, let’s not overlook the lawn’s obvious pleasures. Some of childhood’s fondest memories are linked to lawns: the tickle of grass beneath bare feet, cooling off under sprinklers, stretching out on the turf to watch the clouds drift by. The lawn’s dense, springy texture makes a good playing surface for games ranging from football to badminton. It feels lush and cool on a hot summer day. It eases some of the worst aspects of development, absorbing noise, dust, and glare. It has a soothing and inspiriting effect on people. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, University of Michigan psychology professors, cite studies indicating that hospital patients who have a view of grass and trees recover faster than patients who don’t. And a survey conducted by the Kaplans found that office workers who see nature scenes from their windows suffer less stress than co-workers with poor views. Looking at what Stephen Kaplan calls “nearby nature,” including lawns, “improves people’s quality of life, their peace of mind, their effectiveness.”
If you’ve spent any time at all going through gardening books, you’ll have read that the lawn should be picture perfect, a beautiful frame for your home, or words to that effect. The idea that landscapes should look like paintings came to us from Britain. In the eighteenth century British landscape architects rejected the formal landscaping of the Italians and the French in favor of more naturalistic effects. Drawing inspiration from the imaginary landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, William Kent, Lancelot (“Capability”) Brown, and, later, Humphrey Repton planned and supervised landscapes that mimicked nature’s irregularities, with winding paths and asymmetrically placed clusters of trees set into verdant lawns.
These naturalistic (not to be confused with natural) effects were achieved with considerable contrivance, including the diverting of streams, the tearing out and replanting of trees, the creation of lakes, and, in one instance, the demolition of a village that spoiled the view. The goal was a romanticized version of the countryside that blended into its surroundings to create a beautiful picture.
Right. I’ve got a lawn. I live in a typical, I hope, more efficient than average, well built, 50’s style ranch house, on a typical tree lined street. When we moved here in 1993, I did a couple things. A) bought my first compact fluorescent for the kitchen overhead light – expensive but lasted for a dozen years…and B) started the process of converting the flat expanse of green surroundings into something more interesting. Every year, the patch of lawn I have to mow as a courtesy to my neighbors gets smaller and smaller, and the surroundings get more soothing to visitors, and more interesting to birds, bees, and other critters in the vicinity.
Finally, I bought a Neuton electric mower. No more gas, stink, oil change or maintenance. Much quieter too.