8.01.2009

it's my lawn and welcome to it

I decided to take advantage of a perk offered by the Region of Peel, which I had often seen advertised on local billboards: a free lawn and garden consultation.

Neither of us garden, but we do try to keep the place looking decent. I was wondering if there were some inexpensive and easy things I could try if I wanted to. Anyway, it's free, I might learn something, so why not. What I did learn is that the free consultation is a bit of stealth marketing, green edition. But Peel's not trying to get you to buy anything. They're trying to get you to use less.

* * * *

We see so much water waste out here in the suburbs. It's quite amazing. Our neighbours clean their driveway, outdoor furniture - or anything else outside - by spraying it with a constant jet of water. Instead of sweeping leaves or other debris off their driveway, they stand with a hose, trying to force the leaves into the street.

And of course there's that emblem of suburban wastefulness: the lawn. We don't water our lawn. If it's been dry, the lawn turns brown. That's how it goes. I wouldn't say we're the only ones who take this attitude; I do see a few other brown lawns. But they're rare. Mostly we see sprinklers watering, watering, watering away. Watering the sidewalk. Watering the driveway. Watering the already-wet lawn.

The Region of Peel posts signs for "Water-Wise Wednesdays," asking residents to forgo watering their lawns one day per week. It distributes information on over-watering your lawn: too much water makes the roots shallow and the lawn weaker. Judicious watering cultivates deeper roots and a healthier lawn.

But still they water. And water and water and water.

* * * *

Last year I called about the free lawn and garden consultation, but the program was all booked up. I gave my information for a wait list, then forgot all about it. To my surprise, someone from Peel called me earlier this year to make an appointment.

On the appointed day, two friendly women met us in the backyard. I was a little embarrassed at first. As I said, we're not gardeners, and the place is not landscaped. But they were happy to work form our own starting point. I learned two useful tips.

One, a few areas in our backyard have bald patches - dirt with no grass - from the dogs playing. We've overseeded with high-traffic grass seed, and it's filled in about halfway, but it could be better. The garden consultants suggested putting down some clover seed. Most of our lawn is clover anyway, and they told us clover is extremely durable, fills in easily and will spread between the lawn seed to give a fuller, greener look.

Two, they suggested an organic, pesticide-free way to deal with the growth ("weeds") that pops up between the patio squares: spray them with vinegar. Cheap, harmless and easier than any weeding tool. So far the vinegar hasn't worked, but I think we're not doing it often enough.

After the vinegar tip, I asked if that's why Peel was offering the gardening consultations: because of Ontario's pesticide ban. That's when I learned their ulterior motive. The main purpose of the consults is to educate people about water conservation.

On the first sunny day after three days of rain, they see people turn on their sprinklers. People watering their lawns for eight hours at a time. Lawns that are permanently spongy and squishy from over-watering. Waste, waste, waste.

Peel has various means of trying to educate residents about water waste, but to me this seems the most creative and potentially effective: a person-to-person campaign. They left us with a folder of information, some free seeds, coupons for a local nursery, and notes on our meeting. I was left feeling like a good resident simply for keeping my taps shut.

* * * *

The whole concept of "weeds" is a funny thing. Daffodils good, dandelions bad. Kentucky Bluegrass good, crabgrass bad. My great-grandmother cooked kishke, a Jewish version of tripe. Some people shudder at the thought of eating animal intestines, but to some its a delicacy.

Obviously a weed - and a delicacy - is whatever we define as such. In 18th Century New York and New England, lobsters were fed to prisoners, because it was "trash fish". When the ancient Egyptians mummified dead bodies, they preserved certain organs in canopic jars: liver, lungs, stomach, intestines. The brain - thought to be useless - was thrown away.

In the spring, our lawn is full of dancing yellow flowers on long stems, something my parents called weeds. In the summer, it's full of pretty little white flowers that our dogs like to roll in.

22 comments:

M@ said...

In Kitchener-Waterloo a few years ago there was a contamination problem in four of the city's 95 or so water wells. But that limited the water supply quite severely to the point where watering your lawn was allowed only once per week, and you weren't allowed to use your hose to water gardens or anything else -- you had to use a watering can.

And what was the effect? Lawns were watered less. A few fines were given out, especially to businesses that flouted the law too egregiously. No one's lawn died, and the city looked no less attractive. And we got into the habit of conservation to the point where we don't ever water our lawn either.

It must cost cities millions to support people's ridiculous watering habits. Good for Peel Region for trying to help.

And I'll try the vinegar thing myself. We've got a ton of weeds at the end of our driveway...

impudent strumpet said...

