I have a confession to make: I don't mow my lawn.
Actually, I don't even have a lawn.
At first glance, my yard probably looks a little chaotic, a far cry from the traditional neat swath of green. But if you look closer, you'll see that it's not long, neglected grass, but a wild sea of tiny flowers and medicinal plants.
When everything is in bloom, the whole place hums with bees and dragonflies. The deer stop to rest in the thickets of arching branches. There are foxes, groundhogs, rabbits, owls, hawks, butterflies, frogs and toads. It's a sanctuary not just for me, but for wildlife as well.
I love my wild yard.
But I didn't always think this way.
The smell of freshly cut grass is a vivid fixture in my earliest memories of summer. Growing up in a rural - but in some ways fairly suburban - middle class area, Saturdays often meant the buzz of lawnmowers mingling with the faint sounds of a baseball game drifting out from someone's TV. A uniformly green, neatly trimmed lawn was the ultimate sigil of a household that had it all together. If you were conscientious and good at life, odds are your lawn was equally under your control, free from the shameful blemish of a stray yellow dandelion and kept to a maximum height of two inches tall.
While I never understood the war on dandelions or the obsession with eliminating "weeds," I went much of my life without stopping to think about why we mow. It was just something you did. Humans had little, green, blank areas around their houses, occasionally dotted with ornamental flowers. And that's just the way it was.
But some years ago, I started wondering why. Why do we prize a lawn of plain grass above one of wildflowers, medicinal herbs, and edible plants?
A Brief History of Lawns
There are many theories and reasons why we have what we call "lawns," and it's an interesting area to research further, but here is the basic gist...
In medieval Europe, lawns seem to have originated as a direct result of wealth and power. Simply put, they were areas around castles that had been cleared of forest and were kept trimmed by grazing livestock in order to have a clear view of any enemies that might emerge from the woods.
Another influence may have been the aesthetic of a glade, a place in the forest often grazed short by deer kept in a game park by wealthy landowners.
Yet another theory is that having a blank green swath in the front of your home indicated that you were wealthy enough not to have to grow your own food.
All of these theories point to one thing: having a perfect lawn is a status symbol.
If you had a lawn, it meant you had something worth defending, or you were rich enough to have private land on which to hunt and the leisure time to do so. You had land you didn't need to farm for survival. Rolling lawns and manicured gardens became the standard on the sprawling estates of the wealthy, and our standards of natural beauty evolved to hold that as the ideal.
Eventually the idea of a manicured grass lawn as a sign of power and worthiness made its way to North America from Europe. The only problem was, our climate is much harsher than the one in, say, England, and that lovely European grass does not do very well here. After much experimentation, a mix of grasses that could withstand the North American environment was discovered - although it would require lots of maintenance in order to thrive. With the invention of the lawnmower and the garden hose, a perfect lawn was within reach for average Americans. And thus the lawncare industry was born.
Today, there is a booming business in fertilizers, grass seeds, pesticides and herbicides all dedicated to the uphill battle to have that perfect lawn. Many of us still have it ingrained deep in our consciousness that respectable people have a certain kind of respectable lawn. If we have the time and money to maintain a perfect lawn, we must be doing pretty good. We want others to think well of us, and so out we go on Saturday to cut the grass.
But maybe it's time we change the way we think.
Why I Stopped Wanting a Lawn
My view didn't really begin to change until I moved into my own house half a decade ago. Three-quarters of the property is deciduous forest, while the "lawn" at the back of the house was a long neglected rectangle of land that had gone wild. It had been colonized by invasive, aggressive Wineberries, and nothing else grew.
When spring came, we decided to pull out nearly all of the wineberries to see what we were working with under those monstrous brambles. When the wineberries were removed and the space was allowed to breathe, the inherent biodiversity that lay sleeping in the soil began to show itself. Left to it's own devices, all sorts of edible and medicinal plants were popping up from the natural seed bed of the earth. To me, this was so much more exciting than a plain grass lawn! I was enchanted by this diversity of little plants growing right outside my door - how could I mow them down?
So I began to cut the grass only sporadically and in a strategic way that avoided the major patches of flowers and edible and medicinal plants that had sprung from the native seed bed. This became more and more complicated over the years as the biodiversity of the space continued to increase, with new plants spreading slowly out from the untouched patches of lawn every spring. These days, I maintain a few snaking paths through the greenery - the rest of the space is dedicated to edible, medicinal, and important native plants.
So, Why Should I Do This Too?
Well, the fact is, biodiversity on this planet is rapidly and drastically decreasing. As the Earth continues to become more and more developed, natural habitats are vanishing and more and more species are struggling to find a place to live.
Everything is connected, interdependent. We rely on the bee, the flower, the wolf and all of our more than human kin to keep the ecosystem functioning, to make life for us humans possible. And those kin cannot survive in the increasingly fractured habitats we are chipping away at. With continued extraction, development, and destruction of the wild, we run the risk of cutting the last strand of the net that is holding everything together. It's overwhelming to think about.
But, there is a way we can help, and that is by turning our barren, green-desert lawns into rich areas that foster and support insects and wildlife. A plain grass lawn offers almost nothing in the way of food or habitat for most species. We can give something back to wild nature by letting go of our need for empty, manicured, controlled space.
