It occurs to me that the disdain of lawns amongst many of us sometimes makes it sound as if the lawn—the field itself—is to blame. It is, of course, not the plants in the lawn but what humans do in search of a falsely idealised lawn with which we are taking issue. Lawns, even those prevented from developing into woodlands, can actually be of great service to us and the environment if we care for them in ways more in keeping with their potential functions.
Lawns, as has been reported by me before on this very website, were a European invention, and though a symbol of wealth as much as anything, convention of the day couldn’t help but make them useful. Lawns were originally cultivated with advantageous herbs and plants, and even as they transitioned to grasses, they were used for grazing sheep. Some practical, productive function was included in their make-up. When suburbia and gas-powered machinery entered the equation, lawns became extremely problematic.
Suddenly, keeping up with the Joneses required mowing the yard once a week rather than sheep grazing on it. And, there was no space for biodiversity. The goal was a one species of grass, a carpet so to speak, without a dandelion or plantain to be found. Then, because this kind of lawn was antithetical to nature, a slurry of fertilisers, reseeding, and chemical weeding were included in an annual crusade for the perfect lawn. Furthermore, it didn’t matter where we were—arid desert or England—we tried to produce the same results, in some cases pulling freshwater reserves from underground aquifers to grow grass just to cut it down once a week. In other words, humans went crazy.
But, the lawn itself had done nothing wrong. In fact, we can cultivate un-manicured lawns that are a boon to the environment and people around them.
The truth is that a lawn, essentially a paddock with no grazing animals, largely left to its own devices doesn’t grow one species of grass. It grows a multitude of herbaceous species, including grasses but more so “weeds”. Of course, weeds don’t really exist when we don’t put that label on them. Within this biodiversity, we are able to find a multitude of functions. Bio-diverse plants will invite bio-diverse wildlife—birds, bugs, bats, and so on—into the ecosystem as well. Furthermore, we can add productive, desirable components—mustard greens, the mint family, chamomile, sorrel, chives etc.—to this herbaceous mix.
Dandelions and other weeds, we have rediscovered, are actually a great source of food. Common offenders in North Carolina, like clover, dandelions, plantain, chickweed, purslane, lambs-quarter, wild violet, and stinging nettle, are edible and offer a considerable amount of nutrients to those who take advantage. Keep the chemicals off the lawn and not only will these grow, but they’ll be organic. For those willing to try them, edible weeds can become true features in a healthy diet, and again, we can add our own specially selected productive plants to the herbal lawn mix.
In addition to being edible, many common weeds have medicinal properties and have been used for centuries to treat and prevent illnesses. Most of the aforementioned weeds have medicinal uses, as well as others (common to North Carolina) like yarrow, chicory, daises, dock, mallow, wild garlic and mullein, can all be used for relieving and preventing minor ailments such as stomachache, headaches, colds, insomnia, congestion, nausea, etc. While they won’t replace the need for a doctor when there’s a broken arm or a heart bypass, they might do just as well as over-the-counter drugs if dealing with the sniffles.
One of the sad realities of keeping the lawn closely cropped is that nothing ever grows up and reseeds itself. But, if portions of the lawn are encouraged to produce wildflowers (and this can happen naturally by simply letting things grow), then the lawn becomes full of beautiful blooms. Bees and butterflies, amongst other pollinators, will happily come in to sample the nectar, and the flowers will get the chance to reseed themselves and create more impressive shows each year. My father had a beautiful, ever-expanding stand of Texas bluebonnets, a leguminous ground-cover, in his yard in Texas (dry, alkaline conditions).
Soils are not engineered for supporting one species of plant. Rather, they are accustomed to growing a diverse collection, which looks different both above the ground and below. In this case, the varying types and sizes of roots helps to keep the soil healthier. Weeds—the pioneering plants—that grow somewhere are a reaction to some soil condition that selects the seed that will grow. Plants with taproots will grow where soils need de-compaction, which is why dandelions love a lawn. Contrastingly, plants with hairnet roots will grow where soils are loose and susceptible to erosion. Nature is handling the problem; it’s just not an instant fix. We can aid that effort rather than fight it.
Much like soil conditioning, a diversity of decomposing plants helps with keeping soils fertile and friable. Different plants want different nutrients, so having a mixture helps to ensure that the soil isn’t being completely depleted of particular elements and is being repleted with a diverse pallet of nutrients to boot. At the same time, when we allow plants to develop, either growing up before we cut it or allowing it an entire life cycle, then we add more organic matter to the soil without the plants constantly taking up nutrients without giving much back.
Energy Efficiency/Resource Conservation
Without a doubt, if we are able to adjust to having unmanicured lawns, we will save a tremendous amount of energy and resources. That goes for the fossil fuels expended to run mowers and powerful weed-whackers. That goes for the time and effort we have to spend preening vast expanses of grass. That goes for the water necessary for maintaining a poorly conceived growing environment. That goes for all the production and distribution of lawn products. That goes for the money saved from not doing and buying all these things. The list goes on.
This effort can, of course, be hugely extended by dotting (productive) trees here and there, a small vegetable garden, and even edible-ornamental flower beds. Furthermore, “unmanicured” doesn’t mean there is no maintenance; instead, we could cut in small, rotating sections with hand tools or battery-powered devices. We could also leave sections of lawn to grow wild in seemingly tidy, bordered areas. We can mulch pathways through the mosaic of activity. We can fit our aspirations to our ecosystem. We can do all sorts of things that don’t revolve around growing grass but still function as a “lawn”, and in turn, it’ll benefit the environment, our environment.