Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Liberate Your Lawn


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.

Cccccrrrrooooooaaaak! Ccccccrrrroooooaaaak!

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.

20 comments:

CindyW said...

Hope you are feeling better than yesterday.

We are in the process of converting our dirt patch into an edible garden (which I will detail tomorrow :)) instead of making it into a lawn. If I don't manage to kill most of what we plant (will plant), we will slowly invade our current lawn area.

Frogs - aren't they indicators of local environmental health? It's a lucky sign that you have a frog/toad in your yard.

Chile said...

There used to be grass in the back yard of the little house we rent. The owner let it die when she bought the house, rather than waste water in the desert. It's annoying to trip over the sprinkler heads in the dirt, but far better to have low water use plants. My sweetie's planted some corn in the ex-lawn dirt patch this year. :)

Shannon Hodgins said...

Oh, I Love this post! I'm going to be doing some major a'changin to our tame suburban lawn. A big fat ass garden in the back is the first step. I just can't wait for that one!

Last year I convinced hubby to let the lawn grow longer before moving, and we didn't bag clippings. The yard only got watered when the kids were having a play day with limited sprinkler use, and the flowers with leftover little swimmy pool water. Tough sell for husband........

This year the greenie will march further! Shannon

Rejin L said...

Congratulations on making a home for the frog.
We wanted to attract wildlife, too, but since we have no corridors, nothing can walk (or hop) in.
Mostly we see the sparrows that live in a neighbors Holly tree, and a cardinal family that must nest nearby. And after one of our trees died, a tiny woodpecker began hunting on it.
Our most successful plantings (for wildlife) have been bee balm (attracts lots of bees, that then pollinate our vegetables) and beautyberry (that is harvested by an unidentified bird). The birds seem to eat dogwood berries as well.

Joyce said...

I learned in a Master Gardening class that toads ARE a sign of environmental health. At my house they like a shady area under some big old yew bushes where some one put down a river rock mulch. It stays fairly cool and moist there.

As to attracting butterflies and birds, your local extension service probably has a brochure that lists native plants that can be planted in your yard. Butterflies are very picky, often having only one plant they will lay eggs on, because their caterpillars will only eat that one plant. Native plants usually don't require much babying like watering, which is really my kind of gardening-the wilder the better!

N. & J. said...

My fiance and I live in an apartment so instead of liberating our lawn we are liberating our apartment with herbs, flowers, "houseplants", and an Aloe plant. When it gets warmer we plan on populating our balcony in an attempt to spread the green.

N.

http://badhuman.wordpress.com

Jennifer said...

We have a tiny front lawn that I neglect regularly. It's still holding on, despite an average of 2 waterings a summer (during the long months without ANY rainfall that occassionally happen in Colorado). A little dry, a little brown... but still there.

I got a human powered mower for Christmas... I can't wait to use it.

I DO have designs on the small front lawn.. I would LOVE to xeriscape it. I have already enroached into it with some native plant beds.

But we have a HUGE backyard that is nothing but weeds to tackle before we change out the front lawn...

I do plan on planting SOME lawn.. but it will be buffalo grass or another (yet undecided) native grass instead of bluegrass. We have dogs, afterall, and they need a small place to run without worry of digging up stuff with their feet.

In the other 60 to 70% of the back, we hope to garden edibles and natives... and maybe attract some animals from the nearby canal!




It's very exciting that you have a toad now! I would be tempted to create a nice area on the other side of the sidewalk for her/him to discover when you till.

Tameson O'Brien said...

Hurray for Mr Toad! Please consider not tilling in your cover crop, however. It's far more beneficial to the soil and all the critters that live therein to leave the roots of the legumes (actually the roots of anything but particularly the legumes) to decompose insitu. Just cut the cover crop really short to the ground, plant your new stuff and get a mulch on there pronto and you'll have very happy soil.

Green Bean said...

Isn't it amazing how long lawn will live without all that pampering? So many of you have written how little you water and add no fertilizer. I've done the same and it's still kicking. Makes me wonder why do many water SO much and fertilize so much.

Chile, let us know how the corn goes. We're going to try some too.

