Backyard Naturalist – The Song of the Giant Green Beast
Lawns and Lawn Alternatives – Broad swathes of my yard are covered in something that might once have been a lawn. The middle section is devoted mainly to my kids’ soccer games and has the threadbare look of a heavily trafficked carpet. Even the less trampled areas, when seen from inside the house, look like we’re living on the flank of an enormous greenish beast with a terrible case of mange. In the spring, it’s a mottled patchwork of gray, bare dirt, and some tufted, tussocky weeds.
This is the kind of lawn you’d take a lot of flak for in the suburbs. We don’t have close neighbors though, and behind our house are acres of wooded swamp, so there’s no one to displease with our apparent failure of landscaping. From far away, or from a car window, the front yard is mostly green. We let a patch of ferns grow every summer over the leach field, and moss fills in any bare patches and gives an impression of lawn to people passing by. But the backyard is sunbaked and rangy. Under the clothesline, on the north side of the house, it’s packed dirt from my footsteps and the laundry basket lugging, but nearby, if you get close enough to one of the shabby bits, you can see clusters of bluet flowers smaller than your pinkie fingernail. They’re Houstonia caerulea in Latin, and “Quaker ladies” in some colloquial tongues. They aren’t flowers that will thrive in a conventional lawn treated with a herbicide, and the botanical notes on them say they will not spread unless mowing is avoided until after they set seed. Would that we all might pay such touchingly close attention to the lives of plants, or, at the very least, apply such an extreme of benign neglect that most of them do get to set seed before we get around to mowing.
There are other plants volunteering to take the place of lawn in our yard; creeping Jenny has spread around our small pond and trails its gold-coin leaves into the water. Dandelions anchor into the gravel and sand strewn into the grass by the winter plow. Mostly, the backyard is clover, blooming in white first, and then blooming in bees bigger than the flowers themselves. I have seen all these plants described as good replacements for traditional lawns, and clearly they are willing participants. There are other fine ground covers that can serve as a green expanse: creeping thyme, or lilyturf, or even sempervivums like hen and chicks. All these last are not particularly amenable to being walked on, however, and certainly cannot stand up under a vigorous soccer match.
Because our yard serves so many masters, and will until our kids are done with it, I have learned to apply the lesson I was taught on a surgery rotation in veterinary school when assessing a wound: to let the tissue declare itself. This is a stance of watchful waiting, to see if a damaged part can heal, even when it looks terrible or dead at the outset. I let my lawn declare itself. In places, it stays dirt. In places, it’s a riot of dandelion fluff and crabgrass and Virginia creeper veining along the surface, and when I look at it, it reminds me of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” and what the Skin Horse says: “Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” This yard is loved to shabbiness, and I am learning to understand.