"Lawn" is said to come from the Middle English word laune, meaning a glade or clearing in the woods. In Tudor times, large swaths of grass, scythed by laborers, signaled a landowner's wealth. Over the centuries, a lush expanse of mowed grass became a symbol of tranquility and beauty. Americans' love affair with the residential lawn can be traced to Riverside, one of the first planned suburban communities in America, outside Chicago. Designed in 1868 by Frederick Law Olmsted, Riverside's landscape plan "stipulated that...each owner would maintain one or two trees and a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors', creating the impression that all lived together in a single park," wrote Michael Pollan in his well-known essay "Why Mow?" But it wasn't until the 1920s that the adoption of the gas-powered mower made it possible for average folks to maintain their own lawns, and "nice grass" became an American point of pride.
"A lawn came to signal its owner's commitment to a communitarian project: the upkeep of the greensward," wrote Elizabeth Kolbert, in "Turf Wars," her 2007 essay in The New Yorker.
Fast-forward to 2012. Americans now spend upwards of $40 billion a year to plant, water, feed and otherwise coddle turf grass. Despite studies showing links to irreparable environmental damage, chemicals are widely applied to keep lawns green and free of weeds. Kolbert reports that the most common, Sevin, has been shown to cause developmental damage in lab animals and is toxic to - among many other organisms - tadpoles, salamanders and honeybees.
The lawn as we know it is unsustainable. And while it may be hard to unknot more than a century of devotion to the American "greensward," some folks in Madison are trying. Organizations and individual homeowners are experimenting with new ideals of beauty in the landscape, as well as turning to less toxic maintenance of traditional grassy lawns.
Madison's Healthy Lawn Team focuses on convincing homeowners to reduce their pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use. The volunteer group makes information and resources available on its website, healthylawnteam.org. There, homeowners can find a list of nontoxic herbicides, names of organic lawn care services, yard signs and more.
"We don't preach against grass," says Jay Anderson, a Healthy Lawn Team board member for the last six years. "Our main focus is getting people off chemicals."
Anderson owns Bando Organics Lawn and Landscape (608-255-1079 or 698-1146), a sustainable lawn care business. When he pulls up at a client's house in a spray rig, there's no need to don protective masks. The brown stuff gushing out of his hose is 100% organic compost tea. Anderson makes it in vats in his garage, with minute attention to the microbial balance of his mixes. The formula is good enough to have earned him ongoing contract work with UW's Allen Centennial Gardens, as well as Olbrich Gardens.
"I'm a compost junkie," he admits. "Good compost is the answer to three-fourths of your lawn care needs."
Soil is where you start, according to Anderson, a Dane County Master Gardener. Test your soil, aerate it, amend it with compost, and know which "weeds" funnel nitrogen (clover) and other beneficial nutrients into the ground, he says. Then think about the grass.
"The key is to get the best seed available," advises Anderson. "And always use a fresh bag, not the one you had in the garage all winter. Those seeds won't germinate."
Anderson recommends Madison Park Seed Mix from the Olds Seed Co. (you can find it at Jung's, 1313 Northport Dr. or 6192 Nesbitt Rd.). He cautions, however, that good results will take more than one season. Turf grass really isn't supposed to be growing here. A yard filled with lush green grass requires much more coddling than a yard filled with, say, native plants and rain gardens. Like his own.
"I gave up grass a long time ago," he admits, with a chuckle.
Which brings us to the "natural lawn," a concept that began right here in Wisconsin.
A year ago this June, Lorrie Otto died, at age 90. A member of the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame (inducted in 1999), Otto became famous for a small act of 1940s rebellion: digging up the tulips and non-native Norway spruces in the yard of her new home in Bayside (a suburb of Milwaukee) and planting asters, goldenrod and native grasses in their stead.
Neighbors complained, and one afternoon, while she was in the basement doing laundry, a cohort of "lawn police" arrived and mowed Otto's yard to the ground. But the farm girl who grew up in Middleton was far from cowed. She gave village officials a tour of her yard, describing each plant that had been destroyed and debunking the myth that all were "weeds." By the first Earth Day, in 1970, her home looked as though it had been "dropped onto a prairie." Milwaukee's Schlitz Audubon Center's annual natural yards tour is named in honor of this feisty natural landscaping pioneer.
"If suburbia were landscaped with meadows, prairies, thickets or forests, or combinations of these, then the water would sparkle, fish would be good to eat again, birds would sing and human spirits would soar," Otto famously said.
The Wild Ones, a native plant advocacy group (for-wild.org), grew out of Otto's actions and principles. Now with 49 chapters in 12 states (most chapters are in Wisconsin), Wild Ones focuses on "biodiversity in your yard," according to Laurie Yahr, a longtime member of the organization.
"If you, like me, want a world in balance, the most important thing you can do as a homeowner is to plant as many native species as you can," says Yahr, citing the native bees, butterflies and birds that are drawn to small patches of urban biodiversity.
