from: Lawn Boy
by Gary Paulsen
Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children’s Books, 2007
Two of my grandsons mow lawns for some of their neighbors. It might be a family tradition.
My brother supplemented the income he earned from his daily paper route by mowing lawns for some of our neighbors. An old family photo shows him as a probably four-year-old walking beside our dad. Both of Dad’s hands are on the mower handle, and my brother is holding on as high as he can reach beside my dad’s. In those days it must have been a “boy thing.” My sister and I never got a turn to help Dad mow.
We lived in a neighborhood with driveways leading to a detached garage between each house. The lawns were average size for a city lot. We had a front lawn and a back lawn, too. Dad was proud of the soft green grass, evenly trimmed and meticulously edged. Not weed-free, but close.
The whole neighborhood looked like that. No one skimped on the weed-killer or fertilizer. It was the 1950s.
According to a 2019 New York Times article, when the colonists settled here in the 1600s and 1700s, their livestock ate up all the native grass. They imported seed from Europe and parts of North Africa to prevent their livestock from starving. And shortly after independence was declared, George Washington wrote to his estate manager in England for landscaping plans for Mt. Vernon.
Large expanses of grassy lawns had no agricultural value. Even so, the wealthy new Americans copied Washington’s and Jefferson’s ideal of beautiful European landscape architecture. The first lawnmower was patented in 1830.
After the Civil War, suburbs began to proliferate. Grassy lawns, inspired by public parks with their own sprawling lawns, became more common. In 1871, Joseph Lessler received a patent for the first lawn sprinkler that connected to a garden hose. By this time, city and suburban water systems were becoming more widely available. Watering lawns and flower gardens became much easier with Lessler’s invention.
By the time of Teddy Roosevelt's administration, around 1914, yard work was touted as a relaxing pastime and good exercise. Golf became a popular sport after WWII. More and more companies began developing strains of sturdy, soft grass suitable for golf courses.
Then after WWII, when it became easier for some but not all veterans to get home loans, especially in the new suburbs, well-groomed lawns became more popular.
And here we are, fighting dandelions, yanking clover, and poisoning little wildflowers that dare to bloom in our soft, suburban, or city landscape.
Begun in the UK in 2019 by citizen scientists, No Mow May promotes allowing those wildflowers to bloom and attract pollinators like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. It’s catching on in the US, too. Appleton, Wisconsin, about 200 miles north of Chicago, Illinois, was the first city to legalize the practice. Cleveland Heights, right here in Ohio no longer mows the median strips in their roads. Citizens are encouraged to participate by allowing their yards to bloom.
The movement has its detractors, though. Some people are concerned about rodents, snakes, and ticks. And once “weeds” gain a foothold, they are not easy to discourage. Tamson Yeh, turf specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in New York is someone who voices these concerns. She says allowing a lawn to flourish then ruthlessly cutting it back on June 1, is counterproductive. Pollinators communicate to each other. They return time and again, year after year, to use (what they think is) a recurring food source.
And the most horrible thing: you may inadvertently discover a bunny nest the first time you mow!
Her solution is several fold. Use your space as a wildflower garden. Plant a variety of perennials to encourage pollinators, beautify your personal space, and eliminate the need for a mower. No need for gasoline to power it. No need to find something to do with the clippings. No noise. You’ll enjoy chirping crickets and grasshoppers, and trills and tweets of songbirds. At least, Yeh recommends, allow a patch as large as you can, for wildflowers native to your neighborhood. Enlarge it each year.
In the meantime, wear long sleeves and long pants if you plan to traipse around in the beauty and check for ticks before you return indoors.
If you must mow due to complaining neighbors, local ordinances, … keep your grass as high as you can. Four to six inches will promote healthy roots and still allow the very short flowers to bloom.
My baba, Dad’s mother, did not have a lawn. Her spacious backyard was a fruit and vegetable haven. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, horseradish, beans, peas, you name it, she grew it. Her front yard was on fire every season with marigolds, snapdragons, pansies, peonies, irises. And low-growing portulacas grew in the median between two narrow strips of gravel on the driveway. She had no need of No Mow May, but I bet she would have loved the idea!
I’m re-reading (listening to) Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. She talks about her theory of creativity. Ideas are sentient beings, she says, and only become manifest through a human collaborator. Ideas are always on the lookout for a human to bring them into the world. By being always open to new ideas, Big Magic will happen. Ms. Gilbert is sure of it. She made me a believer, too.
Be curious! (and listen for the birds)