Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

July 17, 2009


Leonard Stern, Ottawa Citizen - Henry and Vera Jones, as the Citizen reported this week, outed themselves as social radicals by publicly rejecting the ideal of a manicured lawn.

The couple have a big backyard in Constance Bay and some months ago decided to hell with watering, fertilizing, cutting and weeding. Henry is a former Fisheries and Oceans scientist who has some understanding of ecology, so he and Vera decided to create a natural green space in lieu of a lawn. They would let the grass grow, plant an assortment of butterfly-friendly plants and allow a mini-meadow to emerge.

The neighbors were not impressed. Someone complained to the city's bylaw officials, who then sent the Joneses a letter threatening to come down there and cut the grass if the couple didn't do it themselves. Unmowed lawns in Constance Bay will not be tolerated. The resistance must be put down. Order will be re-established.

The neighbors deny that this is about anyone's refusal to conform. They say the Jones garden is attracting too many insects and critters to the area and thus diminishing the ability of others to enjoy their own properties. Still, it's clear that the Joneses are in equal trouble for breaching a strict code of suburban etiquette. "It looks just awful," said one disapproving neighbor.

The central irony of suburbia is that we give the streets names like Meadow Grove and Orchard Drive while ensuring that all traces of meadows and orchards are erased. The appearance of an actual meadow is an act of rebellion.

More than a decade ago, the Canadian cultural critic Robert Fulford observed that the suburban lawn had become an instrument of public shaming and social control.

"[A] dandelion's appearance on a lawn indicates that Sloth has taken up residence in paradise and is about to spread evil in every direction," he wrote. Weeds demonstrate a "weakness of the soul," announcing to the world that "the owner of the house refuses to respect the neighborhood's right to peace, order and good government.". . .

They say that clothes express the man, but in fact it's the lawn that does. A large expanse of flat, weedless grass in front of your house conveys a bunch of social messages. It suggests discipline, an ability to tame the natural world. As Fulford says, lawns express an "imperialist personality."

Lawns are examples of conspicuous consumption, and like other such symbols have status attached to them. The more wasteful your lifestyle, the more money you are seen to have.

Maintaining a large velvety front lawn is not as excessive as keeping a private jet or killing an elephant for its tusks, but it is a symbol of waste nonetheless. . .

The need to build denser and more efficient communities could spell the end of the road for the big green lawn. The environmentalist impulse behind denser communities and smart living has already interfered with lawn culture, in the form of pesticide bans. Without chemicals, the effort required to maintain the equivalent of a putting green on your property becomes much harder. . .

Right now the Joneses are being derided as non-conformist troublemakers. Someday, they might be hailed as trendsetters.


Blogger LifelongLib said...

I have a townhouse in Hawaii with a tiny yard. I long ago stopped weeding and watering it -- I admit I weed-whack it once in a while. When it grows out birds come to feed which makes it much more interesting than plain old grass.

July 17, 2009 5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to my father, grass seed used to be a mixture of various grasses And white clover. White clover to add Nitrogen into the soil and to provide something green during the heat of the summer when the grass naturally died back. People realized that grass will naturally revive in the Fall, it's not really necessary to water all summer.

I too believe in the Darwinian approach to lawn-care, and that a good mixture of green leafy things are just as pleasant to look at as a mono-culture of one grass species. That a Springtime profusion of yellow dandelions is actually good for the soul, and the July white clover bloom is much more beautiful than a boring sea of green.

What to do about neighbors that spend hundreds of dollars on lawn-care?

I tell them they have an occasional volunteer dandelion sprouting here-and-there because I pick the fragile white dandelion seed heads, gingerly carry them to their yard, and under the cover of darkness lovingly disperse the seeds with a puff of breath.

In reality, I don't do this seed dispersal... I only tell them I do, just to play with their minds.


July 18, 2009 10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dandelions were imported to North America by early European settlers who needed early spring honeybee forage. White clover is great bee forage too. With all the trouble that both honeybees and native pollinators are having currently, a few dandelions and some white clover will help support bees and other pollinators. That way there will be pollinators around when the tomatoes bloom.

Personally, I have removed my lawn and have a food forest about half planted. My chestnut trees are finally fruiting this year!

When I bought my home, I made sure that the neighborhood didn't have any pesky neighborhood association with rules against productive gardens and orchards in front yards. In the 11 years since I moved in, 8 other households on my street have been bought by organic gardeners, permaculturalists, and orchadists. The street has earned the nickname Sheet Mulch Street.

July 18, 2009 12:11 PM  
Anonymous picking gooseberries said...

yup, got plenty of lush and pretty white clover, and some dandelions and violas in my yard, too, along with the grasses. bees, bunnies, butterflies and family like my yard fine (but even with all the clover to munch those naughty bunnies have to be chicken-fenced out of the garden).

July 18, 2009 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Picking Gooseberries,

That is because clover is nice, but lettuce is better, as far as the bunnies are concerned.

I have to fence my chickens out of the garden beds, if I want any veggies myself.

July 19, 2009 12:43 PM  

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