“Her Management is Beauty”: In Defense of Unmowed Lawns

Albert Mock photo of dog and lawnmower
"Monk knows evil; lawnmowers must die!" by Albert Mock (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license)

It’s mid-August, and I’m driving across the valley through walls of corn.  Occasional fields are mowed clean for the second time.  The only habitat left was along the roads, and the township mowers have cut that as well.  I wonder what happened to the eastern meadowlarks I heard singing in the spring, or why the lovely species of wildflowers have been annihilated in favor of boring grass.

I also pass the homes of folks who have an acre or five or ten or twenty, and all I see is grass.  Some have a couple trees or cultivated shrubs flanking their front doors; sometimes a few domesticated flowers grow in their yards.  But, for the most part, all is green, green grass. Occasionally, I spot a man or woman on a riding mower keeping that grass golf-course short.  How many pay for lawn care service, as they do in suburbs and towns, is hard to tell.

Lawn care circa 1919
Lawn care circa 1919: Kate and Margaret Plummer and three other girls play in what is now our shed lawn. Most of the other areas that were later converted to lawns were then orchard, pasture, or vegetable gardens. (photographer unknown)

Why this mania for mowed grass even in the country, even along little–used country roads, this love affair with neat and green?  Whatever the reason, the lawn culture is deeply embedded in the American psyche. All that wasted gas and oil is being used to keep nature at bay, as if nature were the enemy.  Yet neighbors even in the country complain if folks don’t keep their lawns cut.

Decades ago, we stopped mowing most of our two acres of lawn, inherited from previous owners who liked the idea of having a country estate.  Our nearest neighbors live in the valley and never saw our home, yet the word went out that we were letting our place run down.  One of our nephews, who lives in suburban New Jersey, had a difficult time visiting because our uncut lawn bothered him. A sister-in-law from suburban Maryland mentioned snakes and rats.

So far, what we have are mating balls of garter snakes in the early spring after they emerge from the muck of two filled-in wells.  They provided endless fascination for our young sons and now for our five-year-old granddaughter, Elanor, who picked up her first garter snake last April and was upset when the snakes dispersed, and she could no longer see any around the wells.  As far as rats are concerned, we haven’t seen a rat since we stopped feeding chickens and ducks, and certainly never in the tall grass that now include clumps of sedges and cattails in the wet places and wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in the drier areas.

Elanor with milksnake
Elanor with a milksnake she found in the lawn in June (photo by Dave Bonta)

We also inherited a yard of black walnut and black locust trees, but our tree-planting son, Dave, has added tulip, red oak, white pine, and other native trees and our forsythia and lilac shrubs, also here when we moved in, keep spreading and harboring nesting sites for gray catbirds, robins, and cardinals.  Other yard-nesting birds include common yellowthroats, chipping and song sparrows, eastern phoebes, blue-gray gnatcatchers, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, white-breasted nuthatches, eastern towhees, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings.

Before my husband, Bruce, gives our small patch of lawn its first cutting of the year, we have a sheet of blue ajuga and the dandelions have gone to seed.  Eastern goldfinches harvest the dandelion seeds, and every May, like clockwork, white-crowned sparrows on their way to breed in northern Canada, stop in to eat those seeds too.

Cottontail rabbits and woodchucks like the longer grasses and forbs, the rabbits, no doubt, for protection. The other critters — turkeys and deer — prefer our First Field which is technically a meadow, although both are known to wander through our yard also. Most of the field’s 38 acres as well as our uncut lawn area are aglow with goldenrod by mid-August, and waves of monarch butterflies stop to nectar on them during migration.  Earlier, of course, our resident monarchs found several patches of common milkweed in First Field to lay their eggs.

Monarchs on New York aster
Monarchs flock to the New York asters in our shed and Guest House "lawns" (photo by Dave Bonta)

But where in the valley can the monarchs live?  And our valley was only one of many we drove through with the same conditions last August. The only milkweed I saw grew along the roads and was mowed down.  So too were the bright orange butterflyweeds, members of the milkweed family that also attract a bevy of butterfly species.

Once, before polluting lawn and garden equipment was readily available, hand mowers and scythes kept small areas in lawn.  Today, lawns in the United States cover 21 million acres, nearly the size of Pennsylvania.  In addition, Americans spend thirty billion dollars a years maintaining their lawns and burn 800 million gallons of gasoline, spilling a toxic 18 million gallons while refueling.  Air pollution from a conventional mower is equivalent to driving half a million miles in your car, and noise pollution shatters many quiet neighborhoods on the weekend.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed, which much of our state is a part of, has more than 3.8 million acres of grass or 9.5 percent of the 64,000 square-mile area.  Both Maryland’s Montgomery County and Virginia’s Fairfax County have more than 40 percent of their land in grass.  Those mostly-suburban counties flank Washington, D.C., but our own Lancaster County has 19.1 percent of its acreage in grass in addition to agricultural fields.  Where, in all this grass and fields of corn and soybeans, can most wildlife live?  Possible wildlife travel corridors connecting islands of habitat, such as hedgerows used to provide, are gone.  And biodiversity is fading fast throughout the world as more countries adopt our green, weed-free lawn culture.

