The lovable, lamentable lawn

An American friend living here in Scotland suggests that what we call our "garden" should be our "backyard" and "front yard." "Garden" seems to her pretentious. But what in Britain we call a "yard" is more of a paved enclosure, probably for hanging out the washing rather than growing plants. What British gardens and American yards have in common, which British yards mostly lack, is the lawn.

My Better Half has, anyway, lately been referring to our garden as "that wilderness." It is just now exploding into a chaos of green life. Like mutterings about the need for a haircut, mutterings about "that wilderness," I find, steadily increase. I can resist this drip-on-stone technique only so long. Eventually, I know I'll give in and head for where the lawn mower (or the hairdresser) resided last time I used it.

The parallels between hair and grass have been remarked upon by more than one writer, though perhaps most neatly by garden designer Karl Foerster. "Grass is the hair of Mother Earth," he said. (It sounds even better in German.)

The more likely analogy to be drawn by mower-wielding males is between grass-mowing and face-shaving. Both processes reduce the hirsute and achieve the smooth.

I confess that I am ambivalent about these yards of hairless grass known as lawns. Landscape designers, and this is not new, divide approximately into pro-wilderness and pro-meticulous. And lawns are their most-apt battlegrounds.

But even for those of us with wild leanings, a perfectly manicured, weedless, tuftless, incisively edged, unvaryingly green - ah! - and magnificently flat lawn can be so infuriatingly beautiful that one's antipathy melts. In our garden we prefer plants to lawn, but we still have a small patch known as "the grass." And I must confess that when I've given it a shave, I stand back and admire it without reservation. Mown grass brings openness to overcrowded spaces, and makes an otherwise neglected garden look suddenly kempt and spruce. And there is, it seems, something of the grazing animal in most of us.

Some creatures use mandibles, some mowers, but the satisfaction of changing field into sward is undeniable.

On the other hand, there is something preposterous about lawns. As an aspect of gardening, of plant culture, they are a laborious nonsense. While the basic aim of horticulture is the encouragement of plant growth, lawn care mainly discourages it. A lawn is the result of a relentless and multiple guillotining.

Apart from its green smoothness - and the "perfect" lawn is really so rare as to be virtually mythical - the commonplace lawn blandly takes over vast tracts of good mother earth and turns them into yard upon yard of next-to-nothing. These green blanks are empty, ignorable, and as near to sterile artificiality as possible.

The lawn enthusiast, you'd think, would be some sort of plant-lover; but if a plant (other than the permissible grasses) appears, the urgent swoop of this human tyrant, brandishing expensive poisons and canny weapons of selective destruction, is as a hungry blackbird to a hapless worm. Even earthworms are listed as lawn enemies, the very same worms that the books often remind us are beneficial in all other branches of horticulture. Almost everything natural in meadow or garden is classed as a trouble, pest, or problem in a lawn.

The experts exhort us to cultivate only what will grow easily where we live. Yet we persist in laying out lawns in deserts, in bogs, under trees, in places and positions inimical to grass. We lose sleep about invasions of dandelions, clover, daisies, moss, and algae. We lie in wait to shoo off canines and felines, kids kicking balls, even birds in search of nesting material - or worms! On someone else's lawn these "enemies" are probably our fondest friends.

Except moles. I have known grown men to spend anguished years and serious money planning anti-mole strategies, from upturned milk bottles to night-long vigils to brute forms of murder. A recent lawn book advocates elimination of mole food - worms - as an effective deterrent. But (and you can hear the author's tone of regret) the chemicals that were once available for killing worms, "are no longer sold." Oh, what a shame.

The pros and cons of the lawn have exercised many a horticultural essayist over the centuries. Surprisingly few argue for total banishment. Some even feel, like the delightful American garden writer Katharine White in the New Yorker 37 years ago, that it "would be a great loss" if we were to "pave or cobble our yards and garden areas" as "modern landscape architects" are "urging everyone to do."

Well, they're still urging us.

And we, with an insistently ungreen love of neat green spaces in our gardens and yards, are still ignoring them.

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