Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Death of the Lawn -- 8 Years Out

The death of a lawn may not seem like an important lifecycle event to you. For me, killing my lawn is up there with learning to drive a stick shift car and my Bat Mitzvah (which says something about the level of spirituality I felt at my Bat Mitzvah). One of the first landscaping initiatives I pursued eight years ago when we moved into this house was killing my front lawn. This murderous act surprised, mystified, and disturbed my largely conservative, suburbanite neighbors, particularly the one who has a yard comprised mostly of immaculate lawn and gray rocks. I have refrained from pointing out to him that rocks are not edible. Why would someone pay to purchase that many rocks? I could think of better things to spend my money on, like tomatoes and basil. 

In drought-wracked California, maintaining a lawn is reprehensible. Lawns require a boatload of wasted resources and are, historically, merely a demonstration of excessive wealth. In short, lawns are decadent. You can’t eat a lawn. Versailles has huge expanses of lawn. Do American suburbanites wish to pretend they are French aristocrats? I say, ban the lawn and let them eat green beans. Here is my short list of things you can do with a lawn:  look at it, mow it, have a picnic, play croquet, step in dog poo. I am mystified as to why anyone would want a lawn on dirt that could be used to grow food and flowers. In my case, I can’t plant much in the way of food in my front yard because it isn’t fenced so the deer forage. Most foodly items I might plant would swiftly become what we call in my part of the world “deer buffet.” Where I live, Bambi is a public nuisance barely one step above a rodent. I have plenty of space in my well-fenced back yard to grow fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. In the front, for my own pleasure, I grow native plants (many flowering) that love the blistering blast of the sun and resist drought and deer.

My most critical neighbor, the one who has the rocks in his yard, whom I will call Dick because he is one, used to sidle up to me periodically during my first couple of years in the neighborhood when I was out hand-pulling weeds (because RoundUp is an abomination upon the earth) to comment on my non-lawn. He would tell me it wouldn’t take much to bring back my lawn and he even offered to help me do it. Clearly he was pining for my annihilated grass. Dick is about as amusing as Dante’s Inferno without the laughs. We refer to Dick’s yard as his “plantation” because he brings in a team of new-immigrant yard-workers every other day to beat it into submission with extremely noisy, dangerously sharp, and impressively shiny power tools. At his direction, they blow every leaf into a pile and remove it, wipe the dust off his trees, vacuum his grass, scrub his rocks, polish his shrubs, and boil his patio umbrella to sterilize it. (Note:  you can kill weeds by spraying them with straight vinegar, which is cheaper than RoundUp and won’t make the neighbor kids autistic, give your granny Alzheimer’s, or cause the dog to have seizures.)

Dick is the guy who spent forty minutes in an ecstatic post-holiday frenzy cutting up his Christmas tree with a chainsaw to put it in the green yard waste bin (by comparison, Ron chopped our tree of similar size in half with an axe in forty seconds and stuffed the two pieces into our green bin). A few years ago, when Ron was weed-whacking in the front yard, Dick came over, waved to get his attention so he would muffle the weed-whacker, and informed him that some of the neighbors had been talking about how unsightly our front yard is and that he was of the opinion that we should reinstall our lawn. He implied that Ron could not control his psychotic lawn-murdering wife. Ron growled politely and turned the weed-whacker back on. I can imagine that for someone brainwashed into believing the 1950s American Dream of the front lawn, our yard may appear wild. But if you consider the native landscape where we live, what grows in drought conditions, and what plants are resistant to the fickle tastes of deer, then our yard is a beauty and a teacher. It attracts multitudes of bees, butterflies, and spectacular birds. It does not appear to attract gray rocks.

This year in particular, because we had so much winter rain, my front yard has truly come into its own, with mature giant purple flowering sage, rosemary, lavender, violet erysimum, pink and magenta cosmos, olive trees (I put up a couple of jars of olives from them last year and they are showing signs that they will fruit again), peppermint eucalyptus, yellow Jerusalem sage, purple butterfly bushes, tarragon, red ginger sage, verbena, red pineapple sage, and a host of little pink and purple salvias. There are also ornamental grasses, a cottonwood bush, and I just planted two new elderberry trees. Perhaps this yard looks wild and unkempt to Dick and some of my other neighbors, but I happen to like wild and I wouldn’t trade my riot of color for their manicured, plush, boring lawns. Furthermore, my yard requires a fraction of the water they dump into their yards.

A few years ago, an Apache friend, who lives on forty acres at our beloved former “neighborhood” at McNab Ranch, was at our house for a barbecue. After studying Dick’s rocks and pristine lawn, his handful of stunted and over-pruned trees, and a privet hedge along our shared property line that I suspect Dick planted to block his view of my unruly yard, my friend asked me, “What’s up with your neighbor’s yard?” Indeed. That is the question. His privet hedge prevents him from having to look at my lascivious cherry trees, which fruited in buckets. I spent yesterday picking, sorting, washing, pitting, and putting up cherries. My fruit is apparently overwhelming to Dick’s Puritan sensibility. Pollination must seem too much like wanton sex to Dick. My yard is fecund, unlike his rocks that have no female parts.

I wanted to post photos of my yard to accompany this blog, so Ron and I went out in front with his camera early this morning. As he was photographing my giant sage, a cluster of neighbors on a walk happened by. They stopped to admire the yard and ask me questions about my plants. From the window at my desk, I frequently see neighbors stopping to admire the yard as they walk past. So I don’t think Dick is going to pull together a neighborhood referendum to banish my giant purple sage and bring back my lawn. I hope he can find a support group online for people who grow rocks.

Photos by Ron Reed. These are glimpses of parts of the yard, and it's hard to see the colors and variety. I have half a dozen bright purple giant sages all across the front. This gives you a taste of the view.

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