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When a Lawn Isn't a Lawn

Lawns are evil, lawns are full of cancer-causing chemicals, the monoculture of lawns is detrimental to ecosystems, lawns are about conformity, lawns do not make a garden.

Even Tom Selleck was sued over stealing water to keep his expansive California lawn green.

Lawns are no longer cool.

What used to be a sign of prosperity and wealth is now considered the worst choice for gardeners. And don't even try to call yourself an environmentalist if you have a lawn.

But we didn't set out necessarily to have a lawn. We just wanted to make the land flat and manageable. Something that wasn't an ant hill infested wasteland. Something we could walk across without breaking an ankle.

But as I learned more about sustainable landscaping, I came to understand that lawns have become a blight upon the earth.

The concept of a lawn, according to Planet Natural, originated in 16th century England and it referred to an open area around a castle that was kept free of trees so guards could view possibly hostile visitors.

The term also referred to the village “commons”, the meadows shared or held “in common” where villagers could graze their sheep and cattle. These hooved lawn mowers kept the grass cropped, fertilizing as they grazed. Talk about organic lawns.

Later the lawn became associated with the wealthy landowners because, when sheep are not an option, it took a lot of manual labour to keep the grass short. Eventually, with immigration, the concept of the lawn was introduced into North America. They even brought over their own grass seed. But while the typical lawn thrives naturally in England with its mild, moist environment, it is more challenging to keep the perfect lawn in North America's varied climate.

With the 50's came the expansion of the suburbs, and the popularity of the lawn grew with the middle classes. And because this was a time of great experimentation with chemicals, many were used to keep the lawn "perfect" or free of weeds. In addition, because most of North America is not like temperate England, much water was needed to keep it green and lush.

There are still many who insist on keeping a perfect lawn but there has also been a growing movement to get rid of the grass and grow wildflowers or vegetables instead. My brother, in Vancouver, has transformed his whole property, even the space next to the sidewalk into a vegetable garden.

In our defense, we have only thrown grass seed around a couple of times. Mostly we just let nature do its thing. We call what we mow nuclear grass because it can withstand and grow through almost anything. It is a mixture of all sorts of weeds: dandelions, clover, plantain and very thick, sharp grass, that if left to its own devices, grows to be about 5ft tall.

At one point, when our trees were still small, I tried to grow a meadow garden. I had just finished reading "Grow Wild, Native Plant Gardening in Canada" and "The New Ontario Naturalized Garden, The Complete Guide to Using Native Plants" by Lorraine Johnson, and I was inspired to have a field of native wildflowers.

The idea was we would simply mow paths through the meadow leaving all the rest to grow naturally. I imagined myself walking slowly through the field, drawing my hands gently through the swaying bouquet of gorgeous flowers.

Our patch of meadow with a farmers field in the background.

The reality was the native bee and butterfly loving flowers never took off and instead I had a hot, bug and spider-infested field of tall grasses and prickly thistle. There was one advantage though, the birds loved it.

And then we got a dog and I learned about tics and Lyme disease and how tics love tall grasses and that was the end of that.

So we are back to mowing the lawn. But we don't ever water it or try to keep the weeds at bay (as if we could).

Not to be defeated, my goal is still to reduce the amount of mowing and weed whacking as much as possible. So we have started building beds around clusters of trees, effectively creating the idea of paths again but instead of a meadow, I will plant native ground covers and small bushes. Hopefully, it will look something more like this. I have to leave some grass for Tom to mow. He enjoys it oh so much.

To do this properly at one time would take a lot of money so we are picking at it. We found a local supplier of rough mulch and we have spread that over cardboard and landscaping mat in the shapes we want. It certainly isn't perfect right now and I'd rather not use the mat but the weeds are voracious. Some form of weed suppression is necessary. They still make it through just not in the same numbers.

Transforming an empty field into a place where nature can thrive and people want to visit is nowhere near as easy as I thought it would be. But I am determined. Every season we make a little more progress. A garden is never about instant gratification. You have to be in it for the long haul.