Have You Considered Re-Wilding Your Lawn? | New Hampshire Public Radio

Have You Considered Re-Wilding Your Lawn?

Aug 10, 2020

Have you ever questioned why you spend so much time mowing, raking, maybe even watering your lawn? We consider how lawns have become an intrinsic part of the American dream, what “re-wilding” your lawn might do for pollinators and the planet, and what you might plant instead. Sam Evans-Brown of NHPR's Outside/In is guest host.

Airdate: Tuesday, August 11, 2020


GUESTS:

  • Henry Homeyer - UNH Master Gardener, and the author of 4 gardening books, including "The New Hampshire Gardener's Companion: An Insider's Guide to Gardening in the Granite State". He is a life-long organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, NH. Henry has been writing a weekly gardening column for a dozen newspapers around New England for more than 20 years.
  • Susannah B. Lerman - Research Ecologist with the Northern Research Station of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Thomas Rainer - landscape architect specializing in ecological horticulture at Phyto Studio. Author of Planting in a Post-Wild World.

 

Susannah Lerman's study showed how lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards: Want to Help Bees? Take a Break from Lawn Mowing.

 

To visit the Northern Research Station site for a downloadable "Bee Proud" or Lazy Lawnmower sign, click here.

 

Read Henry Homeyer's column from June in which he contends, if it’s green and he can mow it, it’s a lawn!

 

Thomas Rainer has suggestions for growing an earth-friendly garden that he says produces better results with less work.

 

UNH Cooperative Extension has many resources, including a list of pollinator plants for Northern New England gardens.

 

Learn about the history of lawns in this New York Times video: 

 

Transcript

  This transcript is machine-generated and contains errors.

Sam Evans-Brown:
I'm Sam Evans-Brown and this is The Exchange.Two percent of the land area of the entire United States is covered by lawns. That's more than is planted with cotton, oats and sorghum combined. It's nearly as much acreage as is planted with wheat, which is a food that we eat many of us every day. Americans spend 30 billion dollars a year tending to those lawns, nine billion gallons of water a day irrigating and 70 hours a year. That's nearly two weeks of vacation time mowing. And fully 20 percent of Americans say that mowing their lawn is their least favorite chore. So today on The Exchange, why do we do it? And what would happen if you gave yourself permission to be free from your lawn? I personally have seen the other side, and I'm here to tell you life is better without lawn mowers. So why is there so much pressure to maintain a neatly trimmed putting green in your front yard? And what does it take physically, practically to do things differently? We will talk specifics here on the show.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Joining us right now is Henry Homeyer, UNH Master Gardener and author of four gardening books, including The New Hampshire Gardeners Companion, An Insider's Guide to Gardening in the Granite State. Henry has been writing a weekly gardening column for a dozen newspapers around New England for more than 20 years. Henry, thank you for being with us on The Exchange.

Henry Homeyer:
Good morning and thank you for inviting me.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So so, Henry Homeyer, I wonder if we could sort of talk more broadly. Why do we have lawns? Where does where does the lawn come from?

Henry Homeyer:
The lawn goes back to to Europe, really. And rich manor houses had lawns around them and had people that that they had cut the lawn with hand size or size. And it was a rich man's garden, but it became part of the United States in the mid eighteen hundreds when the push mower came along the rotary push mower, that or real mower I guess is called and people started doing them for lots of reasons. One is that lawn is essentially a soothing. Landscape and secondly, it's easier than trying to weed a flower garden. That's everywhere. It takes less time. It's the quick and easy way to cover your landscape with something that's pleasant. And thirdly or lastly, you can play games on it, you can play croquet, you could play badminton, throw a Frisbee on a nice lawn is very appealing to Americans.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So you mentioned that hand scything great European estates. Can can we talk a little bit more about that? What did it used to take to maintain that neatly kept grass in front of a manor?

Henry Homeyer:
Well, I wasn't there back then, but I know that they had full time gardeners, sometimes two or three, that would do nothing but maintain the property. That's expensive.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Right. So, so amazingly. I read last night when I was researching for the show that the first non gas powered push, you know, spinning blade mower, the type that you have seen, goes all the way back to the 1830s. And so I guess it's kind of astonishing that turf has been with us for so long. But when did this really become sort of a status symbol for the middle class?