I wonder why they don't just make lawns out of clover in the first place? Most lawn people I know consider clover Allowed (which is odd, because most of them consider crab grass Not Allowed), and I don't think it grows as tall as grass so it wouldn't need to be mowed. And in my parents' lawn at least, the clover would often be green and healthy when the rest of the lawn was wilting.

L-girl said...

I didn't know people consider clover Allowed. If they do, they should definitely consider clover-based lawns. It's practically maintenance free. The clover has taken over our lawn all by itself, and it's green and lush.

Of course, that might explain why lawn-care companies don't push it. They wouldn't make much money on clover lawns.

deang said...

The watering obsession is out of hand. During the 90s, there was an emphasis on "xeriscape" landscaping where I lived in Texas. People would plant xeriscape plants (plants which can survive on normal rainfall alone) and then kill them by continuing the usual water-intensive lawn-watering regimen, which causes dry-adapted plants to rot! It was frustrating to see, the more so since homeowners then concluded that xeriscape plants were no good.

At about the same time, I influenced my parents to landscape a new home with mostly native plants and install a native Buffalo Grass lawn. Despite being right-wingers with whom I often didn't get along, they went as far as to severely reduce and eventually eliminate herbicide use, allowing the native plants and flowers to thrive. Then, alarmed by encroaching "weeds" and too locked into longstanding watering habits, they resumed herbicide use, which killed the deliberately-planted native flowers in their beds and borders, and they started watering the lawn heavily again, which allowed non-native Bermuda Grass to usurp their Buffalo Grass lawn.

Lawns and other plants can also be encouraged to green up without increasing watering by periodic spreading of compost. I don't know when the right times of year would be right for doing that in Ontario, but usually it's done right before the start of the rainy season, which where I live is in spring and fall.

And if you ever do decide to have more than just a lawn, you might consider planting native plants to attract wildlife and limit water use. The main office of the North American Native Plant Society used to be in Ontario, may still be.

L-girl said...

Lawns and other plants can also be encouraged to green up without increasing watering by periodic spreading of compost. I don't know when the right times of year would be right for doing that in Ontario, but usually it's done right before the start of the rainy season, which where I live is in spring and fall.

This was included in the Peel info too - leaving your grass clippings on the lawn, not mowing it too short, etc.

And if you ever do decide to have more than just a lawn, you might consider planting native plants to attract wildlife and limit water use. The main office of the North American Native Plant Society used to be in Ontario, may still be.

It's a great idea I support... but won't do myself. Partly because it's not actually my lawn to do that with - we rent. And partly because planting and gardening is just not my thing.

I remember reading about this (native grasses replacing lawns) for the first time in Tony Hiss's book The Experience of Place. I think there was an experimental run of a few adjacent houses doing it in Suffolk County, on Long Island, that he writes about.

That was a long time ago, but it's been cool to see the same idea get more play over the years. I wonder what it would take - what cataclysm - to get more suburban lawn people to go this route.

Frustrating (and unsurprising) about your parents.

johngoldfine said...

Interesting to consider pre-mower lawns.

Swinging a scythe is great exercise (if your back and leading knee can take the torque), very relaxing, and inevitably leading one to thoughts of the haying scene in Anna Karenina (and how the city boys could not stand up against the peasants....)--but even at its most expert scything leaves the lawn too rough, heavy, and thick for croquet, for milady's dancing slippers, or for a spread picnic blanket. That lawn used to be the standard, and I can't believe that anyone wanted to encourage yet-more grass growth with watering.

L-girl said...

That lawn used to be the standard, and I can't believe that anyone wanted to encourage yet-more grass growth with watering.

One big difference. I'm pretty sure those lawns were usually maintained by the servant class. By the time large numbers of middle-class people maintained their own lawns, there were lawn mowers.

At least in North America, few suburbanites ever used a scythe.

James said...

In 18th Century New York and New England, lobsters were fed to prisoners, because it was "trash fish".

It was only a few decades ago in Newfoundland that showing up to school with lobster for lunch was a sign of coming from a very, very poor family.

Sarah O. said...

It was only a few decades ago in Newfoundland that showing up to school with lobster for lunch was a sign of coming from a very, very poor family.

I thought about making a comment along these lines too... I have friends who used to bury their lobster shells in the yard, rather than put them out in the trash and risk being seen. (Of course, that served a double purpose - they would sweeten the soil, too)

As far as front yard natural plantings go, there does need to be a big shift in our suburban aesthetics before it will really take off, but I truly don't know what will inspire it. I guess the first step is to stop having municipalities fine and prosecute gardeners. Unsightly premise bylaws should be for abandoned cars and the like, not tall grass.

Remember last year in TO when a woman's front yard meadow/native plant garden was mowed down by the city? Or the 70-something woman in Florida who was sent to jail for not mowing her lawn? Or the woman in Buffalo who faced thousands of dollars in fines for her predominantly tall perennial and native-shrub front yard? Or the couple in Ottawa who just recently won their appeal of an unsightly premises notice for their front yard meadow?

