The Foibles of Suburban Lawn Care

  • Although a well-manicured lawn offers certain benefits... not everyone thinks it's worth the effort. (Photo by Ed Herrmann)

One of the great rituals in suburban America is mowing the lawn. A manicured lawn seems to say that the house is well cared for, that it belongs to the neighborhood. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Ed Herrmann wonders whether this obsession for the perfect lawn is worth the effort:


One of the great rituals in suburban America is mowing the lawn. A
manicured lawn seems to say that the house is well cared for, that it belongs
to the neighborhood. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Ed
Herrmann wonders whether this obsession with the perfect lawn is worth the

(sound of evening insects)

It’s a late summer evening and at last I can go outside and enjoy the
sounds of the neighborhood. There’s a little breeze, the air is cooler. The
chorus of insects is soothing, gentle but insistent, an ancient throbbing
resonance. Much better than during the day…

(roar of lawn machines)

Summer days in the suburbs are the time of assault, when people attack their
lawns with powerful weapons from the chemical and manufacturing
industries. Anyone who uses the words “quiet” and “suburbs” in the same
sentence has never been to a suburb, at least not in summer.

It takes a lot of noise to maintain a lawn. Besides the mower, you’ve got edgers, trimmers,
leaf blowers, weed whackers, core aerators, little tractors, big tractors, slitting
machines. I don’t know whatever happened to rakes and hand clippers. One
thing’s for sure. This quest for lawn perfection wouldn’t be possible without
the industrial revolution.

(machines stop)

So where did we get the idea that a house should be surrounded by a field of
uniform grass kept at the same height?

Well, with apologies to the Queen, I’m afraid we must blame the British. It
seems that, along with our language, our imperial ambitions and our
ambivalent morals, America also gets its notion of what a lawn should look
like from the English. Of course, the estates of the English aristocracy were
tended by a staff of gardeners. England also has a milder climate, and the
grass that looks so nice there doesn’t do as well in North America. In the
1930’s the USDA came up with a blend of imported grasses that would
tolerate our climate. Since these grasses are not native, they need help, and
that calls for fertilizers, pesticides and lots of extra water. Since normal
people can’t afford gardeners who trim by hand, that means lawn machines.
American industry to the rescue.

(mower starts up, fades under next sentence)

A quick Google tells me that today we have 40 million lawn mowers in use.
Each emits 11 times the pollution of a new car, and lawn mowers contribute
five percent of the nation’s air pollution. Plus more than 70 million pounds of
pesticides are used each year and over half of our residential water is used
for landscaping. Don’t you love those automatic sprinklers that come on in the
rain? Add to that all the time that people spend mowing and edging. Of
course the two billion dollar lawn care industry is thrilled about all this
enthusiasm, but I gotta ask, “Is it worth it?”

Call me old fashioned, but I actually prefer the looks of a meadow with mixed
wildflowers and grasses to the lawn that looks like a pool table. My own lawn
is somewhere between. It’s mowed, but it’s what you might call multicultural.

There are at least five different kinds of grass with different colors and
thicknesses, plus clover, dandelions, mushrooms, a few pinecones, and a
rabbit hole or two. There’s also some kind of nasty weed with thorns, but even
that has nice purple flowers if it gets big enough.

Clover, by the way, used to be added to grass seed because it adds nitrogen to
the soil. Now we just buy a bag of nitrogen fertilizer, so who needs clover?
And what’s wrong with
dandelions? You can eat them, some people even make wine out of them,
they have happy yellow flowers; yet to most people they indicate your yard is
out of control. So I’m down on my hands and knees pulling dandelions. I’m
not sure why, but I hope it keeps the neighbors happy.

One thing I won’t give in to, though, is the chemical spraying trucks, painted
green of course, that roll through the neighborhood.

I can only hold my breath. (sound of trucks and mowers) Try not to listen. And
wait for the evening. (evening insects)

(air conditioner starts up)

Although, with all these air conditioners, even the night’s not too quiet.

