Mo' Better Lawns

IF single-family houses are Americans' castles, their lawns are their baronial estates. A uniform sea of perfectly clipped grass seems to say, ``Admire me; I control nature and my environment.''

Creeping like chickweed into this concept of suburban perfection is a nascent ``I hate my lawn'' movement. It is motivated by two distinct lines of reasoning: One is the growing suspicion that there may be more productive or rewarding activities than watering and feeding grass or doing battle with weeds. The other is a widening acceptance of environmental concerns. The ethic ``think globally, act locally'' is being carried out in back (and front) yards everywhere.

Efforts to save the whales, the ozone layer, or the rain forest are distant, mentally and literally. For many people, acting in an environmentally sound way in their own yards connects them to these larger efforts. It is also a small gesture toward a better environment that, if made by many, could have a substantial effect.

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Some people are tolerating lawns with plantain or crabgrass mixed in with their bluegrass and fescues, rather than using herbicides that can have harmful side effects. A colleague bought a $2 weeding tool and removes his dandelions one by one as as a form of light exercise. Others are reducing the size of their lawns by replacing some grass with hardy, low-maintenance native bushes, perennials, or ground cover. Some let the lawn go dormant, even brown, during dry spells rather than pour on the water to keep it lush (most grasses quickly green again when rain comes). For some with small lawns, or boundless energy, the human-powered push mower has replaced the gasoline-engine, cutting down on air (and noise) pollution.

The possibilities for the more ambitious are endless. The National Wildlife Federation, for example, sponsors a backyard habitat program that helps homeowners design their yards to provide needed shelter for birds and other wildlife. As a secondary benefit, the animals often act as predators reducing unwanted insects.

None of these steps means setting a lower standard or less beauty and order. And courtesy to neighbors and their expectations will always be a consideration. But perhaps the 1990s represents a chrysalis state in an evolving sense of how humanity lives with nature. More '90s lawns seem to be saying, ``See, I'm trying to live in harmony with my environment.''

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