My implications in these short episodes is that lawns are simple and easy to grow. A good portion of this point comes from the context I am working in - Buffalo and the WNY region. Temperatures are moderate here. Lawns don’t need artificial irrigation. They can naturally protect themselves from the normal droughts of summer by going dormant for six weeks. They are green the rest of the year and the snow cover is of short enough duration that the grass isn’t suffocated (disease problems can emerge when snow cover lasts for months at a time).
There is a certain caution to much of the advise and intellectualization that surrounds the lawn. How lawns are to be cared for and what they need differ with their climate and environment. “The Buffalo Climate,” while much negativity is made from it, is generally easy for our (cool-season) turf grasses to survive in. But many of the ‘prevailing wisdoms’ about lawn care come from other climates trying to grow the same grass plant into the same lawn in entirely different conditions. The back of fertilizer bags and lawn care websites are meant to standardize all knowing into a few universal recommendations and directions.
It is difficult to grow lawns in Scottsdale, Arizona. But it is a different problem. Both lawns need the same thing to grow, but here, for the most part, they already have everything they need.
Images I am thinking with today.
From: Walker, Sophie. "The Japanese Garden." Phaidon Press, NY, 2019.
Three things to say:
1. I take interest in "Land Art" - which we might place plant form/sculpture into the genera - as oftentimes in designing the use of land, in a landscape design, in a backyard, there is space: unneeded: outside the land manager and user's utility. Certain traditions of design make this turf grass - openness. In other ways of thinking, turf grass and lawn is wasteful. No matter our choices, the making of the land is art no matter our decisions.
2. The "Gardens Illustrated" feature refers to this work above as "Caruncho-esque" referring to Spanish landscape designer Fernando Caruncho. I enjoy studying Caruncho's work but it also frustrates me as I see many of his gardens (not all) as wasteful and unsustainable. His landscapes are monumental - there is no better word to describe them - and are of a completely different universe ideologically and economically. I imagine some of his private gardens have higher annual maintenance than all the municipal gardens of WNY and Buffalo combined.
3. At the same time, Caruncho's gardening work, unlike any other gardening work I am aware of, falls into the domain of "high art." His works are purely sculptural, at the far end of the modern gardening ideology that sees plants as mere and secular materials. He would sooner talk about Piero della Francesca or Diego Velazquez than any contemporary Landscape Architect. His creative medium and process is in dialogue with art history, not so much gardening - although, I think it may be fair to say, he is in dialogue with garden history as much as anyone - only also, is more drawn to "high art' than cottage forms of garden thought.
Page from "Mirrors of Paradise: The Gardens of Fernando Caruncho." Cooper, Guy and Taylor, Gordon. The Monacelli Press, NY, 2000. p63. I selected this image as I imagine what Gardens Illustrated refers to as "Caruncho-esque." But this photograph is not representative of Caruncho's conversation with high art. In addition to this book, there is also "Reflections of Paradise: The Gardens of Fernando Caruncho" from Rizzoli Press which came out in 2020
I think the pest and disease problems lawns may have are created by trying to get more out of the grass than it has to give us. Lawns are watered too much, over fertilized, mowed too closely, and have chemicals applied to the point of killing off all the beneficial and affiliated microbiology that acts in partner to keep the environment in ‘balance’, preventing infestations. Automation of watering and the desire to get value from one’s sprinkler system leave the plant and soil constantly wet which creates a healthier space for fungus than grass. Lawns aggressively fertilized push too much growth on the grass plants making for soft, tender foliage that is susceptible to infestations because of the lush nutrient density it creates - its like sugar candy to tiny insects.
Grubs are probably the most likely problem of a lawn at the opposite end of the managed spectrum. Light and balanced fertilization will reduce a lawns susceptibility to grubs but grubs are not the result of poor management - in my opinion. However, more often than not, if I come across Japanese Beetle Grubs, I take a quick scan around me and more often than not, you will find ornamental plants and trees that the adult Japanese Beetles like to feed on. Take a look around and you will find Little Leaf Lindens, Purple Leaf Sandcherry, and Roses, among others.
Grass does need a pound or two a year of nitrogen from fertilizer every season but Generally speaking, the fewer inputs into a lawn, the fewer problems.
Form and Shape are what excited me the most in 2020. I can't say I ever see it celebrated. Texture, line, movement, color, flowers; meadows, nature - this is what is what gets all the likes in the 'Gram world. And I can't say that in the "High Buffalo Garden World" do I ever see "form" as part of the conversation. But...I have been working on a photo project...
My work in these short episodes on the lawn is to alleviate some of the competing anxieties that are placed on us as property owners and managers of the land. It seems “The Lawn” is not part of today’s dream. Yet here we are, with our existing urban and suburban infrastructure, our current model of land use - the neighborhoods are as they were built and there is no going back. It is the form that it is.
The spaces we live in today were built to be open, to be occupied by turfgrass lawns. In these spaces that we have inherited, the people that inhabit them want to give them care, to care for their spaces. I believe many people engage the landscape and garden as being simply “in their domain of caring.” They are tenders of their home spaces and landscape.
The lawns and spaces we have inherited as a form are not something that sprung as a new, raw, and undeveloped idea from the depth of our desiring imaginations. We tenders are good caring people that are taking responsibility for the worlds we inherited and inhabit. Our relationship to the properties we manage are not revolutionary and socially transformational. We all try and balance our ethics, caring, and consumer relationships to the lawns we steward - on the one hand, we have these spaces to care for and on the other, face the possibility that our cares exploit the earth and endanger the health of what we care for. There almost seems to be a paradox for us tenders, where we wish to care for our yards yet the greater narrative surrounding turf keeps hitting us, telling us we are conformists, suburban, and anti-environment.
“The Lawn,” is so often made into a monstrous cultural object. The adjective “American” is typically added to make the object more specific - and dirty. “The American Lawn,” in this narrative, is a giant sink of chemicals and pesticides that are killing microbiology and polluting groundwater, rivers, and streams. The lawn is a mechanism and symbol of American conformity. Many believe American lawn spaces should only be covered with native plants specific to the surrounding history of the land because the bees and other wildlife have had their homes and habitats destroyed. Further, the development model that creates vast turfgrass landscapes furthers Americans’ dependency on fossil fuels contributing to the unprecedented rate of global warming.
I don’t fully disagree with the above. But as a manager of the land, turfgrass is a great tool and can be managed ethically - and most importantly, affordably. In works to follow, I hope to present discussion to alleviate the anxieties of concerned tenders of the land who have been put into a world that demands our attachment to “The Lawn."