Front Yard Gardens: Growing More Than Grass was first published in 2003 and was an instant success, welcomed by gardeners who, like me, wondered why we were so dedicated to front-lawn monocultures kept green with pesticides and too much fertilizer when we could have biodiverse gardens that were not only lovelier to look at but were kind to nature. An updated and expanded edition of the book was released in 2010.
My message is still the same today. As one solitary gardener I may not be able to save the world from negative environmental practices, but I can practice what I preach in my own garden. And maybe, just maybe, other gardeners and their friends will take up the cause and we can weave together a network of poison-free, biodiverse, nature-friendly–and beautiful–gardens filling both the fronts and the backs of our properties. Then we can make a difference.
This excerpt is from Chapter Two, which addresses the history of pesticide use over the past century and offers solutions, including the movement toward pesticide bans which started in Hudson, Quebec, in 1991. The rest of the book is filled with practical examples of gardeners across North America (including me) who have removed their front lawns and created gardens of all styles, for environmental reasons or simply because they wanted more space in which to garden.
Esthetics may have been the primary reason I finally dug up the lawn and planted a front yard garden, but I did have other more lofty considerations. Over the years I’d come to consider our lawn more than merely boring: there seemed to be something wrong with it. The birds and the bees shunned it, the bugs stayed away in droves. There was no movement, no rustling, no chirping Jiminy crickets to leap up in front of me as I passed by on the pathway. Even on sunny days in a cool spring the cats ignored it, preferring to snooze in the earth of the perennial bed in the back, or to crouch, waggle and pounce in the shrubbery, fulfilling their destinies as the great African hunters of our neighborhood. As for me, walking around the corner of the house from the busy back garden to the barren front was like entering Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
This was the mid-eighties, and in the twenty years since the publication of her book I had come a long way in my awareness of what human beings were doing to the planet. Carson had warned us in 1962 that the pesticides and herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides we’d been using in agriculture and home gardens since the Second World War were threats to all creatures who lived on or in the earth, not just the ones we were trying to get rid of.
Few paid heed to her message, and those who did were considered revolutionaries. Most of the public–and that included me — looked upon the new ”environmentalists” as fanatics. I was part of the prevailing kill-‘em-dead school of gardening, as advocated by my thick, all-purpose gardening book, a typical canon of the time. It spoke highly of new postwar chemicals for getting rid of interlopers, treating DDT, 2,4-D, chlordane and lindane as the wonder drugs of the garden. It didn’t overlook the old faithfuls, either, recommending lead arsenate at the rate of 15 pounds per 1,000 square feet of lawn to control earthworms. The editors admitted grudgingly that our precious friends (as I eventually regarded them) the earthworms were “helpful to soils” but said they were “unsightly … and make the surface bumpy and rough,” strongly implying that lawns were better off without them.
And this was my bible.
In Silent Spring Carson wrote that we found ourselves in need of these poisonous elements in agriculture because we grew great fields of single crops, like corn and wheat, instead of using farming methods closer to natural ecosystems, such as crop rotation and smaller fields of mixed crops.
In other words, we liked monocultures. The problem with a monoculture is that it discourages visits from insects and animals that can’t benefit in some way from the one kind of plant it contains, while attracting those who like to eat it. So you have large numbers of one or two species taking up residence at the feast, and soon find it necessary to bring out an arsenal of pesticides to kill them off. This is how the cycle begins.
Lawns are essentially monocultures containing a few species of turfgrass. Admittedly they’re small monocultures compared to corn and wheat fields, but they add up. If I multiply the roughly 65-by-40-foot front lawns in my suburban neighborhood by the approximately 1,200 houses it contains, I arrive at 3,120,000 square feet. My neighborhood is bounded by another of similar size, and it in turn is adjacent to another, and then another, reaching all the way across the continent. This is a sweeping statement, but you get the picture. North Americans have an estimated 24 million acres devoted to cultivated lawns, not including public parks, highway cloverleafs and embankments, cemeteries and golf courses. That’s a lot of monoculture.
After years of gardening — and as I grew older and a little wiser — I began to really listen to the message of the environmentalists. The razing of woodlots and the loss of farmland for factories and monster housing developments in my growing city helped me understand how cavalierly we were treating our world, and how endangered the species in it were becoming. It seemed strange to send money to preserve the disappearing wildlife in the rainforests of the Amazon, or to sign petitions to save our own declining prairies, when we weren’t considering the importance of nature in our own back (and front) yards.
In many ways since we settled this continent we’ve altered and impoverished its ecosystems. We’ve built farms and villages and cities, gradually reducing to remnants the evergreen and deciduous forests of the north, east and west, the grasslands of the interior, and the deserts of the southwest. Given the amount of immigration this continent has experienced in a few short centuries, change like this is inevitable, if regretful. Still, while many of us mourn the loss of our natural heritage of forests and prairies, most of us insist on growing lawns of grasses native to the moist, cool conditions of England. We don’t think of growing our own native grasses, the more beautiful but much taller little bluestem, or the drought-resistant and low-growing buffalo grass, because they don’t fit the prevailing fashion of clipped and cultivated lawns.
The smooth green lawn that so many North Americans aspire to is in fact an impoverished ecosystem. Think of your lawn as a large family of closely packed plants, growing together as a mat or a green carpet to beautify your front yard. But mat is probably the better word because the roots are encouraged to grow together in a tangle — the tighter the tangle, the more dense and thick the lawn. You water and feed your family of plants frequently to keep the roots from starving, then you trim off their tops before they can go to seed, which is, when it comes down to it, their biological destiny. So the crowded plants continue to grow frantically, fighting for air and food, trying madly to reproduce. Or at least to take a nap, which they normally do in the heat of mid-summer, when most grasses fade to pale buff as they experience a natural dormant period. But the poor grass plants — all their efforts are to no avail because you keep feeding and watering them to keep them “healthy.”
Your little family is sadly dysfunctional, but it will survive because of the attention you give it. A natural, working ecosystem — such as a forest, woodland or prairie — doesn’t need as much human intervention. It operates on its own, powered almost entirely by the sun, which provides energy for photosynthesis and drives the water cycle. The plants in a healthy ecosystem have adapted to the location and the nutrients circulate successfully between them and the other residents — the birds, insects, even the soil. Plants die, break down and add humus to the soil. The spider eats the fly that is after the hibiscus, and the ladybugs eat the aphids sucking the sap out of the honeysuckle, and so the cycle continues.
If we left our non-native lawns alone forever, do you know what would happen? They would die and the land would try to revert to the forest or prairie that once grew on our properties. It’s an idea that would be unsuccessful in our time simply because we wouldn’t let it happen. We like our lawns too much. Besides, it would take at least a century.
I can’t last that long, so I vote for a modified approach that will take less time: let’s reduce our demands for large expanses of perfect, non-native grass, and try mixed front gardens. Something the birds and bees and Mother Nature will love. In short, biodiverse gardens. Something we can create without the help of a dangerous chemical cocktail of fertilizers and pesticides — and too much water.