Several years ago, I was having a friendly conversation with an elderly gentleman I knew.
Aware of his devotion to the game of croquet (he was a member of a team which competed weekly and he practiced almost daily), I remarked how much I, too, enjoyed the game. To my great surprise, he replied, “No. No, you have never played croquet.” I replied that I most certainly had, that summer days at my grandparents’ house were a running series of matches between cousins.
“Exactly,” he said, his voice dripping with scorn. “You, my dear, played ‘lawn golf.’ I play croquet.”
As I learned, the court behind the Woodlawn Museum in Ellsworth was maintained to “Olympic standards.” The grass was a special blend, clipped to a precise height and painstakingly rolled to a perfectly flat level. I’m not even going to get into the mallet and ball specifications.
For people like my friend, I see the reason for maintaining a showcase lawn. For the rest of us though? I think it’s time to reconsider.
The most obvious problem with a lawn is the vast amounts of resources required. According to a paper from the Columbia Climate School, “Today, American lawns occupy some 30-40 million acres of land. Lawnmowers to maintain them account for some 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution – probably more in urban areas. Each year more than 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled during the refilling of lawn and garden equipment – more than the oil that the Exxon Valdez spilled.”
On top of that, there are the pesticides (10 times the amount per acre more than farmers use on crops) and other chemicals which run off and pollute our groundwater. Perhaps the greatest concern, however, is simply the amount of water they require. Water which is often wasted and certainly could be put to better use on crops or for drinking. Water which is also becoming increasingly rare, even here in Maine.
All this for something which gives back so very little. No food, no shade. Traditional turf doesn’t even support the pollinators.
So, what is the alternative?
Across the nation, some gung-ho homeowners are trading in their front lawns for full-on victory gardens growing greens and veggies – even fruit trees! Some choose planned beds, others container gardens or raised beds.
If your soil is not great for food or you’re worried about things looking too agricultural, consider a “mini meadow” with all sorts of native plants and wildflowers that the bees and butterflies adore.
You could even combine things and plant veggies in with the flowers in a whirl of home gardening madness.
If you prefer a more “traditional” landscape around your home, consider replacing turf grass with an eco-friendly, drought-resistant ground cover. Clover, mint and creeping red thyme are getting a lot of press these days, although if you want to stick with plants native to this area, a full list is available at maine.gov.
If this idea has piqued your interest and you are ready to trade in the turf, there are scores of books, magazines and websites, not to mention your local garden center, out there to help you decide what lawn alternative is best for you.
The American lawn has had its day, but we know better now. There are more planet-friendly options, and I am enthusiastically experimenting. Although, I confess: I am reserving a small, patchy, regrettably uneven, stretch of grass for “lawn golf” with friends. I’ve got my lucky mallet all picked out.
Life Unwound: Playing the mental game for the win