Correcting meadow-lawn myths

If there is one fact that has emerged from the Kenney case and a few like it in other parts of the country, it is this: There is considerable ignorance about meadow-type lawns, and this ignorance has led to some very exaggerated claims by those opposing such nonconformist yards. While the ``natural look'' may well offend the aesthetic sense of many homeowners, it does not make a yard dangerous. Contrary to myths, the facts are:

Meadow lawns do not attract and harbor unwanted wildlife, particularly rats and mice. A neighbor claimed that mice in his garage were there because of the Stephen Kenneys' front yard. Naturalists point out that rats and mice find little to sustain them in a wildflower yard. They feed on grain and garbage and are the only animals that have increased in numbers along with man. They have done this by leaving the meadows and moving into the more sheltered and food-rich environment provided by man.

Similarly, the 30-inch-long garter snake found near the Kenney garden could not have survived there for long, because of a lack of adequate food. Even the prosecution refused to bring up the snake in the case against Mr. Kenney, realizing that it had been put there by someone wishing to exaggerate the attraction of the Kenney yard for unwanted creatures. (In fact, the harmless garter snake plays a beneficial part in any garden's ecosystem.) Significantly, too, the snake took up residence under a loose paving stone in a neighbor's yard and not in the Kenney ``meadow.''

The Kenney ``meadow'' was thought by some to have attracted many more pigeons to the area. ``My car's a mess because of them,'' Carmen Panaro insists.

Mr. Kenney's response: ``I have a bird feeder in the backyard, like a lot of other people, including the mayor. I'm trying to feed birds in general and pigeons come along, too.''

Mr. Kenney has not been charged with feeding birds and, in any event, his natural yard is not responsible for their presence.

Meadow lawns do not harbor or attract insect pests to any unusual degree. The naturalist investigating the Kenney garden found a few crickets there and some aphids, but nothing remotely harmful to man. Mr. Kenney has photographs showing that bees and butterflies occasionally visit the garden.

Meadow lawns do not include highly toxic or otherwise dangerous plants. According to the botanist who investigated the Kenney yard, perhaps a third of the plants would be classified as weeds in a formal garden setting. Even so, the vast majority (78 percent), weeds included, would be classified as ornamentals. Almost half the plants were edible to human beings and only 5 percent mildly toxic if eaten. No plant was poisonous to the touch and none had thorns.

Meadow lawns are not gardens of sloth. While fewer man-hours are needed than are required to maintain a well-manicured lawn, a meadow garden is not simply a yard of neglect. The preferred species or mix has to be planted in the first place and the more vigorous growers controlled while other plants become established. Mr. Kenney had a small sign drawn up explaining the purpose behind the natural look to his garden and the work involved, but this apparently contravened an ordinance banning notices on private property. He was ordered to remove it.

The ``meadow'' is, however, a low-maintenance garden that is also low on water needs. And because pruning shears replace the lawn mower as the main gardening tool, it is a quieter and less energy-consumptive yard as well.

Are there any lessons to come out of all this controversy? Two suggest themselves:

1. Someone wanting to establish a meadow or lawn out front would do well to approach the official in charge of weed control in his town, explain what it is he plans to do in his garden, and ask what noxious weeds he must look out for and eliminate from his property. Then the weed officer will be able to respond with understanding if a neighbor complains.

2. Towns wishing to avoid such controversies might seek some form of compromise between the two extremes -- the free forms of the meadow and the manicured look of the formal garden. It will be far from simple. But to be too restrictive flies in the face of America's much-vaunted individualism and freedom.

Above all, legislation must be framed by those knowing what a meadow garden is, and not what misinformed opinion believes it to be.

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