Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Leaves of Grass in a Sea of Green

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.
- Walt Whitman

It is once more Sunday morning and I am in my "corner office." There have been chickadees rather than goldfinches at the thistle sock and the light plays prettily on the medallion atop my feeder pole.

At close to 9 am, I hear, once more, the drone of a lawn mower, likely that of a homeowner rather than the big mowers used by a lawn service.

Backyard lawn, Aug, 13, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
By our town's laws, 9 am is when mower and blower noise is deemed ok on a Sunday and so, once more, I am hearing one of the most recognizable sounds of summer along with slammed screen doors and the whirring of cicadas.

Lawns are the cornerstone of suburbia. Mowing the lawn is mentioned as a suburban rite in the song "Pleasant Valley Sunday" co-written by Carole King and her husband at the time. A neat and tidy sea of green, the lawn shows the world you know how to take care of your property and you are a person of substance. An untidy lawn brings you stares from the neighbors, comments from passersby and visits from deer that think you have provided a nice little meadow in which it can bed down.

And yet, nothing is abused more than a lawn.

It is watered, by rain and sprinkler, sometimes daily. Then the mower - whether homeowner or service - cuts it down weekly, whether it needs cutting or not, to within an inch of its life. Then the mowed, cropped grass goes brown in the summer heat, prompting the homeowner to use the sprinkler, sometimes daily, prompting the grass to go green and grow, which brings the mower, etc., etc.

First 2017 mowing - note the ground ivy flowers
(Margo D. Beller)
There comes a point each summer when MH and I watch the service working on the lawn across the street and one or the other will mutter, "He's mowing dust."

MH, for assorted reasons, likes to go out every other week to mow, or he may leave it a tad longer. When he does mow the lawn, it is a higher cut than mowers on the neighbors' lawns. The grass cuttings are not put in a pail for the town to turn into compost for sale but left to nourish the lawn. The longer cut protects the grass' roots from the summer heat. So our lawn looks a bit greener.

Yes, that has brought deer but deer pass through anyway. We find evidence that they have visited, including the areas where they have bedded down. Without a high fence, that will continue.

Another thing we do not do is spray chemicals on the lawn to keep it green and perfect. We feed the grass in spring and fall because, after all, lawn grass is a plant as much as anything in a pot. But our lawn is not perfect. In the front yard it is fighting an invasion of ground ivy, one of my least favorite weeds. In back I sometimes find trees and wild rose growing where the seeds have landed and taken root.

There are also bugs, and that brings ground birds that eat them: flickers, robins, grackles, catbirds, Carolina and house wrens, chipping sparrows and, just today, an infrequent visitor, a phoebe diving for insects from my apple tree. There is no reason to use chemicals when the birds are just as effective.

We are not perfect either. When there has been no rain for a while and the grass becomes crunchy, MH will look at me and ask about putting on the sprinkler system. At which point it is programmed to go on during the wee hours of the morning, when the water will be absorbed and not dried away by the sun.

You would think this is a no-brainer. And yet I see plenty of my neighbors, even the ones who mow their own lawns and do not bag their clippings, using their sprinklers in the middle of the day when the grass is getting the full effect of the sun. Waste of water and their money.

Lawn care is a big business. There are plenty of books and websites on the topic such as this one. Much of the information is put out there by people who want you to hire their lawn service or buy their chemicals and other products. There are even scientific studies on lawns. According to a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, mowed grass is the nation's largest irrigated crop. Between the lawns and the sod farms I can believe it.

American toad, backyard, July 2014 (RE Berg-Andersson)
Those times I mow our lawn I re-acquaint myself with its quirks. I pay attention to which areas get more sun than others, which are wetter. I have spooked up American toads with the mower and once, unfortunately, gave a young rabbit a scar on its ear when I went over a nest in a lawn depression. In spring, the lawn in front is filled with the tall purple flowers of the ground ivy, the only time it looks pretty. Then comes the yellow dandelions, which we try to dig out before the uglier seed heads rise.

As a former neighbor once said, as long as it's green I don't care.

It is unfortunate that more towns like mine do not encourage creating small grasslands where manicured lawns now sit. Grasslands bring different types of plants, insects and birds to an area. They are more interesting, less sterile. Certain birds -- grasshopper sparrows, for instance -- and insects such as monarch butterflies are endangered because more farms and their grasslands are being "developed" into suburban housing developments with, of course, a huge ocean of lawn.

Monarch butterfly, Griggstown Grasslands, Aug. 2011 (Margo D. Beller)
So I can look at a long, sweeping, immaculately mowed, green, unweedy lawn and envy the homeowner his or her money paying the lawn service that would spare MH and me a lot of physical pain if we used it. But I do not covet that lawn.