Ian Petrie

It took the dynamic coordinator of the Cornwall and Area Watershed group Karalee McAskill to challenge three centuries of cultural dogma. The suggestion? Leave parts of lawns in public spaces uncut.

"Certainly we do get a lot of questionable looks. They definitely wonder what we're doing, why we've allowed the dandelions to come up” she told the CBC’s Nancy Russell. These questions tell us a lot.

Lawns have a long history linked to class, warfare, architecture, social mobility, and more recently, changing views on health and the environment. It comes from a middle English word “launde” which was a glade or opening in the woods. Medieval castles removed trees and kept large areas cut short so soldiers could see approaching hostile forces. These then became commons for people to graze livestock.

In the 17th century lawns became an indicator of social status. Wealthy feudal landowners could show off how many serfs they controlled. Before lawnmowers, it took a lot of physical labour to keep lawns short and weed free. If lawns looked ragged and long it was a sign (much like today) of neglect or money trouble.

It was the Scots (bless them) who brought turf varieties with them to North America, really for the games they loved: golf and lawn bowling. The backyard lawn, and the social responsibility to maintain it, started in housing developments after the Second World War. It gave returning soldiers and their new families a taste of prosperity and pride, that they now had what was once just the domain of the rich. The lawnmower was critical to all of this. First invented in the 1830’s, they could be found in almost every home during the last century.

What I find most interesting in all of this is the contrast between the continual questioning and scrutiny farmers are subjected to over fertilizer and pesticide use, but until recently, virtually nothing was said about homeowners and their lawns. Ted Steinberg wrote a book called American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn. Some of the statistics he gathered are staggering: 10 times more herbicides per acre are dumped on lawns than commercial farms; more than $40 billion is spent per year on lawns in North America, more than goes to foreign aid; phosphorus and nitrogen run-off from lawn fertilizer is a major cause of algae blooms and dead zones in waterways.

A NASA study concluded that turf grass is the single largest user of irrigation in the United States-- nine billion gallons of water a day according the Environmental Protection Agency. Yikes. Future generations may well wonder what were we thinking.

We’ve had a long slow coming to terms with all of this on PEI, and in many other jurisdictions. In the late 1980’s, June Irwin, a local doctor in Hudson Quebec, started asking questions about why pesticides were even needed on lawns. In 1991 Hudson became the first jurisdiction in North America to pass a by-law restricting pesticide use. The by-law was challenged by two chemical companies right up to the Supreme Court of Canada. The court eventually upheld Hudson’s by-law, and it’s become the basis for similar by-laws across Canada, including here on the Island. Summerside added something important to its bylaw, the need for lawn care companies to be certified in integrated pest management, looking at all possible options to control pests and diseases before resorting to allowed pesticides. That’s something that should be more common amongst commercial farmers too.

Now McAskill’s watershed group has convinced Cornwall and Stratford to go further, to “naturalize” small areas in public spaces, to give pollinators especially, bees and so on, small bits of the habitat they need to thrive. School kids are being shown why this is important, and town administrators are making the case that not doing something (mowing) saves money. The bigger question is can this kind of thinking become more common amongst homeowners?

There’s a shot in a recent TV ad that shows a homeowner using a John Deere riding mower (essentially a small tractor with a rotary blade attached to the frame) whipping through a postage stamp sized lawn. I’ve always thought that there had to be something more primal to this lawn obsession, something in our lizard brain that tries to convince us that controlling nature is critical to our survival.

We’re long out of the Garden of Eden, so hunting, gathering, then farming were necessary to stay alive. Lawn cutting allows us to be weekend farmers, to cut and shape nature to our liking. It may also rekindle comfortable memories of days growing up on a farm or visiting relatives who were farmers.

I am definitely not Mr. neat and tidy (my desk at CBC was once declared a fire hazard), and probably a little lazy. I like the plant and animal diversity, and lack of straight lines, in natural areas and try to maintain this within reason around the house. I also appreciate that commercial farmers need the efficiency and productivity of straight lines, but can homeowners bend a bit, rethink that perfect square of turf grass? What about allowing a few areas where so-called weeds could flower, pollinators could get a taste, then they could be cut down before producing seed. It would make the backyard much more interesting.

Don’t forget that $40 billion spent on lawns in North America. That’s the incentive for companies to convince us that anything less than short, green and perfect turf grass is a disgrace. Talk to your neighbours, get agreement on why you’re going to try something different. You just might like it.

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