But that’s another story.

Host tag: “Ed Herrmann is an outdoor enthusiast living in the
suburbs of Detroit.”

Related Links

Eco-Cows Munch on Invasive Plants

  • Researchers are finding that Scottish Highland Cattle, such as these Rockhill Red Cows, have an appetite for many types of invasive plants. Photo courtesy of Marv & Ann Rockhill.

Cattle that love to eat thorny shrubs and nasty weeds are proving they can clean up areas infested with invasive plant species. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Jo Wagner has this report:


Cattle that love to eat thorny shrubs and nasty weeds are proving they can clean up areas infested with invasive plant species. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Jo Wagner reports.

For years, land managers have been trying to find better ways to control particularly troublesome plants. Invasive species such as multi-flora rose, prickly ash and wild parsnip used to be held in check by natural fires, or grazing by bison and elk. But ever since wildfires have been mostly controlled, and elk and bison populations have plummeted, many invasive species in the Great Lakes region have been growing out of control. So researchers have been looking for other ways to fight these invaders. At the University of Wisconsin, researchers have been testing Scottish Highland cattle on some fields containing invasive species. Consultant Martha Rosemeyer says the preliminary results look promising…

“One of the things we’ve found out by following the cattle is they really like wild parsnip when it’s young. Out of a field of grass they’ll identify and hone in on the wild parsnip and eat the whole patch of it.”

One of two farms testing the cattle’s weed eating potential is owned by Peter Rathbun. He says on one of the test plots, the parsnip was so high and thick, biologists wouldn’t go in to take samples.

“I was a little concerned, well are the cows going to go in and eat it and get sick, but they went in and ate it and they loved it.”

Rathbun has various weed and brush problems or “junk” as he calls it on 120 acres, including prickly ash, hawthorn, gooseberries and other plants that produce large thickets. He was one of the first farmers in Wisconsin to start raising the highland cattle several years ago and now has around forty animals eating weeds on half his farm. His goal is to return some o the land to its original oak savannah status. So far on his fifteen test plots with and without cattle, the results of grazing Scottish cattle are positive.

“It’s so wonderfully obvious what’s happening because here’s three strands of electric fence. On one side you can walk right through the woods…its no problem – you can see everything there. On the other side it’s dense, you don’t even want to think about walking through it. And this is only after 2 rotations.”

Rotating means moving groups of up to nine cattle around on once-acre test plots. The cattle spend two or three days on select plots each month throughout the summer. Martha Rosemeyer says researchers were interested in the breed of cattle because in Europe, they’re referred to as “eco-cows.” That’s because of their unique ability to eat plants that have inch-long thorns.

“They’ve got really tough tongues – they wrap them around these and pull – so they pull these things up like prickly ash leaves off and aren’t really bothered by thorns. They actually like thorns to rub and scratch…they’ll lean on things and scratch and they’ll break them and change the vegetation in that way too.”

Peter Rathbun says it didn’t take long for his cattle to tackle a patch of prickly ash after the gate into one test plot was opened.

“They ran over to it and started eating the actual bush. And I loved to see the reaction of some of the graduate students who’ve been working on this for a very long time. In their heart of hearts they really had some doubts whether the animals were really going to like to eat the junk.”

Once results are in by the summer of 2003, consultant Martha Rosemeyer says researchers may have a better idea of how effective the cattle will be at permanent eradication of unwanted plants.

“Certainly if you knock down a plant by taking off it’s above ground vegetation a number of times, it weakens the plant and it eventually will die. That’s what we’re hoping will happen but we’re not sure we need to test this and see the results…it’s speculation at this point.”

By comparison, Rosemeyer says on Department of Natural Resources land, a few test pilots were grazed and burned earlier this year to compare the weed control with the Highland cattle. It turned out that combination was too destructive and the burning was discontinued.

Meanwhile, not only do these animals eat through the bad stuff, but they also provide great hamburgers. Rathbun sells the meat as a low fat, very tasty source of protein.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Jo Wagner.