Bringing wildness into your life in this way will also give you the opportunity to develop a relationship with nature. By observing and getting to know the plants growing near you, you become closer to the land. You will have the chance to observe things up close, to see the ebb and flow of plant and animal life on a daily basis and through the seasons. Over time, you'll get to know the habits and personalities of birds, see butterflies and winged creatures you haven't seen before, and maybe even get to experience something like watching a nest of baby rabbits grow and mature in the safety of your small habitat.
And, of course, if you're interested in herbalism and wildcrafting, you'll have an opportunity to forage and make medicine from the plants that grow right outside your door.
Ok, so how do I start?
The simple answer to this question is to just leave things alone. My advice to anyone who wants to quit the mower is to give things a few weeks to just grow, and then see where you're at. By observing what is naturally springing up, you can decide if there are certain areas you want to keep trimmed, like a path or area for your children or dogs to play in. Maybe you want to keep half your lawn wild, and use the other half for an annual veggie garden. You might, over time, notice invasive plants that need to be kept at bay, or decide there are natives that you'd like to add. If you've had a grass lawn for eons, you may need to slowly eliminate the grass and replace it with wildflowers and other beneficial plants.
Here, I leave the woodland areas of the property mostly alone; the only edits I'm making are the addition of shade loving natives, such as goldenseal, black cohosh, foamflower, native sedges, and understory shrubs and vines that will increase diversity and help the forest reach a healthy, natural state.
As for the back lawn, I keep invasives at bay while adding in native shrubs and medicinal plants that I use frequently. The edges of the land are slowly being converted into an edible forest garden as I add in nut trees and fruit-bearing shrubs. A portion of the area is now a no-dig garden for annual vegetables where I grow food. I've got a spiral herb garden as well, so that I can better grow a few culinary herbs that I use often but that wouldn't fare well in the shady wilds of the rest of the lawn.
Every piece of land will be unique.
When it comes to autumn leaves and fall cleanup, I leave everything. Many insects and amphibians overwinter in the leaf litter - if you want to rake them up, waiting until it's warm out in the spring can really help these guys out by giving them a chance to emerge and get out of the way before being swept up. If you feel really compelled to remove the leaves, a nice compromise if to leave a few piles of them around the edges of the yard, as habitat for worms, insects, frogs and other creatures that depend on them.
If for any reason you decide to mow, try setting your mower blade to the highest position, and be aware that small animals, as well as frogs and toads, might have started making their homes in your yard now that there is more diversity of plant life and habitat.
Of course, I think it goes without saying these days, but eliminating all pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers is extremely important. Letting things grow will naturally attract wildlife to your yard, and these chemicals can harm them, contribute to species decline, and can even spread out into the broader ecosystem. It can take at least three years for some chemicals to dissipate, and until that time, humans should avoid foraging anything from the yard as well.
But what will the neighbors think?
This is definitely a concern, and I won't brush it off as nothing. As I mentioned above, it is deeply ingrained in most of us to see an "unkempt" wild lawn as a sign of neglect and laziness. I'm lucky to have really nice, open-minded neighbors (or maybe they are too polite to say anything? Guys, if you're reading this its ok to express your concerns...), but yours may be understandably upset. It can be hard to ask people to change the way they see things. If you have unhappy neighbors, my advice is to really listen to them, be sympathetic, explain your side of things, and try to find a good compromise. Eventually, they may come around to your way of thinking, and might even start a regenerative lawn project of their own.
It's also important to bear in mind that at first, you yourself may not like what you see. Many of the articles I've seen recently about "rewilding" feature gorgeous pictures of colorful wildflower meadows. Sadly, this is just unrealistic, especially at first. Your lawn might bother you. It might look sort of terrible and patchy for a while until things fill out, or until you can add in native plants to fill in the ecosystem. You might feel ashamed when friends and family visit, because they won't understand why you've "let things go."
My advice is to go against these judgements and, difficult as it is, to give the land a chance. Try to see things differently and question why the sight of a lawn filled with "weeds" or covered in brown leaves is upsetting. Why do we fear disorder? Why do we only find value in things that appear controlled and tidy?
In nature we see a reflection of life; there is freshness, new growth, color, but there is also death, chaos, decline...and of course, transformation. Our society values the young, the new, the "beautiful," and makes invisible the aging, the ill, the disordered, and the difficult. Maybe we all need to look deeply at what we give value to.
What if I'm not allowed to grow out my lawn? What if I don't have a lawn at all?
There are towns and neighborhoods where regulations require that you have a neatly trimmed lawn. If you're not up to taking the fight to city hall, there are still ways to create a good habitat. You can avoid the use of chemicals, and add rows of flowers or even potted plants, all while still keeping the grass trimmed. A great option, depending on your climate, is to replace your grass with clover - it's low growing, provides food for pollinators, is drought resistant, and looks nice and "tidy."
If you don't have a lawn, even a small balcony stocked with flowering plants and herbs is a welcome sight for hungry bees and butterflies.
There are so many interesting views, insights and tips on regenerating the land under your care, and I encourage you to search around and check out other resources. I recommend WeAreTheArk.org as a great place to start - it's got a lot of great information, and it has been a major inspiration to me over the years as I've abandoned my lawnmower. It's also a great site to share with family and friends who are curious about what you're doing and want to understand what you're up to.
As for finding native plants to add to your habitat, I suggest searching for your state or regional native plant society (most everywhere has one!). They'll have lots of information and resources specific to the place where you live. I also like this one from Audubon, which even gives you an idea of what birds you'll be helping by adding certain plants.