June 07, 2006

The Bad Seed

by peterb

On my block, I'm the Bad Neighbor.

Oh, I'm not terrible or anything. I'm nice to people, and polite, and I don't have my car on blocks in the front yard. Nor do I blast music at 3 in the morning, or hang out on the porch getting drunk and whistling at neighborhood girls.

But I'm the Bad Neighbor for one very simple reason: my lawn is terrible, and I don't care.

In what can only be described as a bewildering turn of events, I've lately started caring about the fact that I don't care. Is something wrong with me? I spend my weekends visiting friends, or drinking coffee, or laying around reading or playing videogames, and from every nearby house I hear the buzz of lawn mowers, and the hiss of seeders, and the scritch of sprinklers.

And I don't get it. I don't understand.

The situation came to a head earlier in the year when I had so many dandelions on my lawn that my yard was noticeably yellow when viewed from Google Earth. My neighbors had begun to give me somewhat withering looks every time I drove up to the house, trundling ignorantly past the weed garden that is my front yard. Didn't I care that my soil was obviously alkaline? Didn't I want to pour some poison on the weeds and chase them out? Didn't I want a nice green carpet?

And the answers come to my mind practically unbidden: no, no, and no.

Let's put aside the issue of how environmentally hostile it is to dump toxic waste on your lawn to kill the plants you don't want. And let's even put aside the question of expense: while it's true that maintaining a lawn takes some cash, that's not really what's stopping me from doing it. It's really the whole idea of lawns that I don't get. Dandelions, clover, and black medic all seem just as pretty to me as green grass. They're just as nice to lay on. The weeds attract rabbits, birds, and other small animals to the yard. It's my house, not a golf course. Grass is just another plant.

The gap is best illustrated by a conversation I had with a neighbor who has since moved out. This guy worked on his lawn every day. Every single day from spring through fall, there was not a day that he was not in the yard cutting, trimming, bagging. Now, there's nothing wrong with that: obviously, he got great pleasure from it. We chatted about this, and we chatted about that, and I mentioned that some black raspberry canes had sprouted up in my front yard.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I just ripped a bunch of those out of my backyard. I hate 'em. They're so hard to keep under control."

And all I could do is stare. What kind of person destroys a black raspberries in favor of a sterile boring lawn? The gap is unbridgeable. I am a stranger in a strange land.

An architect friend of mine says that the idea of having a nice lawn is a middle-class folly that is inherited from the mythology of the British upper class. The memory of the "manor house," being imitated on a small scale by little would-be lords and ladies. Over half of the US's water supply goes to feed our lawn habit, much of that water carrying pesticides and chemicals straight back down to the water table.

Whatever the motivation, I surely don't understand it. If someone can explain the attraction to me, I'd love to understand. Until then, I suspect I will always be my neighborhood's bad seed.

And hey: although the grass is greener on their side, I've got all the black raspberries.

Posted by peterb at June 7, 2006 05:20 PM | Bookmark This

Ha, I couldn't agree more with your sentiments. And I live (literally) in the middle of your predicament with kindly neighbors getting less kindly as a variety of wild plant take over an artificial, greener than krypotinite lawn variety.

Most people seem to think I've given the lawn over to laziness, and while it's true I have no real interest in creating a perpetual putting green with all the work entailed, I'm opposed to the anonymity and sterility of the common suburban lawn. I'm compromising by taking the time to put some work into flower planters. I generally like flowers and flowering plants. But my recent comment to my neighbor that I'd like to solve some bald spots by spreading wildflower seeds was met by incredulity and light laughter.

Posted by guthrie at June 7, 2006 06:00 PM

My uncle points out that you don't win until you've replaced all the grass with something more interesting: paths, trees, groundcovers varigated, little spotches of monetian color. Gander at the gardens of the Dutch: magic little pockets of lovely green with little to no grass in sight. He also cautions that gardening, if not handled with care, can consume souls. And while it's not like that sort of thing would likely make your neighbors any happier, it might, it might.

I'll also point out that acidic soil is really good for blueberry bushes. And grass is real good for under those.

Posted by Goob at June 7, 2006 07:02 PM

I sort of miss having my own lawn. I'm certainly not one of those obsessive out-there-every-day people, or even every weekend. But I like mowing the lawn, and the smell of freshly cut grass. I blame games like Qix and all those early 80s maze games where you had to travel over the entire path, it put some sort of obsessive quality in me where I'd have to make sure I got every part of the yard. (It was also a wonderful excuse to use power tools like a weed whacker! VROOOOM!)

I'm the same way about ironing clothes, too -- it's relaxing and I feel like I've "won" if I get all the wrinkles out.