Henry Homeyer:
I would say in the 20th century, probably after World War I, but I don't really have any data on that. But that's my impression that, you know, in the 1800s, there were people that had had push mowers and had lawns, but it became more and more popular. And by 1950, everybody had a lawn.

Sam Evans-Brown:
We have a listener from Lee who has already written in saying: We let our lawn go unmowed for weeks. Dozens of vibrant patches of daisies and yellow flowers sprang up some patches three feet across and two feet tall. It was completely beautiful. And to think those daisies may have been there the whole time and that we were dutifully mowing them down every week. So, Henry, I'm curious, for those who are interested in another way, what would you recommend as sort of a starting point?

Henry Homeyer:
I would recommend that if you want to have a flower garden that is sort of a field of beautiful yellow and blue flowers, you start small. Start with something that is 10 feet by 12 feet or halfmoon or something that you can you can start out and actually dig out the existing lawn, take a shovel or an edger, and cut one foot squares and then pry it out with a hand tool such as the cobra head weeder, which is a great hand weeding tool shaped like a bent finger. And once you've got your turf cleared out, then you can plant things. And I have to say that there are wildflower mixes that are available on the market and they're generally a disappointment. The first year - and I've done them - you get a wide variety of flowers and it's really quite dramatic. But two or three types of flowers will dominate in following years. And until you have just Black-Eyed Susans, for example, or something else, maybe that's fine. But rather than saying I'm going to take a rototiller and clear my whole lawn, I'm just going to rototill it in. First of all, it doesn't work. When you rototill grass in, it comes back and it'll just be aggravated with you for disrupting its life. you have to dig the grasses out if you're going to start a a flower meadow.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Right. Well, so and this is where I want to jump in, because I think a lot of people who might find this idea idea appealing. It is less so for the aesthetics of a beautiful flower patch and more so for the labor savings. And that sounds like a fairly time-intensive procedure that you're laying out.

Henry Homeyer:
Yes, I recommend that people try to do it 30 minutes a day for a few weeks. You know, rather than spending one weekend getting blisters and trying to do eight or 10 hours in a day. Plan it well ahead of time, do your homework, read up, by books, join a garden club, talk to master gardeners or neighbors who have lots of experience. But if you want to have flowers instead of lawn, you probably do best by planting plants that you buy at a nursery rather than trying to do a wildflower mix.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And are we talking about perennials here? Things that will come back year after year, or are we talking about a space that you will plant with new plants every summer?

Henry Homeyer:
No. Perennials.That's the way to go. Once they're established, most of them will spread, some of them will drop seeds. And, you know, lupine, for example, is lovely and it produces lots of seeds. It will spread with time. On the other hand, once the the lupine is finished blossoming, it tends to get scraggly looking and often covered with aphids and is not an ideal plant to have on your lawn all summer. So that's why I say do your homework, talk to people, find out what plants will do well in your neighborhood, in your climatic zone, with your soil type, buy things that are hardy enough to go through a 20 below winter or a 25 below if you're in a cold spot. You have to do all that homework. You can't just throw some things in and expect it to be perfect.

Sam Evans-Brown:
All right. We're going to we already have callers who would like to talk more about this. We're going to go first to Stefan in Concord, Stefán. You're on The Exchange. What you have to say about lawns.

Caller:
Good morning, I moved into a house in Concord about 30 years ago, and it was both front and back over traditional clipped lawn and now it looks nothing like that.And the way to get to where we are now is. No pesticides at all on our property. We use compost and organic materials. We've changed much in terms of planting much of what the gentleman that was on before makes all sorts of sense. A lot of perennials you can put in either birdbath or water features so you have water available for animals. And planted from small fruits like blueberries and raspberries to apple trees, plum trees and actually a walnut tree that started to bear. And you bring all of those that helps you with retaining water on your property. So especially in a year like now, a lot of plants fail because there's not enough water.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Stefan, I'm curious, as someone who started with a very large traditional lawn and has transitioned to something else, do you think that what you have done has has saved you time?

