Letting the ivy grow under your feet Garden: In an age of dwindling free time, one woman decides that no lawn is a good lawn.

September 01, 1996|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The interest neighbors take in one another's lawns is legendary. Lawn care is an important key to how we judge the people on the block. But in such matters I fear I have perplexed my neighbors mightily. Mea culpa. In the midst of a sea of green, I stand convicted. I have no lawn.

We are a turf-loving country. No one driving down our suburban streets could doubt it. From one wide coast to the other, the cult of the English lawn is celebrated. For our lawns are English in origin, you know, born in the expansive swards of great $l 18th-century British estates.

The American lawn was nourished by the growing middle-class in the last century. These are the folks who wanted to be thought "genteel" above all else. They therefore eagerly followed the words laid down by Andrew Jackson Downing in his pivotal 1841 work, "Landscape Gardening and Rural Architecture," and their descendants have done so ever since.

Downing declared: "We will know that civilization has come when [wilderness] . . . is replaced by green and smiling lawns."

In the 19th century and early in the 20th, lawns were practically considered a patriotic duty. No true-born American, it was said, would hide behind a wall or hedge as they did in the "old country." Here all was open, a democratic sweep of space from yard to yard for all to enjoy.

Now, proper upkeep of grass has assumed a nearly moral value in our society. Of course, this does have a practical side: A well-maintained lawn iswell nigh integral to the property values of a neighborhood. When the lawn is unkempt, the rest of the property cannot be far behind, or so the thinking goes.

As a lawn covering, grass is very hard to beat in some ways. It tolerates foot traffic well, almost the only ground cover to do so. It looks nice. It enables us to have an open view of our surroundings -- a nice sort of security that appeals to our deepest instincts as creatures who evolved largely in grasslands.

Last, but not least, since the invention of the home lawn mower in the late 1800s, lawn care doesn't take a lot of specialized labor.

For those without a green thumb, lawns offer reliable simplicity: Get out the lime, weed and feed twice a year, and you're in business. That lawn care also requires a fair amount of brawn, and that lawn mowers are noisy, expensive and temperamental only add to the appeal of the work for some. Who can resist a challenge? Lawns have become what we automatically put down whenever we see an unoccupied space around a building.

Unfortunately, lawns are not terribly well-suited to the climate of much of the United States, a fact that many homeowners have discovered to their sorrow. Even Downing was quick to point this out. The mid-Atlantic states, in particular, are both too hot and too dry for great lawn-growing. Still, we bravely press on.

The standards we set for ourselves are a lot higher than they have ever been. Take our watering compulsion. Summer brownout of lawns used to be commonplace across the country. No one expected otherwise. Only the very wealthy would think of bothering with the conspicuous-consumption business of lawn irrigation before the 1950s.

Also, we do not tolerate the incursions of alien species into our turf anymore. Whereas dandelions and crab grass used to be our only foes, now we bar dozens of plants and grasses that used to be accepted. Only a select few grasses are allowed.

Such exclusivity is hard to maintain, of course, and the select grasses frequently tend to take their status seriously and become prima donnas, demanding more water, more fertilizer, more mowing and more chemicals than the plebeian mix of the past. What a task the modern groundskeeper sets for himself or herself!

For these and other reasons, I do not have a lawn.

I admire an expanse of velvety, emerald green as much as the next person, but I have capitulated to reason. For one thing, it seems ridiculous to keep any kind of mower for my 15-foot-by-18-foot front yard. Second, being mechanically challenged, I have a distaste for noisy, smelly and expensive machines.

Third, I wanted a more graceful and interesting transition space than a lawn of grass between the street and the porch. Fourth, as a single, working woman who must frequently put in extra hours in the summer at my job, I resent having to spend any more time on lawn maintenance than I positively have to.

My alternative has been a dense planting of English ivy and hostas as ground covers, along with spring bulbs, day lilies, a red oak sapling and a dogwood, some azaleas and two rugosa roses as foundation planting.

Now I spend 1 1/2 hours twice a year on front-yard work, and 15 minutes every six weeks during the summer trimming the hedge. The area has a neat and pleasing aspect that will evolve as the plants grow and mature. It works. And I wonder why we do not more often consider such alternatives.

This may be heresy, but perhaps the era of the universal lawn is ending. Or at least it is time to question our lawn devotion, not only in terms of time, but also of resources.

Water is a dwindling resource in many parts of the country. And chemical fertilizers and pesticides generated by home lawn care are significant sources of nitrate pollution in our waters. Those same chemicals, used so freely and with such good faith, also pose real hazards to children, pets, the user and the environment.

And, quite frankly, we can find better things to do on weekend afternoons than look after a lawn.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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