Posted by Adam Rixey at June 7, 2006 08:43 PM

I'm in the same boat with my lawn, and our wildflower garden in the back garners similar scorn. My wife (a currently unemployed entymologist) picked flowering plants (many considered weeds) for their attractiveness to butterflies and moths. The flowers are remarkably hardy, something is always in bloom, and lots of neat things call them home or food...

Why would anyone choose a few solitary petunias surrounded by acres of mulch over that?

We're moving to England in the fall for a couple of years but still keeping our house here... the current plan is to jam dozens of fruit trees and bushes in our front yard before we leave. With luck we should come home to an orchard.

Grass is an afront to nature.


Posted by Mark Denovich at June 7, 2006 09:30 PM

A professor from my school recently published a book on this subject: "American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn". You can read an interview with him here:


Posted by Jeff Hunter at June 7, 2006 09:53 PM

I mow and occasionally water, but that is it. My lawn has a lot of texture from the random things growing in it.

One corner has turned to mint. Amazing to mow that corner!

Given the Pittsburgh climate, there are stunning wild flowers that you could grow that would be hardy, interesting, and easy to maintain. Go for lots of edibles, too -- ditch lillies and nasturtiums both make for wonderfully colorful salads and are quite tasty stuffed with shrimp/cheese paste, battered and fried.

Posted by bbum at June 7, 2006 11:43 PM

I try to keep the dandelions under control. None of them are in my lawn, though; they're all camped out in the garden.

The lawn has clover (no black medic - actual white clover) and chamomile and violets growing in it, and mostly exists for the dog to have someplace to use as a toilet.

I keep thinking about ripping up even more of it and putting in more garden...the dog really only needs a little patch, and if I make it a clover-patch, I won't even have to mow it.


Posted by Laura at June 8, 2006 09:45 AM

The only thing I care about is walking around one a week and ripping maybe 1% of the dandelions out, and mowing with a non-powered reel mower maybe twice a week. We need to get an electric weed ahacker, since the reel mower just completely misses the stalks of dandelions.

Posted by Shelby Davis at June 8, 2006 11:39 AM

Dear lord, I hate my crappy boring green lawn. I hate watering it. I hate paying somebody else to mow it. (I won't go into how much I'd hate mowing it myself.) I like it when it looks scruffy and ne'erdowell, which, unfortunately, my homeowner's association is not a big fan of.

Thankfully, my wife is talking to some folks about some kind of low-ecological impact xeriscaping jibber jabber, which is code for: no mowing. Screw you, boring green lawn people.

Posted by tilt at June 8, 2006 02:10 PM

Our front garden has returned to nature and may swallow our postman. This is not an ethical statement on the place of wild growth or a rebellion against manicured greenery.

This is sloth.

Plus I can't find anyone cheap enough to do the work for me.

Posted by Troy Goodfellow at June 10, 2006 11:38 AM

I find a lawn maintainance the most silly thing. You mow it, only to feed it, and then it grows even quicker.

I really liked living in the mountains out side of Denver. No lawn.

(I thought I was out, but like a scene out of the God Father ... ) Since I got pulled back to the PIT, most of the ten acres are taken up with woods. There is a token strip next to the road, and mail box that I mow. Just to trying to stay below radar. Sometimes I think that strip of land would be better if it were green concrete.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at June 22, 2006 06:47 PM

I hate having a lawn. It's expensive house decoration. You pay to keep it green in the summer (water), and then you pay to keep it neat.

One Zen rock garden coming right up!

Posted by Dr. Click at June 22, 2006 09:07 PM

OK. So I know you. And I am having a hard time buying that idea that you don't sit on your porch whistling at neighborhood girls. I think you may be getting old.

Posted by kerriem3 at June 28, 2006 04:33 PM

Really, it's because some bastard stole my chair.

Posted by peterb at June 28, 2006 09:25 PM

I've thought about this greatly...I would rather put the money "inside fixing up my house" so I can enjoy it's beauty, then spend it on getting my lawn greener than my neighbors. All around me the neighbors stand around looking across at everyones lawns and they actually compare their lawn to everyone elses. It's like a competition to see who can have the better lawn. Don't they realize they are not really trying to get the lawn looking nice for themselves but really they are doing all this stuff for their neighbors to enjoy while they are getting into their cars on the way to work. Yes... quickly...Lets all run out and see who can put the better poison on the lawn.
I use to have a nice lawn until the lawn care companies in our town showed up into the picture...all these bugs (that I've never heard of before) were never in my grass until they showed up at my door to point out to me that all of a sudden I have a problem.....hmmm sounds fishy to me....

Posted by Nancy Best at July 15, 2006 07:04 AM

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