Caller:
Yes, absolutely. Well, it depends on if you speak with me or my wife. See that that's a mostly a joyful experience for me. And Weeting is not for her, but gotcha. I think if you honestly added it up and again, the gentleman before said, don't try to do it all in two days. Right. If you just do some of that, you know, regularly and and read up, you know, so you're not planning something that doesn't belong here.

Henry Homeyer:
I love what you've done and I congratulate you on taking it on 30 years ago when very few people were doing that. I also would like to underline what you mentioned about planting fruits and flowering trees and shrubs. They will save you time because they take up space. They're wonderful for birds, for the bees, for pollinators of all kinds and small animals, a crab apple or an apple tree produces a lot of food that you're not going to necessarily eat, but the wildlife will. And that's important, particularly as we make towns more into cities and population density closer. We need to have oases such as yours, Stefán, that allow the animals to survive as well.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Now, Henry, I'd like to stop here for a moment, 10 minutes in and maybe can we give lawns their due a little bit. So I mentioned at the top that we haven't planted grass at our home, but the other day, we have a two year old. And the other day we visited a public space that has that sort of very luxurious green soft grass and that toddler in the space of a half an hour of hanging out there taught himself how to do a somersault. So, I mean, you know, grass can be pretty great.

Henry Homeyer:
Absolutely. I have grass as well as gardens.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And so I guess the question is here, what's the balance that you think that is out of whack in American landscape design?

Henry Homeyer:
I think that what's out of whack is when you have a house sitting on nothing but lawn and you might have an acre of lawn or half an acre of lawn and you have a mowing machine that you sit on, you drive around and you cut the lawn twice a week, that's not necessary. Yes, a little bit of lawn for your two year old or four year 18 year old who wants to play Frisbee. I think it's a nice thing.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So Nancy e-mails us and asks, is there some type of grass that does not require mowing, one that gets to be a certain length and then just lays over. Any thoughts there, Henry?

Henry Homeyer:
Yes, there are such things. I was just this morning talking to somebody from Seedway, which is a commercial company that sells seeds to farmers and landscapers and so forth, and they have something called the OVM mixture, which is orchard vineyards and nurseries. And it's a slow growing two types of grass, the fescue and a perennial rye and dwarf perennial rye. It's slow growing. And I visited a home just last week in Granthem New Hampshire that had this type of turf planted by seed and it was very attractive and the grass hadn't been mowed in six weeks, it was flopping over, but it was green and it was soft on the feet. And your two year old would be happy with it, but it did not require mowing. She said they mow two or three times a year.

Sam Evans-Brown:
All right. So we're going to hear from Ellen now, who's calling us from Dover. Ellen, you're on The Exchange. What do you have to say about your yard?

Caller:
Hi, good morning. So I'm a beekeeper in Dover, New Hampshire, and I have heard this conversation a lot more recently, which has been so encouraging. So we have a lot of clover and dandelions. And I'm looking outside right now and I see buttercups and I can see so much activity on the lawn, which is just such a great thing for, you know, all the local pollinators. So I feel like a lot of the green lawns are such a food desert, whereas like lawns like this have so much to offer to the environment, the local insects and, you know, by putting in a pollinator garden, it can be so beneficial. We see bumblebees and longhorn bees and everything.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So Henry, to Ellen's point, what are some what are some good plantings that one can put in for for pollinators? And just an aside, we have a bunch of thyme that we planted in lieu of grass because it grows low and can be stepped on a bunch and survive. And it has been covered in bees this summer. So that's one that that I can offer up.

Henry Homeyer:
That's true, and that's about the only one that you can walk on, most plants other than grass do not want to be walked on. And quite frankly, if your two year old is doing somersault in thyme, he's going to get stung. But I like Dutch white clover is wonderful instead of buying a Kentucky bluegrass mix. If people are going to plant a lawn, get a conservation mix, and that will include clover in addition to ryegrass, fescue and other turf grasses. If you go a couple of weeks, Clover will bloom, you know, couple of weeks between mowing, clover will bloom and it will be full of of bees and other pollinators. If you don't mow when you see whether it's dandelions, which early on are great supporters of our of our bees, I never understand why people are so anti-dandelion. I think they're great.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Well, so on that point, I'd like to bring in another voice to the conversation right now. Susannah Lerman, who is a research ecologist with the Northern Research Station of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So, Susannah, you, in fact, have researched this very topic and it's, I think, sort of like this idea-lite, which is to say, if one just simply mows less frequently, you can have some of the same benefits of letting your grass go wild.

