The lawn as a political statement

By ABBIE JURY

I had not, I admit, seen the lawn as a political statement until last week. True, we had been discussing the state of our summer lawns prior to that. A guest had looked at them and commented on how splendid those belonging to a mutual gardening friend were looking. I assumed, by implication, that he was suggesting ours didn’t look splendid at all. Tordon Gold, he told us, was reputed to be the answer.

Mark has commented several times that he has been reviewing his approach to the lawns. While he has been reviewing, I have been crawling around cutting out some of the worst of the weeds. As I never spray anything, I don’t feel able to criticise him for not spraying.

Since then he has observed that he does not like having to keep pouring sprays onto the lawn. He is especially concerned that we frequently gather the clippings and compost them, using the compost in the vegetable garden. And the withholding period of hormone based lawn sprays is so long (six months) that he feels that it is not good gardening practice to use this type of spray if it can be avoided. A withholding period is the recommended time between spray application and when it is safe to eat produce which may have come into contact with the spray.

With a commercial plant nursery, the level of knowledge here about the safe use of chemicals is higher than average and in some cases, so too is our tolerance of spray use. So when Mark sounds warning bells about the ongoing use of sprays, I take it seriously. But we see the nursery as different to the garden and increasingly we are trying to reduce the application of most chemicals in the garden situation. In many cases, this can be achieved by better plant selection (avoiding plants that are going to need ongoing spraying to keep them healthy, looking good or even alive) and by growing the plants well. Plants which are vigorous withstand more of the ravages of insect and fungal attack.

Alas these same principles do not apply to the lawn. So the problem remains that a pristine velvet sward is almost always the result of ongoing application of a variety of sprays.

Then we watched a gardening programme on The Living Channel – Dan Pearson travelling around the world filming gardens, both great and small (what a wonderful assignment). Driving the streets of suburban Milwaukee, he commented on the excessively high value placed on the perfect velvet lawn. And house after house had perfect, conformist green lawns. The ultimate statement, the commentator felt, of the imposition of human will over nature.

Gardening by its very essence is the meeting of human design and nature, but good gardening sees those two elements in some sort of balance. Perfect lawns don’t. Nature has little place here. Grasses don’t grow naturally as a colony of a single species. But perfect lawns rely on that. Anything other than the chosen grass seed strain is a weed to be rooted or poisoned out.

So there you are. The perfect weed-free lawn is a political statement – that it is a triumph for humans to exert total control over nature, no matter what the cost in time, money and the impact of chemicals on the environment. At the moment, it looks as if our lawns are winning in their campaign to be a better balanced colony of mixed species tolerant of frequent mowing. I guess we should at least be grateful that in our conditions we manage a green lawn all year. The green lawn is unknown in large parts of the world which experience harsher weather and soil conditions.

I just wish that we did not generally place such a high value on the quality of perfection in the lawns. Then I would not feel so sensitive about the weeds and the odd bare patch.

I was amused, however, to see a pinnacle in low maintenance sections in the real estate pages of our local newspaper over the weekend. No it was not all concrete. It was a unit with a large deck in front which had recently been doubled in size (I spotted the old and new timber) and the adjacent area, which I hesitate to call garden, was carpeted in gravel with three or four rocks placed on it. No plants. Not even one. And definitely no grass to mow.

In conversation recently with a landscaper, he commented that pretty well all his clients specify low maintenance. I doubt that they mean quite as low maintenance as the aforementioned real estate. However, one could describe the term low maintenance garden as an oxymoron. If you have grass, it needs mowing. If you have paving, it needs to be swept. Most hedges need trimming. Many plants need deadheading. Many trees and shrubs will need pruning at some time. Garden borders need weeding. Need I continue? Getting rid of all plants will greatly reduce maintenance. But living in a high rise is the only sure way of eliminating all garden maintenance. Fortunately most of us prefer to live surrounded by lawn (be it weedy or patchy), trees and flowers. It generally lifts the spirits and recharges the batteries to participate in some way with nature.

Abbie and Mark Jury have a garden and nursery at Otaraoa Rd, Tikorangi.

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