Death to Lawns
by Allen Delaney
Ten years ago I declared war on my lawn. Although small by sprawl standards, the lawn was consuming too much of my leisure time. Besides which, the neighbors were starting to complain about the language evoked by my hard-to-start mower. I retrieved my copy of the Art Of War and plotted a campaign of attrition.
Its easy to hate a lawn. Lawns consume extraordinary amounts of fertilizer, chemicals, water, gasoline and physical exertion. Most of the chemicals run off into the Bay, and mower exhaust is as noxious as a 54 Ford. Every week I was out there sweating, hours of useless labor, for what? An artificial replica of an Olde English Meadow? Not me. Not any more.
The first step was to cut the lawn off. No more fertilizer, lime, weed killer, water. Sprinkler went in the trash. These actions reduced the growth rate of the grass, but the lawn was still out there, albeit in a weakened state. My next strike was more aggressive: One boat, one camper and one shed, and I had reclaimed 10 percent of the enemy territory. A basketball court took out another five percent.
In year two of my campaign, I took stock of my battle plan. Something was inherently wrong in replacing lawn with impervious surfaces. Inspiration came to me during a camping trip to Canada: You dont see much grass in a forest. River birches, white pines, maples, dogwoods, wild cherry, even a nasty gum tree appeared in my yard. The grass wilted in the shade of the trees.
Shrubs were next. Gooseberry, laurel, more dogwoods. Mulch between the shrubs. Ivy and different ground covers. The lawn retreated before the assault.
The war is about half over. I cant plant trees and shrubs everywhere, or I wont be able to get the boat or camper out. I surrendered that territory to crabgrass, which I am becoming fond of. Rabbits and quail forage on it, moles are everywhere; I even heard that crabgrass is used as a phytoremediation tool in oilfields. What could be more natural than crabgrass in Maryland?
My yard is a much more pleasant place now. For one thing, it is drug free. The house is cooler in the summer, and the basement no longer floods during rainstorms. The gutters clog up, but I can deal with that. You can hear birds chirping almost any hour of the day. I mow the remaining crabgrass in 30 minutes with an electric mower. Another year or two, and I may declare a truce. Or not. The taste of victory is sweet.
Buy native species: They withstand our climate and insects.
Buy small trees and shrubs: Survival rates are greater.
Buy trees and shrubs in the fall. They are much cheaper in the fall, and the plants establish their roots over the winter and spring.
River birch and white pine grow quickly. Maple, oak, dogwoods and fruit trees grow much slower.
Landfills give out mulch for free. Its a little rough, but its free.
You dont have to turn over grass to kill it. Spread newspaper over the grass, and then spread mulch over the paper. Six to ten sheets work fine, and the paper biodegrades in a year or two. (Sadly, Bay Weekly is not the best paper to use when destroying lawn. It lacks both the bulk and editorial venom to be effective. Try the Sun or the Post. Use the Washington Times on especially hard-to-kill grasses.)