Susannah Lerman:
Yeah, that's exactly it. And so I'm kind of building on what Henry was talking about and what your last caller mentioned in terms of planting pollinator gardens. For those of us who don't have the time or the money or the green thumb, we can just mow the lawn less and just let those dandelions and clovers come up. And so I've done some research to really see whether or not that actually makes a difference in terms of pollinators, like does it attract pollinators? And lo and behold, it does. And so here's another opportunity that we can make to make our lawn what I like to think of as less bad by doing less.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So, Susanna, when you say mow less, how much less are we talking about?

Susannah Lerman:
So it was really fun. We designed a study and experiment to see what happens if you mow your lawn every week, every two weeks and every three weeks, and we use those three different frequencies to really mimic what was kind of the norm. So most people, I think, feel that they need to mow every week. And then there's those of us who just like, oh, I have to go out and mow. And those are kind of a three week conditions. And so really trying to figure out how bees respond to these different types. And what we found was that as you mow your lawn less, lo and behold, you have more lawn flowers, what we call these spontaneous flowers. Some people might think of them as weeds, like the dandelions and the clover and the creeping charlie. But what we found in terms of how bees were responding was that mowing every two weeks is really that hot spot. And so that's when we're seeing the most numbers of bees that are visiting these lawn flowers. So when you think about I think you mentioned this earlier in terms of having these spaces looking nice, the two weeks is really, I think, kind of a nice balance of really trying to, one, provide habitat for bees and other pollinators. But it also looked nice. It was still acceptable for the neighbors. So most likely your neighbors are not going to complain that your yard was messy at that two week mowing frequency.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So, Susanna, as someone who grew up with mowing the lawn every week as the chore that my parents assigned to me, I have a hard time imagining why anyone would object to the idea that they should mow every two weeks. So what are the types of objections? What are the things that compel people to make their yard look like they're trying to maintain Fenway Park.

Right, and that's exactly it. And I've got to say that this is the one study that I've had so many people thank me for giving them that, you know, that passive, oh, you know, I think I've saved marriages, save, you know, family relationships because of this. It is giving people that opportunity to be what we call the lazy lawnmower. But I think there are a lot of concerns. And I think because, you know, since the 1950s, people have just kind of bought into the idea that we do need to mow every week, that it is a weekly chore. And so I think it's just ingrained in us. But another issue, and this is something that came up when I was designing the study and I was sharing what I was going to be doing is the concern about ticks. And so for anybody living in the northeast, Lyme disease is a huge issue.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Sorry to jump in on you here. We actually have a listener email on this point, Avery emails and says, I would love to not mow the lawns around the house, but ticks make that luxury impossible. Sadly, it becomes a health and welfare issue. So you've studied exactly this, is that correct?

Susannah Lerman:
I did. And so, you know, fortunately, one of those things when you design these studies the like at the end of it, like, oh, I wish I had done this. And fortunately, I thought, OK, well, let's see what the tick issue is. And so this study was conducted in Springfield, Massachusetts. So it's the third largest city in the state. And there are definitely ticks and Lyme disease is extremely prevalent in this area. But what we did was that we monitored to see whether or not ticks were more abundant in the different lawn mowing frequencies, with the idea that mowing every three weeks is going to have much taller grasses. And so what we found over the course of two years and I think it was over 200 different surveys, we found zero ticks in the lawn and so. Right. And so this was really exciting for us. But it was also no data. And so we kind of sat on it for a while. And then in 2019 or 2018, Consumer Reports came out with an article about this very question about how to tick-proof the lawn. And their number one recommendation was to mow short and mow frequently.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So, Susannah, we've got to take a quick break here. We will talk more about rewilding your lawn after a break. Coming up, how to make your backyard less of a chore, more welcoming to bugs and birds. Today we are talking about rewilding your lawn, a trend on The Exchange where I am hauled out of the woods to guest host, to evangelize for things I'm already doing in my own personal life. Today, we're destigmatizing the weedy front yard. Right now, we're talking to Susannah Lerman, a research ecologist with the Northern Research Station at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Suzanne, you were talking before the break about ticks and a study that you all had done, and I wanted to let you finish that thought.

