Some garden writers seem to have an obsession with lawns. Michael Pollan’s erroneous but extremely influential 1991 op/ed in The New York Times kicked off a two decade landscape architect parlor game. However, the debate over the ecological and environmental value of lawns is much older. Front or back worse? Side lawn okay? Organic lawn possible? Fuel consumed by lawn mowers morally defensible? Water sprinklers, same thing?
After more than 30 years, the anti-lawn/pro-lawn controversy rages on. While I have no skin in this game, I do have opinions after a long career in horticulture. Since lawns and gardens are a bit like love and marriage, it is hard for someone in the gardening industry to stay off the grass, so to speak.
Recently, I had a pleasant email exchange with an enthusiast in the “anti-lawn” movement. It reminded me not only of my post (‘Lawn Love’) from 2009, but also of how these arguments can light up American horticulture from the inside. Gardening in the US is not “one thing”, as it is in, say, the UK, Italy, France or Japan. Our nation is monumentally diverse. (Please read about my public attempt to redefine “American horticulture” at the blog ‘Virtual Horticulture’.)
An extremist (versus an enthusiast) I have talked with works as a garden designer in LA. He hates lawns: the idea, history, science, beauty, value to communities in homes and parks, etc. But this is somewhat understandable, from an ecological view, because he is from arid Los Angeles. Naturally, he advocates zealously for alternatives to large lawns. However, what is bizarre is that he hates all lawns, including those in non-southern California-type environments. The passion of his misguided environmentalist extremism blinds him to the aesthetic values and sensual pleasures that lawns provide for millions of people across the US. In fact, the beauty and utility of lawns “hide in plain sight”. Lawns are pleasant and useful. Also, they appeal to both our pastoral and agricultural origins: little patches of nature. Similarly, gardens remind us of our roots in ancient civilization. Yet, “anti-lawn” extremists talk about how nasty and environmentally damaging they are. Imagine: lawns are hurting the planet. It’s like saying make-up is harmful to a woman’s health.
At least the anti-lawn debate shows that the US is a complex patchwork of widely diverse climates and microclimates. Most lawns make gracefully contrasting companions for ornamental gardens and handsome frames or surroundings for vegetable plots in most areas of the country. (I explain this in great detail in ‘Lawn Love’.) Yet, “anti-lawnism” reaches every corner of the nation like a virus in a horror movie. Perhaps it’s a result of poor high school biology classes.
It seems obvious to most folks that if you are in an area that is bone-dry, you should not have a yard dominated by a water-dependent lawn. It is both unattractive as well as unsustainable in energy and water crises. The LA “extremist” is not an extremist if he is talking about LA and its surrounding areas. But what business does he have getting in my Mid-Atlantic face? I don’t disparage his groundcovers. In fact, I sell some to him. Why does he disrespect my lawn?
Some of the answers can be traced to the popularity of environmental extremism. Few walk to work anymore; far more people drive. Thus, pollution and dependence on fossil fuels. Add man-made global warming and the result is a public outcry against the impact of the front lawn, in particular. It is somewhat irrational, but life is not fair. A family can drive a quarter mile to grocery shop, pay $4.00 for a single cup of flavored coffee, or pay $9.00 to see a movie that gives them grimacing indigestion, but rail against lawns.
Another part of the answer is the romance of the “New American garden” movement which began about 25 years ago, based on the landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme. With his partner, James Van Sweden, they operated a very successful business, including estate gardens for Oprah Winfrey and many other notables. They made great use of tall meadow grasses. Most of their ideas derived from European public park design. Their work is masterful and their gardens breathtakingly spectacular. They are romantic, as in the Romantic era. This is not a commonplace approach. One doesn’t walk down the street whistling Beethoven.
But soon the food journalist Michael Pollan decided to take on the ubiquity—and in his mind, therefore, monotony—of the American lawn. He is the best-selling college professor who excoriated my company in The New York Times Sunday Magazine for breeding, producing and selling hybrid sweet corn seeds. Heirlooms had become the rage a few years earlier, due to Kent Whealy receiving the glamorous MacArthur genius grant, and well deserved too. Now Pollan could safely criticize the hybridizers.
As I said in my previous post ‘Lawn Love’, Pollan criticizes lawn grasses as reflecting “the institution of democracy”. This bothers him. He wants our yards to reflect only our personal tastes. However, what is wrong with democracy? Don’t towns base their politics on this institution? What other institutions would he prefer? Or is it more just a “liberation movement” within the gardening industry? If so, I’m all for it. But freedom means freedom of choice, as reflected in our catalogues, and those of many others in the industry. On lawns, as on hybrid seeds, Pollan comes across as a tyro.
For example, one finds little discussion of choice or of freedom in Pollan’s writing—food or gardening—and that is what makes him extremely popular. He is “the authority”. Despite their better natures, people increasingly prefer authority. He tells people what to do, and he told the Clintons they should tear out the White House lawn and replace it with a wild meadow. Thank goodness the National Parks System “runs” the White House and they, as well as the Clintons, wisely ignored him. But The New York Times loves him, as do many garden writers. He is a good but uneven writer. Try getting through the section of Omnivore’s Dilemma where he shoots, cooks and eats a pig, or the other where he studies his emotional responses to the sensate activities of a chicken as he is slaughtering it. Is it supposed to be funny? Ironic? Satirical? Whatever it is, it is certainly vague. Perhaps it is “post modern”: explicitly vague authority.
