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The Slipshod Gardener 1: Principled Beginnings

Updated on January 21, 2013
What could be more boring than a perfect lawn?
What could be more boring than a perfect lawn? | Source

An ambitious plan for no grass

It’s right in the name. I’m no perfectionist. I would rather garden now than garden perfectly a year from now when I’ve read all the right books or have taken a master gardener’s course. This philosophy shows through in my garden, which is a combination of half-baked and confused.

In the name of full disclosure, I’m not a complete plant novice. I know there are sepals as well as petals, and in most cases, I can tell a pistil from a stamen. My mother is a gardener and I grew up around Latin names, not harebell but campanula, not columbine but aquilegia.

I enjoyed watching my mother’s garden develop but preferred identifying plants I found while roaming the woods. But my roaming, wildflower days are done thanks to health problems. Instead I now engage in plant adventures on my third of an acre in the city of Albertville, Alabama.

My property came divided in two. The front is relatively flat and has a house set in the middle of it. The back half drops off steeply into a wooded semi-swamp. Directly behind the house, I fenced a small area for my dogs. From the start, I intended to do something different in my front yard.

I can pretend that my conviction to turn my front yard into a garden is 100% esthetic or ethical, but a good 50% of the decision is because I hate to mow. I hate spending any time walking in rows or ever tightening circles, especially when it’s blazing hot outside. Interpret that as laziness if you like, but weeding a garden isn’t for sissies either.

The other 50% of my conviction is constructed of attitudes, the most prominent being a hatred of uniformity. Why grass, only grass and all grass? Why something that needs to be mowed? Why hasn’t science come up with a dwarf clover? It wouldn’t need to be mowed, would have cheery foliage and flowers that provide nectar for bees and butterflies.

But, no, we have grass. And where did our grass come from? According to Liz Primeau in her book Front Yard Gardens (see link to the book below), the lawn has been handed down to us from the English aristocracy, who had grounds-keepers to do the mowing. They also had leisure time to stroll about on them and money to throw big parties, inviting the rich from neighboring estates to come play gentle sports like badminton and croquet on their manicured lawns.

The American middle-class decided having a lawn meant a person had arrived at a higher level of society, even if you were the one doing the mowing, rarely entertained on it, and wouldn’t dream of playing croquet. As Primeau puts it, “The lawn became a given, a symbol of the good life, and a good lawn was proof of a properly lived life.”

Bah! In truth, if you’re the one grooming your lawn, it just means you’ve arrived at the grounds-keeper level of prosperity. I’m somewhere between peasant and grounds-keeper, a peasant by my status in the present economy and a grounds-keeper in that I have fancy notions about what I’ll do with my land. I’m also an educated peasant, so I can get on a high horse about why a garden is superior to a lawn. Whether planted with flowers or vegetables, a garden can provide sustenance for a wider variety of living things than a lawn. So my yard may be a mess but it’s just as righteous a yard as that of any lawn-lover who has arrived.

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