L-girl said...

I guess the first step is to stop having municipalities fine and prosecute gardeners. Unsightly premise bylaws should be for abandoned cars and the like, not tall grass.

Excellent point. Is there a movement around this?

Too funny about the lobsters in lunches.

Sarah O. said...

Excellent point. Is there a movement around this?

I'm not sure. My exposure to these issues have mainly been through the gardening/landscape design blogosphere, which usually takes the issue up as cases arise. I know GardenRant, in particular, is good at rallying bloggers around these gardeners, and municipalities often receive an earful from them in support.

impudent strumpet said...

A number of lobster-related questions occur:

- Are they gourmet because they're expensive, or are they expensive because they're gourmet?

- Did they used to be trash fish for economic reasons (e.g. different relative availability of food) or for purely subjective reasons (e.g. because they look like they just crawled out of the gates of hell?)

- How yummy is lobster objectively?

- Is that why in Little Women, Amy was trying to hide a lobster from the boys on the bus? (I know it wasn't actually a bus, but it seemed conceptually similar and I've never figured out what it actually was)

L-girl said...

Lobsters aren't gourmet, even now. I believe they are expensive because they are becoming / have become more scarce. They used to be very plentiful. Oysters are the same way.

But lobsters are considered more earthy, hearty food - like a steak. They also take no expertise to cook, which also removes them from the gourmet category.

Not sure anything can be objectively yummy - yumminess is by definition subjective, no?

Before I stopped eating lobster because of the cruelty of killing/cooking method, I found it extremely delicious. I know many people who agree, but also many people who think, eh, what's the big deal.

I don't remember anything about Little Women, except a male character named Laurie (which struck me as quite weird), and female character named Jo. I'll be interested to read what others have to say.

L-girl said...

They were definitely considered trash fish for economic reasons - very plentiful peasant food.

But I'm sure there were other cultural reasons that are inexplicable. Food is like that.

L-girl said...

Further to my lobster answers, consider that many people's primary exposure to lobsters is in a "lobster shack" or "lobster pot" type of setting, where people eat at picnic tables with plastic tablecloths and paper napkins and drink pop/soda out of cans.

While it's true you can eat lobster at high-priced restaurants, those are not usually upscale or trendy places, but simple steakhouses.

James said...

- Are they gourmet because they're expensive, or are they expensive because they're gourmet?

- Did they used to be trash fish for economic reasons (e.g. different relative availability of food) or for purely subjective reasons (e.g. because they look like they just crawled out of the gates of hell?)


As I've heard the tale:

Back in the day, the fish Newfoundlanders were after was cod. They occasionally caught lobsters with the cod, but there was no market for the big bugs, so the poor fishermen kept the lobster to eat themselves and sold the cod.

Then, a bunch of rich Americans with "cottages" in places like Kennebunkport, Maine, got into lobster as an exotic food, and, when people saw that the Rockefellers and Kennedys ate lobster, they wanted to eat lobster too. So now there was demand, and Newfie fishermen started targetting lobster specifically.

Now, there are essentially no cod left, and so lobster is a major source of income in Newfoundland. Poor fishermen sell the lobster they used to eat because it wasn't worth selling.

L-girl said...

Hmmm... Lobstermen in Maine and throughout New England were catching them on purpose for a long time. I'm pretty sure it pre-dates the cottages.

But I really couldn't say - and certainly not about Newfoundland.

James said...

Hmmm... Lobstermen in Maine and throughout New England were catching them on purpose for a long time. I'm pretty sure it pre-dates the cottages.

That's just the story as I've heard it -- I haven't gone back to validate it or anything; it could be a complete urban legend.

The bit about lobster being the food of poor families, though, I've heard from former children of such families.

L-girl said...

Right, I gotcha. Lobster as poverty food squares with a lot of things I've read and heard.

History of Lobstering

All about lobsters

and what lobster thread would be complete without

"Consider The Lobster" by the late, great, much missed David Foster Wallace

Allan will be by shortly to tell us if that's the full essay or not. I think it might be an abridged version.

It's the primary reason we no longer eat lobsters. I was moving in that direction anyway, but DFW nailed it down.

A Conformer said...

and what lobster thread would be complete without

"Consider The Lobster" by the late, great, much missed David Foster Wallace


I was waiting to see if you'd reference "Consider The Lobster". Footnote 6 is amazing! I think this is the first thing by DFW I read (not that I've read that much...), and I can say, without a doubt, that he won me over with that footnote.

redsock said...

The version in the essay collection of the same name is probably longer. Not sure off the top of my head.

redsock said...

A PDF of the magazine article is here.