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."
What follows are my "notes" from this morning. It is a practice in what I believe I am rightly calling "weak theory." Weak theory only looks to explain and describe what is most local and available by adding together what is immediate so as to make sense of things. I think a little more weak theory is needed as we all seem to get gobbled up into large stream narratives of what is happening - things get outside ourselves.
Maples flower. Some better than others. I have for some time come to recognize Red Maples for their subtlety.
Red Maples have a tenderness that I don't associate with any other maples. I believe this characteristic comes through in the thin bark, finer textures, softer leaves - all structures probably that develop along with it typically inhabiting wetter sites and habitats.
I don't talk or write about The Big Trees very often. The city gardens I tend to work on often don't have the space for more than a small tree. But The Big Trees are very much a part of the city and the worlds we share.
I have been trying to photograph the qualities of a Red Maple in spring flower for some time. The above is the best I have done.
The past month or so, my morning reading time has been spent primarily with two books I am now finished with. "Home: A Short History of an Idea" by Witold Rybczynski told a history of the development of home architecture, technologies, and furniture alongside the development of ideas such as intimacy and comfort. After finishing this I finally read "The Granite Garden" by Anne Whiston Spirn who's book I had seen cited more times than I can count. She writes a history of the city, its conditions, and how "landscapes" have been transformed and created to solve the health problems city wastes create. The book is written in the early 1980's and I read it with a certain nostalgia looking back on the foundations of contemporary landscape architectural thinking that were new ideas at that time. It was an interest to me in the moment as I have been trying to articulate ideas about the "Landscape as Infrastructure" of the city and why some landscape work is more essential (or of greater value) than others during this current COVID-19 "NY Pause" where the Governor has asked us to stay home and minimize public contact with others.
This morning I moved on and decided to spend a morning or two attacking the magazines I subscribe to as visual research - "Gardens Illustrated," "Martha Stewart Living," and "DWELL." I came across the above image of Martha standing in a giant pile of compost that is obviously much larger than something any one person managed with a small pitchfork. I love compost. My points of connection to it may be my own home garden, the recycling of Buffalo Horticulture garden waste, consulting homeowners and designing them compost spaces and operations, as well as - most important to me - the large scale production of compost. The small scale, home garden models of composting are a real delight, however they are something a person takes on as a life choice, "I will live this way." Home composting is not part of the "I want a low maintenance garden." It takes work and is only for some. On the other side is large scale compost production. I love to use compost as a soil amendment but my excitement is tempered drastically because around these parts large scale composting isn't produced with the imagination of a horticulturist but by those trying to process waste. I end up stubbornly rejecting the material because it is just another commodity product for sale, not a material embodying a gardener's intelligence.
At the same time, large scale compost production - as waste management - is something that came to be in this era just before Spirn's book (Although, Milorganite claims its history goes back to 1925). She spoke of a project started in the early 70's (I believe) in Washington DC mixing sewage sludge with woodchips to be used as a soil amendment on the lawns of the National Mall, a product developed and called COM-PRO. Sewage sludge is something every municipality needs to get rid of. The City of Lockport used its sludge at one point to create a compost. I know the town of Amherst made a pelletized fertilizer from their sludge once upon a time. Amherst built a compost facility in the late 80s or early 90s and has since sold it. Bulk compost from these facilities once cost half of what topsoil cost. Now compost is 25 percent more than topsoil. For the most part it is just sold as high end topsoil. Instead of "Shredded Topsoil" now you pay five to ten dollars more and get "Organic Topsoil Supreme." There is no horticultural intelligence to it, it is just an up-sell.
Com-PRO was shut down in 1999. It seems we are moving away from large scale public composting. I think it is important for us to recognize this is our direction. Its not good. Good waste management is part of a healthy city. This may all seem contradictory. But that's fine.
I wrote in my notes during this morning's reading "Capitalist Compost." Of course you can't use the word "capitalism" because then your voice sounds like some radical everyone is ready to roll their eyes at. What I am trying to point to in this is just the methods and process we use to produce things. Generally speaking, we eliminate nuance, certain skills, and material intelligences, so that we can standardize a production system. It makes certain productions easier, more efficient. "Capitalist production" generally makes a lot of good things happen.
My general feelings: Capitalism isn't a problem, capitalists are. I think as Buffalo Horticulture, we deliver 'horticulture' and not 'landscaping' because horticulture is the production I am organizing and my study of economic, production, and cooperative processes (or capitalism, if you prefer) is part of what allows us to do what we do. What capitalism is failing to do is make a compost I want to use.
A few pages later in Martha Stewart there was a nice layout on magnolias and their different forms. Their images and examples came from Wave Hill (a garden in the Bronx) and the first example given is "This Saucer Magnolia (they didn't capitalize the plant name in their text) was planted...in New York City about 70 years ago." This converged for me in this image, that "someone's grandparent planted this" but in the spirit of our moment right now where we are only tending to what is essential. I just put a design together early this week where I stated my intention to move an existing, small, Star Magnolia from a foundation planting out into an open space in the front lawn. There it will spend years developing, its maturity reached well after the life of the home's current tenant, but still, between now and then, each season - although people don't assign such a weight to these things as I do - at just about this time of year in the middle of spring, the Magnolia will be one of the first trees to flower in the city's landscape. The event might pass by one hundred times without anyone giving it too much of a thought, but it will always be noticed, maybe even spoken of once in a while; "Oh. Look. The Magnolia is flowering." It will always have a romantic feeling that time when it blooms and as the flowers fade and fall, marking the close of this years window, this to will be noticed. But none of this will receive weight. Most certainly, when there is a late frost, and the flowers fall to soon or never bloom at all, it will be noticed but with no measure of what has been lost.
I have been trying to find way of communicating this idea that the "Landscape is Infrastructure." Right now the only work we can do is "essential services," a very ambiguous concept that has been clarified by saying "no cosmetic work." Magnolias are "cosmetic work."
This is my morning coffee and the 15 minutes between page 62 and 97.
***The use of the word "capitalism" is not endorsed by Buffalo Horticulture and only reflects the language of the author.
Claire Takacs is thought of as one of the world's best garden photographers. I came to know of her work last summer as I had the opportunity to do a workshop with her at Chanticleer garden outside Philadelphia. If nothing else, she is prolific - especially of late, she shares her work daily on Instagram and you see the gardens she is always working in.
This morning I saw her post from Great Dixter. The tulip collection caught my eye and I looked down to read her inscription below; 'The Peacock Garden at Great Dixter this morning."
As I have watched her posts the past few days I have imagined she is isolated in her house sharing from her vast archives. But of course not.
Moments in the garden and landscape last minutes as the sun moves across the sky. A few cloudy days and the image's possibility and potential disappears forever. These Tulips, at their peak in the image, will be gone late next week, and the next window to photograph them gone for another year.
I point to this mainly to add to the conversation of valuing what is essential in garden and landscape care. Garden care makes its interventions at very specific points in a seasonal and biological cycle of plant and soil life. The windows are narrow. Important management and care windows, once they pass by are gone forever.