Back to the Future with Sustainable Lawns

What is cutting edge in the field of sustainable lawns? Much of it is forgotten lore from the late 19th/early 20th century, I have been discovering.

I came upon this revelation while preparing for the talk I am going to give this month at a conference organized by Larry Weaner that is to be hosted in Philadelphia by the Morris Arboretum and in New London, CT by Connecticut College.

The basis of my talk will be my own experiences with alternatives to Kentucky bluegrass and the two or three other turf grasses that are the default choices for lawns today. My thesis is that if you broaden your sights and find a grass species that is naturally adapted to the soil and location, you shouldn’t have to cater to it with constant chemical applications and endless irrigation. Grassland, after all, is one of the toughest types of plant communities, commonly flourishing where conditions are too difficult to permit the growth of woody plants.

This, I believed was an original thought, until I spent a couple of days reading late-19th-century gardening books at the New York Botanical Garden library. Published before the advent of the modern chemical industry, these presented a much more sensible and relaxed view of lawn care.

For example, Lawns & Gardens by N. Jonsson-Rosé (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897) included a list of two dozen wildflowers you can include with the grass when you sow a new lawn. Jonsson-Rosé might not have recognized the term “biological diversity” but his lawns were certainly no monocultures and definitely pollinator-friendly.

And in Lawns and How to Make Them by Leonard Barron (Doubleday, Page & Co. 1914) I found recommendations for 13 different grass species, each one accompanied by a description of the type of soil and conditions that suited it best. Included in this list are several species such as sheep fescue that I have been using to create self-sufficient, low-input lawns. There is even one species in Barron’s list, sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) that was mixed with other grasses simply to give the lawn a sweet odor when it was cut. That might make you almost look forward to mowing.

My favorite tip from these books: control dandelions by inviting Italian immigrants in to harvest the greens every spring.


Posted by

Thomas Christopher
on January 2, 2015 at 8:40 am, in the category Lawn Reform.

Comment List

  • Garden Rant 15 / 02 / 2016

    Good one! The operative words being “before the advent of the modern chemical industry.” Susan

  • commonweeder 17 / 10 / 2016

    Because I am happy to have children romp on my ‘lawn’ we have never used chemicals or fertilizers. It remains green and mowable though October most years – grass being a cool weather crop – but we actually refer to it as our ‘flowery mead’ dandelions, violets, hawkweed and clover being just the beginning. I have planted common thyme on purpose and it may take over the whole space. Very fragrant when mowed.

  • BL 20 / 10 / 2016

    So will you post your paper here?

  • Lori Hawkins 20 / 10 / 2016

    Moss for a lawn alternative, shady area where grass won’t grow is nice as well!

  • admin 07 / 11 / 2016

    I have to find someone that wants to harvest our dandelions like the Italian immigrants! We don’t spray so we have a lot of them.

  • Louise 14 / 11 / 2016

    I have mosses and other greens in moist shade. We added common clover because old news articles in told of that to keep the yard green.

  • admin 14 / 11 / 2016

    I’m reading “The Practical Flower Garden” byHelena Rutherford Ely, published originally in 1911. Mine is the 1922 edition. Just finished the lawn chapter. Dug weeds out by hand each spring and August. Drop a pinch of grass seed where each weed had been. Then lightly seed the whole yard (spring) and then roll it. “Two men can push a 350′ roller”. Does anybody do this anymore? She had a sod garden to replace spots that died out. This was at her summer place in northern New Jersey. She fertilized with cottonseed meal in the spring and bonemeal and wood ash in summer. When I say she I mean the army of gardeners she had working for her.

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