Desert life and Eastern lawns

Two rabbits were frolicking in the yard this morning, the first since The Bobcats had spent a week or two here.  Maybe that means that the bobcats, having eaten most of those cute bunnies in my vicinity, have moved on to greener pastures.

When I lived in the first house that I designed, the Bridge House next door, the fenced area for the dog was between the garage and the house, and the area outside the bedrooms downstairs was unfenced.  Hence many critters came to feast on anything that I attempted to grow.  The rabbits loved any tender new thing; the jack rabbits, much taller, ate the tops off bushes; the deer ate the tops off bushes and newly-planted trees, and the javelinas went in for about anything.  They even love prickly pear cactus and wiped out all that I planted.  I asked the nurseryman what I could grow that they wouldn’t eat and he replied that they’d try anything, and often, if they didn’t like it, they’d dig it up in anger!

One of the only species that survived was the century plant, which I had been growing at my mother’s condo, using it as a nursery.  Each time the century plants at my house had “puppies” I’d dig them up and add them to others outside Mom’s wall.  In fact, I hired two guys to move one which was three feet high.  We moved it onto a trailer behind my car, put it in (see photo) with difficulty, but it seemed to do fine.

Unfortunately, the one dreaded plant which none of the vegetarians eat is the desert broom, scourge of the desert, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound.  This plant establishes itself quickly, spreading white puffballs of seeds, our “desert snow” in the late fall, in disturbed soils.  It is commonly seen along roadways in Tucson. Once established it is almost impossible to remove.

Bulletin just in: I looked up from the computer to see two young bobcats strolling down my driveway.  I immediately ran downstairs for my camera, took one photo from the window (below) and went out the door.  When I called to them they turned around for a picture, but the battery was low on my camera and it kept shutting off!  Plus I don’t have the great 20x I gave my son for his birthday, just my old three-to-one, which doesn’t get close enough.   These are the best that I got.

Back to plants.  The present owners of the Bridge House believe in the Natural Desert and have turned off their drip system; two-thirds of the plants have died.  (Unfortunately the desert broom is still coming up.)  Because I have to look at their yard, I have considered volunteering to weed it myself!

Which brings me to a story of good friends of mine.  When she was teaching at MIT they lived in a lovely area in Waban, just outside of Boston, all two-story homes with well-kept lawns.  He decided to take up the front lawn and plant wildflowers for a meadow.  There have been movements to remove front lawns (see the books The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn by John Greenlee and Saxon Holt and Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn by Fritz Haeg) but back in 1980 any deviation from the Front Lawn was not acceptable.  The neighbors were up in arms.  The guy next door volunteered to cut their lawn, thinking that Jim didn’t want the work.  But no, he was on the forefront of change.

When I lived in South Carolina there was a terrible drought.

2.25.2008  South Carolina may be experiencing the worst drought the region has seen since long before anyone thought to call the place Carolina.  According to tree ring data, the drought plaguing the region is at least on par with anything experienced in the past 800 years, Ryan Boyles, North Carolina’s state climatologist, told the The News & Observer.  The drought is at least the worst on record, and statistics have been kept for 113 years.

I visited friends whose house had originally backed on a river; now their deck looked out onto a mud flat.  On my way to their house I passed by rivers that were merely a trickle, with boat docks and boats mired in mud.  All of the recreation lakes were ponds.  (Here is Lake Hartwell.)

But did anyone consider removing their lawns?  Of course not.  They just complained of the drought and kept on watering that grass.

The History of Lawns in America

We didn’t always have a love affair with our lawns. In fact it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that lawns became practical for most Americans. Lawns were seen as a luxury expense for only the wealthy who could afford grounds keepers to maintain the fine bladed plants using scythes. Not everyone wanted cattle or sheep grazing in the front yard to keep the green stuff at a manageable height as did Woodrow Wilson while occupying the White House.

Actually, it was an effort to draw attention to what could be done to free up men to fight and help with shortages of wool during World War I. The wool was auctioned off for $100,000 and given to the Red Cross. Speaking of presidents, early Presidents Washington and Jefferson both used sheep to keep their home lawns at manageable heights.

Green, weed-free lawns so common today didn’t exist in America until the late 18th century. Instead, the area just outside the front door of a typical rural home was typically packed dirt or perhaps a cottage garden that contained a mix of flowers, herbs, and vegetables.

In England, however, many of the wealthy had sweeping green lawns across their estates. Americans with enough money to travel overseas returned to the U.S. with images of the English lawn firmly planted in their imaginations. Try as we might, it wasn’t as easy to reproduce a beautiful English lawn. After all, they couldn’t just run down to their local hardware store and pick up a bag of grass seed. Grasses native to America proved unsuitable for a tidy and well-controlled lawn, and our extreme climate was less than hospitable to the English grass seeds.

By 1915, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was collaborating with the U.S. Golf Association to find the right grass—or combination of grasses—that would create a durable, attractive lawn suitable to the variety of climates found in America. Included in the testing were Bermuda grass from Africa, blue grass from Europe, and a mix of Fescues and bent grass. Fifteen years later, the USDA had discovered several grass combinations that would work in our climate. We were off and running, to find the most suitable pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that would protect and serve newly blended mix of grasses. After all, now that we had a good grass blend, we couldn’t let it starve or be eaten alive by some hungry pest, or succumb to some nasty disease.

The right grass and the right treatments weren’t the only problems facing homeowners wanting the perfect lawn, however. There was also the challenge of providing sufficient water to keep the grass green in summer. It wasn’t easy hauling a bucket of water out to the yard during the summer droughts. Cutting the grass was a challenge, as well. English lawns were trimmed with scythes, an expensive process that required a certain amount of finesse, or by grazing livestock on the greens.

Mechanical mowing came about early in the 19th century and there is a general agreement that an Englishman, Edwin Budding, an engineer at a textile mill, developed a cylinder, or reel-type mower. It was a series of blades arranged around a cylinder with a push handle patterned after a machine used in a cloth factory for shearing the nap on velvet. In 1870, Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana designed a machine that basically brought push mowing to the masses. By 1885, America was building 50,000 lawnmowers a year and shipping them to every country on the globe.

For the average American, the invention of the garden hose and the rotary mower made the lawn a more realistic option. Until then, lawns were just too much bother for most families. When most of the necessary tools and types of grass seeds became readily available, the average homeowner was now able to grow a lawn of their own if they wanted. As of yet, there wasn’t a real big demand for green lawns in the front yard. It wasn’t until The American Garden Club stepped in. Through contests and other forms of publicity, they convinced home owners that it was their civic duty to maintain a beautiful and healthy lawn. So effective was the club’s campaign that lawns were soon the accepted form of landscaping. The garden club further stipulated that the appropriate type of lawn was “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.” America thus entered the age of lawn care.

Today, U.S. homeowners spend over $17 billion on outdoor home improvements. More than 26 million households hired a green professional, according to a 2000 Gallup survey and this number is expected to grow. Your little patch of green has become a big business and for good reason.

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