Then there is “the illogical group”. These elitists say that meadows and prairie recreations should be situated in or near urban areas. Huh? Is it to teach “the townies” a lesson? Some say also that lawns are ugly in small cities and suburban areas. How can anyone say that a lawn is ugly? That’s like saying a horse is ugly. Such sweeping condemnations make no sense. Educated critics should be specific and factual. Yet, strangely, these folks think, in some cases, that lawns are okay in public parks. But that is exactly the kind of high-traffic space where the inclusion of a meadow restoration would be educational as well as ecologically valuable.
(This entire brouhaha actually originates in a fairly low key movement to restore Midwestern prairie grasses back in the 60s and early 1970s. The radical extremists came into the picture over 20 years later. Aldo Leopold was the father of the prairie restoration movement. A colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright, Jens Jensen was one of the first advocates of restoration landscape architecture. However, he liked lawns too. The physicists at the Fermilab Accelerator facility recreated a native prairie near my childhood home in Illinois, probably as a hobby to relieve their stress, as well as their boredom with the corn and soybean fields. They even started a buffalo herd. It was exciting and had absolutely nothing to do with lawns.)
So, let’s summarize. A lawn is frowned upon at your private property, where it can, with a garden bed here and there, make an ordinary house look gorgeous? But it is okay in a public park, which is one of the few places where an appropriate ecological restoration of native grasses or meadow plants makes sense, because there’s adequate space? And a farm estate? Okay to have a lawn, because it looks beautiful. But in a small city garden? Such a lawn looks ridiculous, according to some.
Next door to us the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) plant is in the start of its third year of a “native meadow” restoration. They tore out the lawn and planted what looks like hay. Now it seems like an abandoned factory, like no one works there. “Out of Business”. One sees the same types of growth—the same “anti-aesthetic”—in derelict urban areas. Check out the rustbelt cities of the Eastern US: mile after mile of empty factories and 1950s office buildings surrounded by weeds and grasses, mostly native but some exotic. It looks awful. The meadow in front of the PECO plant might look terrific in a few years, especially if they get some attractive looking meadow plants—say something blooming with color. But here’s the problem: the building was designed for a lawn. The windows, doors, roof line—everything about it was created to fit onto a large, attractive and pleasant lawn.
Yet, it is not entirely an aesthetic issue. Since a meadow “goes wild”, it is supposed to be cheaper and less harmful to the environment. But eventually it will be mowed. How often? What if it gets diseases? How much will the tests and treatment cost? And there are both “critter” problems as well as security risks. A five foot tall meadow border casts a shadow along a building, providing cover for burglars. How much will the new lighting fixtures cost? Would you like this problem in your home? Why not have lawns with garden beds?
Few in the blogoverse notice Julie Messervy or Sarah Susanka’s great work. This is unfortunate. “The illogical group” could learn a lot from this electrifying team of architect and garden designer. They are like an updated version of Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens, who revolutionized English landscape architecture, garden design and domestic architecture in one fell swoop. Messervy and Susanka could help new architects work out new designs, balancing the public’s alarm with lawns with the needs of home and business buildings .
The Romantic, Pollanesque group? They are soldier-children. It will probably lose steam over time as many “enthusiast” movements do. Going overboard is not a good nautical strategy. But there is still a huge base of support for the “anti-lawnists”. I wish only that they would look around at what the consumers want. They like—and want—both lawns and gardens.
Ironically, I have nothing to do with the lawn business. I have never sold a grain of lawn grass. I simply like lawns. Friends have said it’s a bit odd that I “champion” them, when I sell garden seeds, ornamental grasses and perennial plants. They say I am at cross purposes with myself. However, I try to look at the “whole”. Call me “Gaia Man”. The anti-lawn movement concerns me because a nationwide rejection of lawns—even supported by well-meaning people—upsets a great tradition of home life: the perennial border, annual bed and vegetable garden surrounded by a lawn, or vice versa. And I believe that deep rooted traditions should be preserved.
So I, too, try to be well meaning. But ever since I reached adulthood, I have not appreciated extremists and extremism, such as environmentalists torching SUVs. It is part of growing up. The fight is for the objective and dispassionate truth, as Aristotle suggested. It is not a personal fight. Or, as William Carlos Williams said, “No truth but in things.”
We at Heronswood Nursery, Burpee and The Cook’s Garden provide our customers with choices. Recently, I was disparaged online for comparing Heronswood to Jaguar (sexy and glamorous), Burpee to Ford (A to Z) and The Cook’s Garden to Volvo (safety). But it’s not a bad analogy. Everything you want for your garden in a wide range from Burpee; the exotic and strangely beautiful from Heronswood; the European and Asian accented gourmet greens, vegetable and herb rarities from The Cook’s Garden.
Championing the lawn? No, I am just trying to help the traditional garden industry.