Over the weekend, after shoveling wet snow in Saint Paul, I drove off into the wilds of Minneapolis for a shower. Funny usage, that “shower” for a women’s gathering to shower a new bride with presents. I suspect commercial connivage as far back as the ’50s. Speaking of commercial conniving, I discovered in conversation with a younger member of the bride’s set that new suburban developments are no longer seeding their lawns with five inches of topsoil, but using only two inches. Hereafter, that pride of the city’s outer ring will be greened by implanted shower heads and chemicals.
Heaven forfend, say I, and this young woman, who works for the Minneapolis Park Board, agrees. Despite being surrounded by wet snow, despite our yearly water accumulation being at least an inch above normal here in the Twin Cities, we both understand that, in the future, water use by businesses and households will have to decrease. There will be more of “us,” potentially laggard and wasteful humans scarfing up scarce water. Yes, even in the land of 10,000 lakes. The MInnesota DNR has just inaugurated a decade-long study of our water table, including those acquifers way below the surface from which many communities draw water. Not to mention, the rivers and streams, lakes and marshes which provide other water sources.
Oh, help: I can feel a preachy tone sneaking into my voice. Soon I may declaim. At our house in Saint Paul, with five resident mammals, the three cats find water where they can, not particularly given to excessive showers, caring nothing at all for lawns and gardens. One biped limits herself to what in Europe would be a bidet-full of water for washing most days of the week. The other biped only recently stopped showering for five minutes at a time. Told by his doctor that dry itchy skin may, indeed, be the result of too long an application of hot water.
What I don’t use on my person, I occasionally lavish on our postage-stamp lawn, though lawn hardly applies here, since all the “turf” put down before we bought this place 25 years ago, I’ve let revert to whatever would come up on its own. Which means creeping Charlie, Virginia waterleaf, woodland violets, dandelions, bellflowers, and in later summer, with a little nudge from me, goldenrod, tansy. and golden glow. OK, I admit I transplanted these prairie natives from a few blocks away where our swatch of native grassland is oddly preserved because train tracks run alongside it. This declivity was once a stream which fed a mill, thus the name of the road on the other side of the tracks: Ayd Mill Road.
Our prairie swatch runs for several miles, and if various nameless mowers don’t do too much damage, blooms with truly wonderful prairie flowers, including plum, prairie rose, campions, and the late-summer golden glows–huge sunflower derivatives which I’ve also filched for several sunny spots in my garden.
Come to find out that these native plants are much hardier than almost anything I have imported. They need less water; die back and return on cue, and given half a chance, will take over from the imported hostas and peonies–well maybe not from hostas and peonies which, once established, are pretty hard to nudge aside. But from lilies and even dragon’s head. But now I’m getting too arcane for most readers. Moral of this tale: we need a mental make-over in the lawn department. We need to shed the ridiculous idea that a swatch of perfectly even, green grass is the ideal, and replace it with a varied panoply of natives. Even creeping Charlie, the bane of grass growers, labeled a hated “broad leaf” and subjected to herbicide application, grows pretty purple flowers, rarely needs to be mowed, and when crushed, gives off a minty smell.
Our lawns are English imports from way back in the 18th century, when Italian ideals about close-cut boxwood, and parterres of paved terraces adorned with limonaia (lemon trees in pots) gave way to huge expanses of lawns, copses of trees in the distance, a water course of some kind–think butterfly lakes, or sparkling waterfalls–and finally woods. These gardens expressed what was called the “sublime.” They were supposed to lift the eye and the fancy away from what we’d call the “built environment” into wild nature, but only by degrees. The main impetus being a large sweep of lawn down which the fancy strolled to contemplate the cataract of wild nature.
Phooey! In my conversation with the water quality expert, I learned that geese are one of the Twin Cities’ greatest polluters of beaches and lakes. “It’s their poop,” she whispers. One solution resides with the geese themselves: They don’t like high grass. Light-bulb moment: the Minneapolis Park Board’s renovation of Lake of the Isles includes tall stands of aquatic plants along the edges of the lake. These filter fertilizer and other pollutants which run off from the fancy lawns across the road. Viola! The lake becomes cleaner and the geese stay away from the lake shore. No one swims in Lake of the Isles, but the short-term and long-term message is clear: get rid of lawns for all kinds of reasons. Native plants and grasses, especially tall grasses and flowering plants like goldenrod and golden glow, need no fertilizer or herbicides and far less water to thrive. Plus they keep the geese away.
Now I hear the flip-side of the preacher in my voice: the barker for a new product whose enthusiasm gets out of hand.
If only we could transplant this idea to the suburbs and beyond, say to those lake shore communities across Minnesota where McCabin owners insist on green grass running down to the lake. Think fertilizer, herbicide running off into the water, feeding algae bloom, killing fish. Let’s challenge some fine designers to present us a modern version of the sublime, subsituting creeping charlie for grass.