Shannon: you sound like me. I'm chipping away at hubby's objections just like the lawn. ;-)

Rejin, thanks for the tips on what has attracted wildlife for you. I'll definitely be looking into the bee balm. BTW, we have no corridors either. The closest creek is 4 or 5 busy blocks away. This really is a miracle!!

Joyce and Cindy, nice to have the confirmation that toads are a sign of environmental health. :)

N&J - rock on! no one said you had to have a yard to have a garden!

Jen - I think you're right. I need to plant appropriate stuff on the other side of the sidewalk - where we'll be ripping up grass for the newest member of our family. Also, we too won't get rid of all the lawn. It's really nice to have some!

Tam - What? I don't have to till the cover crop!?!? I know tilling is bad but I thought that is what you were supposed to do with cover crop. I've been trying to figure out how to reconcile the two. Your way sounds so much easier too. Thank you for the tip! Learning as I go, here. Please tip away. :)

ruralaspirations said...

What a fantastic thing you have done. Good for you for setting an example for your neighbours!

Melinda said...

Awesome post, GB! We have loads of frogs and toads coming back after a winter's nap (not sure where they go, but they were gone for a while!). The sound is comforting at night - we love it. And they're really beautiful critters if you ever do get to see yours. Toads... they're beautiful in their own special way. Frogs - wow, each one is a different color in our yard!

I swear, the best beneficial insect attractors in our yard are black radish and Broccoli di Chicco gone to seed. They're also surprisingly beautiful! And frogs? Frogs L-O-V-E big squash plants. Love em. Gives them extra cover and humidity.

Green Bean said...

Thanks RI! Your yard isn't looking too shabby either. :)

Melinda: great news on the squash plants as that is what's going in the front yard next month! I know what you mean, too, about the frogs. My parents home has a creek and, starting in mid-February, you can hear the frogs singing away all night long. It's wonderful! I can only hope Mr. Toad puts down roots and multiplies. :)

Julie Artz said...

Although tilling in the cover crop would hypothetically add more organic matter to your soil, the roots are the key nitrogen fixers and, if you have a compost pile to throw the leaves on once you cut them back, there's really no reason at all to disturb the soil.

I've been reading The Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman and it's really turned me on to the idea of trying to replicate nature's (non-tilling) ways when it comes to building good soil.

And I can't complain about not having to rototill or double-dig the beds each spring. Sounds like less work may actually be better when it comes to soil!

:) Julie
http://greenartz.com

Green Bean said...

Julie, thanks for the advice. I love it when less work actually ends up being more for the planet. :)

Woman with a Hatchet said...

I got rid of the largest portion of my front lawn a couple of years ago. We had a helluva drought here in CO, so I took advantage of it, got a truckload of mulch and smothered what was left.

I replaced it with xeriscape plants that I grew from seed. Hundreds and hundreds of them. You can see it here.

I get lots of hummingbirds and compliments from the neighbors about it. I even convinced my next door neighbor that she could do the same.

And I would love to have a toad! None yet, though.

Melinda said...

I'm with the no tilling camp. If you till, you have to wait 4-5 weeks before you can plant - until the green material breaks down. But if you cut and compost, you can plant 4-5 weeks earlier, compost the greens, and put the compost back on your soil 4-5 weeks later (or more, depending on your compost method). And at the same time, you'll be saving all the earthworms, toads, microbes, macrobes, etc. that you've just nurtured. ; )

Melinda said...

P.S. Did that make any sense? If not, send me an email and I'll try explaining it a little better. ; )

Green Bean said...

Beautiful yard, Woman!

Melinda: perfectly clear. Thank you for the "master gardener" advice - it helps to have friends in high places. ;-)

Woman with a Hatchet said...

Thanks Green Bean! And thanks for dropping by, too.

I like your butterfly garden. Nice job with the stones. Soon you'll have the nicest front yard in the neighborhood and then just wait: little by little other brave souls will follow your lead.

Green Bean said...

I hope so, Woman, I hope so. My toad's friends need a home too. :) I've only gotten positive comments so we'll see.

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