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Gardens on the Go - Organic Horticulture

The Lawn Debate as Published in Synergy Magazine, thank you Nicole!

I have never been quite sure about lawns. As a child I often wondered why my parents would get upset about the clover in the lawn. They seemed to be terribly worried about what the neighbours would think and say about their less than perfect green space. I am quite sure that the only reason that they left the clover alone was because their normally hyperactive first born would spend hours upon hours searching for four leaf clovers, relieving them of the somewhat onerous task of keeping me out of trouble. If that had been even a slightly less time consuming task I am sure my dad would have gotten out the weed killer. I can almost hear my mom saying “Leave the clover alone Stanley, it’s keeping her busy”. 

Our lawns seem to arouse some deep seated emotions in us. When polled by Carole Rubin and reported in her book “How to Get Your Lawn off Grass” 87% of men and 42% of women said they would not replace their lawn with a garden for any reason. Many used strong words to reject the idea, and some sited that they needed the lawn for kids to play on, even if they reported having no children, or that the children were not allowed on their lawn. There is something irrational about the love affair we seem to have with green pavement. Lawns do reduce soil erosion, and cool the air in summer more effectively than most home air conditioners. A grassy area absorbs carbon dioxide and lawns in the US are estimated to trap 12 million tons of dust and dirt released annually into the atmosphere according to the University of Nebraska. But wait! If a lawn only an inch high does all these wonderful things, wouldn`t a larger plant accomplish the same purpose to an even greater extent? And maybe we should be planting more trees and shrubs around our lawns to trap all that dust and debris before it reaches the lawn so that our kids don’t roll around in it? Are we sure we want the kids on the lawn anyway? Many perfect lawns are sprayed with chemical cocktails that are very harmful to children and to pets in order to keep the grass green and weed free. What’s the fascination?

Lawns originally evolved through the sweat and hard work of slaves who were forced to clear land so that the upper class could see their enemies approaching. Of course being upper class at that time (and probably now as well) meant you were probably in the minority, so you probably had lots of enemies. Fair enough. As time marched on, a lawn became a symbol of wealth, a sign that the aristocracy were wealthy enough to squander land on non productive uses. Anything that was foreign and exotic was taken to symbolize wealth and status. Grasses were imported from tropical areas and planted throughout Europe by the wealthy. As wealth became more widely distributed the rising middle classes emulated the rich. Lawns became an obsession. 

The rise and fall of fashion and fad seems to be a trait that unifies us somehow. Humans learned long ago that there is strength in numbers. A group hunt tends to bring home substantially more meat than a solitary hunter. We are pack animals of sorts. We tend to form homogeneous groups of like-minded individuals. There is a security in sameness, a respite from an ever changing, ever challenging world. Yet how the lawn fad got so commonly ingrained in our psyche for so long remains a mystery, and in this age of rapidly diminishing resources it is one we had better solve quickly. 

Most lawns are major consumers of oil and oil based products. If a bag of turf fertilizer is labelled 16-4-8 it means that it contains 16% nitrogen, 4 % phosphorous, and 8% potassium. The total percentage of macronutrients in your bag of fertilizer is approximately 28%. There are probably some minor nutrients that help round out the mix, but much of the remaining ingredients, called carriers, are petroleum based. It is recommended that 1 pound of actual nitrogen be applied to a 1000 square foot lawn to keep it green during the growing season, which means that at 16% Nitrogen, about 25 lbs of 16-4-8 must be applied per average lawn (4000 square feet). This in turns means out of that 25 pounds of fertilizer we are applying approximately 62%, (15.5 pounds) of filler, most likely petroleum based. A tremendous amount of energy is used to process these synthetic nutrients in every bag of fertilizer. Raw materials are shipped and trucked long distances to the fertilizer plant. The plastic bags the fertilizer comes in are petroleum based. Heavy bags of fertilizer are then distributed by truck to stores, and then brought home by car, adding even more to the energy costs. It is difficult to make enough compost in our own back yard to keep our lawns healthy. This is especially true if all we are growing is lawn, because lawn clippings are too high in Nitrogen to make good compost without adding other organic materials. If we are adding weed and feed to keep our lawns weed free the burden on the environment is even greater. Our lawns grow quickly in the spring rains, and soon we must get the lawn mower out to mow the grass. Most lawn mowers are motorized. Despite the meditative quality that some have named as attractive to them about lawn mowing, the lawn mower in one hour of mowing can produce a similar amount of pollution as a car driven 100 miles. Approximately 100 million lawn mowers will be in use again this summer. Each mower has about a ten year life span, with a huge energy cost attached to their production.

Oil isn’t the only resource that is disappearing into our oasis of green. Clean drinking water is another commodity that we have taken for granted for centuries, especially in this part of the world, yet is disappearing at an alarming rate. Only one half on one percent of the water on this planet is drinkable. To keep a lawn nicely green in our climate generally requires 38 to 46 thousand litres of drinking water a year. We could use recycled waste water from our baths, showers, and dishes, but that is `not to code`. It is estimated lawn watering can use 60% of our drinking quality water every summer. 