TruGreen ChemLawn by Eirik Olsen
TruGreen ChemLawn by Eirik Olsen (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)

One researcher, Dr. David Myers of the University of Maryland, tried to encourage less lawn and more habitat for plants and wildlife by holding an informational seminar and tree planting demonstration and distributing informational material to a thousand landowners, but most were happy with their lawns and even believed that maintaining them was environmentalism despite fertilizing them on average three times a year and using herbicides to keep them free of weeds.

According to author Chris Bolgiano, in her article “Lawn Be Gone,”

As water drains from lawns it carries residues from seventy million pounds of pesticides every year, ten times more per acre than agricultural crops.  Sales of lawn care pesticides to Americans accounted for about a third of total world pesticide expenditures, in 1997…

That’s a frightening amount of chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic in animals, passing through our lawns and into our waterways.

On the other hand, Tom Scheuler, coordinator of the nonprofit Chesapeake Stormwater Network, says that lawns, because they do soak up stormwater runoff are better than paved surfaces such as malls and parking lots. But another study shows that lawns hold only ten percent of water, while the other ninety percent, which contains pesticides and fertilizers, runs off into streams, making lawns significant polluters of our water, especially since most homeowners use ten times more fertilizer than is necessary.

Unfortunately, most common grass species, such as Kentucky blue grass, have incredibly short root systems that require more water during dry spells and absorb less water during rainstorms.  Native grasses and other plants have much longer roots that reduce watering and runoff.  Add trees, shrubs, and ground covers to the mix and fourteen times more rainwater will be retained than in a lawn.

goldenrod meadow
Our lawns and meadows are a sea of yellow when the goldenrod blooms (photo by Dave Bonta)

Some folks are bucking the lawn trend by growing meadows and/or native plants in place of a lawn.  Benjamin Hedges, writing “I Wanted a Meadow” in Notes of the Pennsylvania Native Plant Society was inspired by Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home, in which he says, “By favoring native plants over aliens in the suburban landscape, gardeners can do much to sustain the biodiversity that has been one of this country’s richest assets.”

Hedges bought an acre that included a house, lawn, a few trees, and invasive shrubbery.  He immediately broke up the lawn and inventoried the plants on his property.  Now that eight years have passed, he has over 100 native plants and 50 exotics. He bought a few of the native plants, but most came in after mowing stopped, exactly as we’ve discovered.  Give nature half a chance and it will recover.

Imagine how much wildlife habitat would be created if everyone cut their lawn area in half, especially those huge country acres.  Stealth changes would probably work best, though, and forestall criticism from the neighbors. Every year folks could plant more flower beds, shrubs, and trees.  They could also let one section go completely wild, preferably with a water source such as a stream, pond, or even a puddle, for the children in their lives.  That would be a great way to fight the growing nature deficit disorder in youngsters who are spending more time inside than ever before.

The late poet, May Swenson, wrote a poem in her book Nature: Poems Old and New, called “Her Management.” The “her” is nature and [her] “furniture is pine and oak and birch and beech and elm… Broken, rotting, shambled things — lie where they like… Her management is beauty…”

It is well to remember that when we strive to improve on nature by mowing it down to create a monotonous “perfect” landscape of manor-green we may be doing more harm than good for the wildlife we cherish.

half-grown groundhog
A half-grown woodchuck finds plenty to eat in our unmowed lawns (photo by Dave Bonta)

For more information and suggestions on how you can create wildlife habitat in your backyard, see the brochure Landscaping with Native Plants in Pennsylvania (PDF).  At www.epa.gov/GreenScapes an incredible amount of information is available for homeowners who want to shrink their lawns, have natural lawns, plant natives, and make room for wildlife.




6 responses to ““Her Management is Beauty”: In Defense of Unmowed Lawns”

  1. Casey Avatar

    Love your take on this subject. I live in town and want to let parts of my yard go back, but I’m sure the neighbors around here would raise a stink.

    Maybe if I fenced it…with room for critters to crawl through of course!

  2. kaholly Avatar

    We are of like minds. The property I’ve purchased came with a ‘lawn’ which I’ve dutifully mowed, but have been thinking seriously about how to graciously let it go back to a more natural state with natives. The other 2+ acres is beautiful wet meadow that holds lots of treasures (right now – blueberries galore!!). Thanks for this wonderful, thought-provoking post. ~karen

  3. deltavilleoysters Avatar

    Save the bay dont use fertilizers!

    Quality & Sustainability

  4. Marcia Bonta Avatar

    Thanks to all of you and not using fertilizers is certainly a good idea too. Kaholly and Casey–Just go slow, one shrub and native wildflower at a time.

  5. M. L. Avatar

    I recently moved to the suburbs and have noticed that my neighbors have these expanses of lawn they never seem to use (i.e., sit on or even walk across)–and which they never work on themselves–but for which they will hire landscaping companies to maintain. I think a lawn’s just another item people feel they need to have to keep up with the Joneses.

  6. Marcia Bonta Avatar

    Agreed, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if keeping up with the Jones meant having natural lawns and plants?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: