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THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: In the greens

As we think about lawns, we should question their purpose—are they going to be heavily trafficked, are they simply an open space that we want to look across, or do they serve an additional purpose, such as helping to absorb rainwater or to feed pollinators? And most importantly, how much energy do we want to spend on maintaining them?

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There is nothing like the threat of an April snowstorm to get us to appreciate the color green. The warm weather of the past few weeks has brought so many things forward in the garden and has given me an appreciation for a much-maligned part of the landscape—the lawn. When we took down an outbuilding behind our house last fall, we simply raked and seeded the area with grass seed to prevent erosion and a season of mud, not knowing what we would do with the space this season. But as I look across the terrace to the landscape beyond, I am quite taken by having a small field of green as part of the picture. I know lawns have become unfashionable in recent years as we focus on creating pollinator meadows and native landscapes, but I must argue that a small amount of lawn is not without purpose—as a place for children to play, for dogs to romp, or for us to lay out a picnic in the months ahead, or even as the site for a local ball field.

With this in mind, I had an interesting conversation with turfgrass expert Frank Rossi, a professor at Cornell known for consulting on greenswards from Central Park and Yankee Stadium to the home field of the Green Bay Packers. I was fascinated to hear from Frank about the continuing evolution of an industry that has not historically been considered environmentally focused. Keeping golf course greens and playing fields looking perfect was often the priority for the lawn industry but, over the years, the industry has been shifting and giving us more choices about what a lawn can be, what plants it might contain, and what inputs, chemical or otherwise, it needs to thrive.

No-gro and low-gro grass mixes are gaining in popularity.

Frank, who started making his first pocket money as a teen cutting lawns in lower Westchester County, is an unapologetic lover of lawns, and prefers for them to look attractive. But the first point he made to me in talking about lawns was that we should question their purpose—are they going to be heavily trafficked and used, are they simply an open space that we want to look across, or do they serve an additional purpose, such as helping to absorb rainwater or to feed pollinators? And most importantly, how much energy do we want to spend on maintaining them?

And this is when the conversation got really interesting, because the options of what a lawn is comprised of and how it is managed have evolved to match the consciousness of our time. Low-mow and no-mow mixes have become available for those interested in turf with less effort. These options also mean using less fossil fuel by minimizing or even eliminating mowing. Such mixes often contain flowering species that can provide sustenance for local wildlife. Longer grasses and sedges can serve as habitat for grassland bird species. Even more traditional lawns can now be managed more soundly. Where lawns suffer from wear and tear, the current approach is to rebuild them not with excessive fertilization, but with reseeding and soil management. As Frank says, lawns can build soil. Mulching mowers can provide the organic material a lawn needs to sustain itself while minimizing and possibly eventually eliminating the need for fertilization. Less (or no) fertilization means less mowing (and less watering). In essence, moderating your lawn’s growth is one way of lowering the amount of energy that goes into its growth and maintenance. Minimizing the use of fossil fuels could significantly impact carbon emissions as lawn mowers do not burn fuel cleanly and the use of a solar-powered or electric mower combined with less frequent mowing could also help fight global warming.

I am not advocating here that we step back from the current movement towards having less lawn and more gardened space but, as I look out across the small patch of green lawn that now lies between our house and the garden beyond, I am pleased by how it complements that garden that lies beyond it.

A small lawn is a perfect foil to a beautiful garden space, as proven by the borders at Hollister House Garden in Washington, Conn.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

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