If we are fertilizing our lawns and using pesticides and chemical weed killers the water that returns to the streams and oceans carries along these contaminants. Pesticides and weed killers are energy consumptive to manufacture, package, and ship, as well as dangerous for workers who handle them in both manufacturing plants and applications. The Nitrogen we use to give us lush green grass is especially apt to run off in areas like ours with the heavy rainfall in the spring, fall and winter. It is impossible, most years, to grow a high quality lawn without regular applications of water. Weeds can tend to take over in a dry lawn because they have deeper roots then grass, and can survive long periods of drought. When we experience dry summers, we then turn to using irrigation to wash tons of nitrogen into the sea. Even organic forms of nitrogen can create problems in excess, causing unnatural prolific algal blooms. As this algae lives and dies it consumes large amounts of oxygen, leaving little for other stream living creatures to breathe. It is no wonder our salmon populations are in rapid decline. 

Very few of us are truly `bad guys`. I just can`t believe that at all. The plan for lawns was not to pollute things but to actually get close to nature again after the nightmare of conditions and lifestyle of the factory and coal mining towns of the dawn of the industrial age. To roll in the grass seemed our first reconnection with nature as we came out of those extremes. The greenness of a lawn can feel light years removed from the soot of those heavy industrial towns that sprung up before we had a word for pollution. In 1940`s the UK passed legislation concerning water pollution but it wasn`t until Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962 and the Clean Air act passed in 1963 that we began to truly question our impact on the environment. In 1970 the First Earth Day was held, and the Environmental Protection Agency born. A 1972 Life magazine published pictures of the results of mercury poisoning at Minemata Japan. These are images few of us can forget, and images that should certainly be included in every high school curriculum. I hope that we never, as humans become immune to that kind of shock. I hope we are not already.

Lawns are definitely my scapegoat today, but I just can`t help but think that we need to continue examine more closely how our everyday actions affect the planet. Although lawns may have been our connection with a form of nature in the past I believe we are ready to evolve into the type of awareness that the ``100 Mile Diet` and ``Naturescaping`` have brought us to. 

In the same amount of area that you can seed, water, weed, feed, grow and mow a lawn you can plant a Victory Garden. In 4000 square feet you can explore the possibilities of quite a few `Square Foot Gardens`, even including generous pathways. Mel Bartholomew in his book ``All New Square Foot Gardening` illustrates how you can grow enough vegetable in 250 square feet to feed four people including some for winter preservation. According to Mel, just one 4x4 foot box will produce one head of cabbage, one head of broccoli, one head of cauliflower, four heads of romaine lettuce, four heads of leaf lettuce, four heads of salad lettuce, five pounds of sugar peas, eight bunches of swiss chard, nine bunches of spinach, sixteen small carrots, sixteen beets, and four bunches of beet greens, sixteen long carrots, and thirty two radishes. Now at today`s food prices that would be at least $100 worth of food, and at least $150 worth of good quality organically grown food. Even if you only used half of your average lawn, say, 2000 square feet for food production instead of grass you could be growing over $12,000 worth of food. If you grew this food organically, you would be growing almost $19,000 worth of food according to Mel , by using his square foot gardening method. With less intensive conventional row planting this yield might be a bit less, but since an average lawn costs between $1440 and $1800 to be maintained, even if you paid a professional to tend your veggie garden you may be ahead as much as $17,000 per year by converting ½ your lawn to veggie garden. 

If veggies are really not your thing, and this is still too much maintenance for you I suggest you try Naturescaping your yard with Native Plants. Trees and shrubs, especially native trees and shrubs, use less water than a lawn, and need far less fertile soil, and in many cases very little fertilizer other than an initial application of compost. Native plants have evolved with the climate here, and withstand all the typical climatic conditions. They are also vital links of food source and shelter for living creatures that have co-evolved with them, and have built up community over millennium. A great combination of ideas involves growing native food plants like huckleberries, salal, native strawberries, and native greens. 

Whatever your decision, it pays to be mindful of just what our situation is on this island and on this planet. We need to start prioritizing in a truly different way. Here on Vancouver Island we only have 3 days of food. As the population grows we will be faced with a greater water shortage. Fuel prices are steadily rising, and are projected to continue to rise. We will not be able to continue to import food from all over the world to feed ourselves. By using our green spaces more effectively we can reduce the demand for both water and oil. Food grown in our backyard and delivered fresh to our tables within hours is bursting with vitamins. It is being shown over and over again that fresh, good quality organic food is essential to good health. Growing and eating our own food can dramatically improve our health, and our demands on an already overburdened health care system. The list of benefits goes on and on. This summer, as we mow our lawns, I hope we all will be thinking of ways that we can make this space become an ecological gain for the planet instead of a loss.