Wild Ones offers free how-to workshops on how to evaluate the yard and select, place and plant appropriate species. Perhaps the chapter's best-loved offerings are its Help-Me days, where members gather to help one of their own tussle with some tough native landscaping project.
"We've put in rain gardens for our members, helped with pulling invasives. Sometimes we just gather to admire someone's effort. It's inspiring to see what others have done," says Yahr.
Bonnie McMullin-Lawton is a Wild One. Her yard is known, affectionately, around her near-west-side neighborhood as "the prairie yard." Cardinals and chickadees flit through hazelnut and winterberry shrubs. Juncos peck under waist-high stalks of airy bottlebrush grass and stiff goldenrod. It's a study in contrast to most of the surrounding neat green lawns. Except for one.
"We were blessed to buy the house next door to Virginia Kline, the Arboretum restoration ecologist," says McMullin-Lawton, gesturing at her neighbor's front yard, wild like her own. "Ginna was the one who encouraged us to transition to prairie."
Kline, who died in 2003, was an early advocate of native landscaping, and her enthusiasm rubbed off on her new neighbors, Bonnie and Jack.
"We admired her yard a great deal, and she was always eager to share her knowledge with us," says McMullin-Lawton. "But we weren't ready to transition right away."
The McMullin-Lawtons had two small boys, and wanted to keep some grass for playing. But as the kids grew older, they began to wonder aloud to each other: What would it be like not to mow?
The turning point came in 1995. "We had a big spruce on our side of the lot line that was shading both our front yards," McMullin-Lawton recalls. "One day I asked Ginna, 'What are we going to do about this?' And she very promptly replied, 'Why, you're going to take down that tree and plant natives, of course!' So we did."
The old spruce left a patch of fertile earth, where the couple sprinkled native seeds purchased from Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis. (prairienursery.com). Kline told them not to get their hopes up too high - it might be a year or two before the plants would really take hold.
But just the opposite happened.
"Everything came up," McMullin-Lawton recalls, laughing in amazement. "We had a wet May, and within six weeks we had a fully sprouting prairie."
Twenty years later, the front yard is "stunning," says McMullin-Lawton, especially in late summer. People stop to admire and ask questions. The funniest, she says, is "does your yard attract mice?" No, but she does revel in the butterflies, bees, moths and birds that visit. Yes, she burns her yard (with a permit). No, her approach is not 100% chemical-free - she does use "a hit of Roundup" on any garlic mustard, honeysuckle or buckthorn sprouts (but no sprays, fertilizers, watering or mowing).
To any who seem especially bemused by the concept of a shoulder-high lawn, McMullin-Lawton quotes her old neighbor, Virginia Kline:
"This is prairie. This is what Wisconsin looked like 150 years ago."
Take the "natural" lawn and add a vegetable garden, rain barrels, an experimental wetland pond, fruit trees, berry bushes and worm bins. You'll have Kate Heiber-Cobb's half-acre yard in Monona, near Winnequah Park. Heiber-Cobb practices permaculture, embraced by a growing number of urban farmers.
Permaculture is an interconnected growing system, where all users' needs, and the implications of all actions, are carefully considered. Everything has a purpose, and nothing goes to waste. Heiber-Cobb puts it more simply.
"It's like holding hands with everyone in the room."
For example, permaculturists expect their herb gardens to do more than season the table, so they might plant catmint, sage and lavender to attract native bumblebees. Considering the idiosyncrasies of the site, one creates a fully functioning system.
Four years ago, Heiber-Cobb had spruce trees, lilacs, an apple tree, a vegetable bed and a whole lot of green grass. Now she has more than 200 species of purpose-laden plants, a pond, and a yard buzzing and humming with life. But people go at their own pace, she cautions. If you feel overwhelmed, that's when you ought to slow down.
"A lot of people turn to permaculture out of a rushed, panicky feeling, worrying about peak oil or scarcity," she says. "But it's also about connecting with other people, through teaching, learning, growing. That's why I started the guild."
The Madison Area Permaculture Guild (madisonareapermacultureguild.org) meets monthly at St. Stephens Lutheran Church in Monona and offers workshops on everything from grafting to vermiculture, for those interested in creating sustainable, resilient systems.
But let's end where we began: with grass. Not turf grass, but native Carex pensylvanica, or Pennsylvania sedge. The UW Arboretum will be offering this low-mow alternative to turf grass through its annual Native Plant Sale on Saturday, May 12. The sedge (not really a grass at all) grows thickly, in short clusters never more than six inches high.
Arboretum native plant gardener Susan Carpenter recommends interspersing the sedge with low-growing natives, such as blue-eyed grass (a tiny relative of iris), yellow star grass, pussy toes and bird's foot violet, to keep out the broad-leaf weeds and dandelions. All of these will intertwine to form a new kind of lawn: soft underfoot, friendly to birds and bugs, and requiring nothing more than patience.
"You're not going to get something that looks like your old lawn," says Carpenter. "Your aesthetic has to shift a little."
In other words, think laune, not lawn.