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Reduce the green beast to a "lawnlet" and ditch your mower

Casa, Spring 2006: The American lawn, unplugged 

Reduce the green beast to a "lawnlet" and ditch your mower

Don't get me wrong. I come here not to bury the American lawn, but to shrink it.

(Let's bury all the gas mowers, instead.)

Just think: If you stitched together all the manicured lawns in the United States, you'd probably have enough turf to make Greenland actually green. But even having it all in one place wouldn't make it any easier to maintain. And that's the problem with lawns: Keeping them looking nice is just not easy or cheap or good for the planet.

click to enlarge A lawnlet (8'x12'x14') makes a cushy and easy-to-care-for area to chill out and enjoy the garden. - PHOTO BY FRANK HYMAN
  • Photo by Frank Hyman
  • A lawnlet (8'x12'x14') makes a cushy and easy-to-care-for area to chill out and enjoy the garden.

Aside from the costs, some folks have more of an aesthetic opposition to lawns. They consider them boring. I don't share that view--I see the beauty in an expanse of lawn. But I also think, man, there's a lot of hard work, money and water going into that thing. It's one big, green, year-round money pit.

The common lawn grass used here in the Triangle is called fescue. It's native to the prairies of Eurasia, not the southeastern United States. So to keep it looking good, you have to treat your lawn with the exactness of an aquarium for tropical fish. Both demand exactly the right combination of air, chemicals and light. You must create artificial conditions if you want a pretty, evergreen lawn to thrive here in the Piedmont.

There are grasses that will thrive with less care, such as bermuda, zoysia and buffalo grass. But they all share serious downsides, like turning brown from late fall to late spring. Worse, their main mission in life seems to be clawing their way into plant beds and spreading over pathways.

The lush lawns of the average suburban subdivision glow a tropical emerald green only because someone is spraying them with rivers of drinking water and barrels of petroleum-based fertilizer. Then to keep the green beast in check, they're burning through tankers of gasoline for mowers, edgers, aerators and blowers, adding air and noise pollution to the mix. Adding insult to injury, the runoff from these coddled properties carries pollutants into our waterways, which contribute to algae blooms, red tides and fish kills.

But instead of asking how to get rid of lawns--since I'm no fanatic--we might instead ask how much lawn one person really needs.

More to the point, how much lawn do two adults and a black lab named Molly need?

Three years ago when our front yard was just a mown, weedy, blank canvas, my answer was "none at all." As various strips, circles and squares of plant beds painted their way across the yard, my wife lobbied for a bit of grass to remain in the picture. She, in fact, asked for a "lawnlet." Well, when you put it that way ...

So now, wedged between the carnivorous plants and the vegetable garden, lies the cushiest patch of fescue you could ask for. It's enough grass for the two of us--okay, three of us--to sprawl on and look up at the stars. In daylight, we like to sit on this king-sized bed of grass for a dog's-eye-view of the garden.

The lawnlet is most popular in May when the peonies on the other side of the garden path are blooming, and then again in late summer when Mexican sunflowers surround it on all sides. It's the closest we come to having a home theater.

We tend the lawnlet like a garden bed. It's a bed of grass that's as important a part of the garden as the bed of spring wildflowers or the bed of Mediterranean herbs. About once a month, I hand weed it for a couple of minutes. Once a week or so, I trim it with a sling blade (In the movie Sling Blade, Billy Bob Thornton actually used a lawnmower blade. Mine's the real deal: a hollow half-moon blade with a short wooden handle, swung side-to-side, un-motorized). I've timed myself--it only takes 7 minutes to mow. And I can multitask: while operating the sling blade with one hand, I can quaff a beer with the other and talk to passing neighbors without having to holler over the sound of a mower. Let's just see the guys mowing some suburban subdivision try that!

Frank Hyman is a horticulturist and garden designer working in Durham's historic neighborhoods.

  • Reduce the green beast to a "lawnlet" and ditch your mower

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