On my small suburban block, sunken into a valley in the middle of the Bay Area Peninsula, each house is surrounded a neat, flower and leaf-free grassy lawn. Many of the larger, mature street trees have been ousted in favor of petite shrubs that offer no shade and offend no one with dropped leaves or berries. The homes are mostly empty during the day and the silence is punctuated by the bi-weekly visit of gardeners, mowing and blowing for $80 a month.
Our back yards are similarly situated. In most cases, lawn stretches from house to fence post, without even an flowered ripple. Of course, there is the family up the street who paved their entire back yard to put in a basketball court but they seem to be the exception. There are also a few citrus trees, planted in the 1960's and since forgotten, and the occasional rose bush, swiftly pruned back in winter.
Last summer, I saw but one bird in my yard - a drab little sparrow who looked lost and friendless. The flower garden I planted last summer - stretching coneflowers, floppy-headed dahlias, a monstrous butterfly bush and daintily dipping Mexican sage attracted some bees, a single red-breasted humming bird but only a couple of stray butterflies. My oasis proved to be not much of one at all. My yard was still mostly lawn.
Last fall, we carved up our grass-covered sidewalk strip, replacing it with sheet mulch and cover crop seeds. I turned the sprinklers off in October to let nature take its course. The cover crop (beans, peas and such) have grown up, reaching nearly three feet tall, and gaily greet visitors and passerbys alike. I've seen the occasional bird disappear into its beckoning shade and insects teem just above the ground. This weekend, in the silence of the afternoon, an unusual sound emanating from the planting strip, jolted me.
After 12 years on the San Francisco Peninsula, in house after house (some abutting open space), despite years of putting out little "toad abodes", I finally am the proud landlord to a little toad. Some (probably) very cute (I can't find him in all those leaves and he stops croaking whenever I tiptoe near) , voraciously bug-eating toad has taken up residence in our little swath of undisturbed, "weeds". To those of you in more rural areas, this new addition may seem insignificant. In the middle of this sterile suburb, it is nothing short of a miracle.
Where did this creature come from? Where has he been living in the meantime? And, sadly, where will he go when we till the cover crop under to plant pumpkins and beans in the summer? Can I create another equally enticing habitat to move him to?
We had already planned to rip up half of our back lawn to be replaced with edibles. Mr. Toad's discovery has prompted us to also decide to tear up half of our front lawn in favor of a butterfly garden in the shape of a butterfly. How cute is that? I can't claim origination of the ideas as I read about it in Sunflower Houses by Sharon Lovejoy.
If you have not liberated some of your lawn (and your gas-blowing gardeners), consider these reasons to gut your grass:
1) Replacing your grass with anything other than grass will be more aesthetically interesting.
2) Planting edibles instead of grass will provide your family with a hands-on learning experience, superb fruits and vegetables, and a better return on water investment.
3) Substituting xeriscape for your lawn will save you oodles on your water bill and will likely involve some native plant species.
4) Planting a ornamental flower garden will produce beauty, cut flowers for your home and a home for bees and butterflies. If you do this, consider planting milkweed and give the monarch butterfly a chance to escape extinction.
5) Doing anything other than grass will immediately establish you as a trend setter in the neighborhood. Now that my cover crop has grown in, I have received universally positive comments from all of my neighbors (at least to my face).
6) Don't be a statistic. Did you know that grass is America's most irrigated crop. Indeed, the United States "spends more on lawn fertilizer than the rest of the world spends to fertilize food crops." Further, lawns are often maintained by obnoxiously loud gas-powered mowers and blowers that contribute as much as 5% of the nation's total air pollution.
7) Invite Mr. Toad or his friends into your yard. A yard brimming with wildlife is far more interesting, an educational experience for children and adults alike and a balm to our sadness over the shrinking habitat for these wild creatures.
I doubt we'll ever murder the entire expanse of lawn. We do use it to play baseball and Frisbee, set up kiddie pool on the hottest days (don't worry! we reuse the water for our plants). There is no reason, though, not to put in a few trees, some flowers, some veggies and berry bushes. No reason not to liberate your lawn.