Let it grow!

A case for letting your lawn go to seed — at least a bit of your yard anyway
Mon, 06/09/2014 - 5:30pm

When visiting Block Island you may be struck by the beauty of all the wildflowers, the sight of song and shore birds, the occasional glimpse of a butterfly, the darting iridescent beauty of the dragonflies. It doesn’t matter the season, there is always the beauty of nature here, be it the flash of a cardinal against the snow, or a sweep of goldenrod on a hillside, bright red winterberries in January when all else seems gray. We are fortunate indeed to have set aside some 44 percent of the island as ‘conserved’ land, thanks to the tireless efforts of many organizations.

But conservation of acreage is not enough: We cannot take for granted the eco-system itself. Life depends on an intricate web of relationships. And we should not be too sentimental for a Block Island that looks too much like a postcard from the late 1800s, with wide open fields of cut grass bordered by stone walls, with nary a tree or shrub in sight. 

Throughout the world honeybees and their wilder cousins the bumblebees are disappearing. The monarch butterfly is all but extinct. How many other important insects are coming to the same fate? And what will – is – happening to the bird populations that depend on eating insects? We simply don’t know. We will suffer the effects once they are gone though.

One of the primary reasons for all of this is that we are simply starving them – depriving them of the plants that nourish them and in many cases allow them to reproduce, depriving them of habitat. Monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweeds. If there are no milkweeds, there will be no monarchs. We may think of loss of habitat as something that occurs on large industrial farms. It does. It also is right outside our backdoors.

Embrace the wild

There is growing awareness of the absolutely absurd monoculture of the American lawn. Not only are weed-free acres of bright green clipped grass, time-consuming to maintain and greedy for water and nourishment, they are veritable ecological wastelands. There are no flowering plants to provide nectar for pollinators, there are no fruiting shrubs to provide food for birds, and even when we do plant bushes such as blueberries, we rapidly cover them up in netting so as to ahem keep the birds from eating them. 

The world is slowly waking up to the dangers of such practices. As Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury write in their book, “Planting: A New Perspective” There is however a new agenda for gardeners, both private and public: sustainability and the support of biodiversity. 

Known for his naturalistic garden designs so artful they don’t look ‘designed’ at all, Oudolf has transformed places, many formerly industrial into complex eco-systems that not only feed the soul, they are good for the environment. The book, with text mainly written by Kingsbury, includes many lovely and inspiring photographs of landscapes in such varied places as New York City and Nantucket. 

He relies on a mix of the native and the exotic. He is no purist, recognizing the potential good in many types of plants. He is especially reliant on the use of grasses intermingled with perennials and herbaceous woody plants. Kingsbury writes of “developing a vegetation rather than planting a mass of individuals.”

So, here is where we come in. Or don’t. Let’s call it ‘passive lawn care,’ ‘the art of benign neglect,’ or ‘turn-your-lawn-into –a-meadow.’ It might not be something you wish to choose for your entire lawn, but surely there is an area, say a swath along a stone wall, where you can allow that lawn to turn into a meadow. Allow the wildflowers to grow in, the grasses to grow long and go to seed. If you get really inspired, tuck in some native plants and shrubs. Limit your mowing to a curving path through it and enjoy your newly found leisure time. 

At my house, we try to keep our own yard groomed in the front, the back slope down to the orchard has become much less ‘neat.’ Blame it on a broken lawnmower, but allowing the area to grow with native grasses and whatever wild flowers established themselves there, and there are many, has turned the area into a welcome place for all sorts of wildlife, from birds and butterflies to snakes and turtles. Of course, occasionally one needs to go in and deal with some undesirables, such as invasive oriental bittersweet and Japanese Knotweed, Mile-a-minute vine and black swallowwort. 

The payoffs are great, even if some are quite diminutive: violets and buttercups in spring, milkweed, sweet peas, evening primrose, chicory and Queen Anne’s lace in the summer, goldenrod and asters in the fall, and a whole slew of clovers, vetch, and dandelions (yes, dandelions!) all along. 

There are plants with medicinal properties and mystical lore. One is Great Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, also called hag’s taper, torches and donkey’s ears. The donkey’s ears are for the large, mucilaginous, felt-like leaves. Hummingbirds line their nests with the “lint’ from them. Dried, the leaves were (and still are, actually) smoked to ease “chest complaints.” The monikers of torches and hag’s taper come from the use of the long sturdy flower stalks as torches when dipped in tallow. Mullein can grow to six feet.

And then in the winter there are the seed heads of the many grasses, lovely and amazingly varied in form, some feathery, some like small squirrels’ tails, waving their grains for the winter birds to both eat and take cover in.

From The Block Island Summer Times, June 2014