Susannah Lerman:
Sure thing. So the big points that we made in the study is that the context matters. So if you live in a neighborhood that's surrounded by lawns and very little forests around. Chances are the tick population, isn't that that prevalent and isn't that large. And that the other thing is that when ticks are present in our yards, they tend to like the kind of the scraggly bits, the forest fragments on the edges of our yard, like the stone wall. They don't like to be in the lawns that much. And that's exactly what we found in our study in Springfield.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Indeed, didn't I read that it was the the the leaf litter where you could really find a lot of a lot of ticks.

Susannah Lerman:
Exactly. So, again, that's tends to not be on your lawn. So if you choose to mow your lawn less frequently so that you can support bees and other pollinators, what our study has shown is that that's not going to be an invitation for more ticks.

Sam Evans-Brown:
All right. We're going to take a call now from Bob in Contoocook. Bob, you're on The Exchange. What do you have to say?

Caller:
Yes, good morning. One thing I wanted to start out with, one of our obsessions with the big expensive moms goes back to a long time. If you think about the big plantations and big, huge farms, they would take large areas out of farming, to show just how wealthy they were in having these expensive lawns. So that's one reason that we have as a cultural norm. But what I have done, I had a scraggly lawn, you know, all the weeds and stuff like that.And finally one spring decided, you know, leave it and I get all these weeds or "weeds". They are all wildflowers. And it brings an enormous number of different pollinators. And of course, the dandelions and all that are nice and early too, I don't know, my lawn except maybe two or three times a year. And sometimes what I have to do is (inaudible) knock down the foot tall grass just to not let it go. But I don't have a manicured lawn anymore and I really enjoy it. And it's funny, my wife, but that's the way (inaudible) hanging the laundry out because she occasionally will step on a bee. What I've done is put clover in when I've had a bare spot. So it's a really neat thing that I get hundreds of asters the summer all throughout the year, that sort of thing.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Well, Susannah, I wonder if we can speak to people whose experience like like Bob is being expressed and perhaps to some as well, who. So, for instance, we have an email from Robin in Epsom who says, "I have a large lawn that I've been reducing slowly by making pollinator beds and I really want to get rid of my lawn except for a small play area with my dog. Unfortunately, my husband loves his lawn, trying hard to compromise." And then we have Mike in Londonderry who says: "I don't think I can commit to eliminating my lawn lawn mower, but I've been mowing lawns, letting the natural flowers, the flowering plants grow where they will. Any ideas?" So what can we say here is sort of folks who are on the continuum of lawn care, like how many folks out there would you estimate are more like Bob and how many really are trying to to have that very manicured look?

Susannah Lerman:
Yeah, that's a great question and thank you for doing what you're doing, I think you're providing really great habitat for bees. And I think what I realized throughout this study is that I think there's three different types of people. There's what I call the lawn people, and these are the folks that are just absolutely obsessed with their lawn. They're going to have their golf course manicured. It's going to be mowed at least once, if not twice a week. Those people I don't feel like we're going to be able to change their minds. Then there's the other the other side of the spectrum. And Sam, it sounds like you fit into this category of folks who, you know, just kind of let their lawn go and mow it occasionally just to appease their neighbors, if that's important.

Sam Evans-Brown:
The radical fringe.

Susannah Lerman:
And so then there's a group in the middle that don't really know exactly what they're supposed to do, but they see their neighbor mowing every week and they figure, huh, I guess that's what I'm supposed to do as well. And rather than doing the research, they're just going to follow what they're doing and really try to keep up with those neighborhood norms, like keeping up with the Joneses. And so I think it's that group of people that, you know, I think stories that we're hearing today and also the research that I've been working on for the last couple of years, I think this can really help inform them, to help them change the way that they're managing their lawn.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Susanna, I'm curious, given your research, what you personally do with with the patch around where you live?

Susannah Lerman:
Oh, gosh, our yard is a complete mess. But we mow every two or three weeks when we get around to it and when the mower is not broken. And so I think the reason I conducted this research, as well, was just to give myself a pass. But we also have a bunch of wildlife friendly types of plantings that the previous owners had planted, but I have no clue how to maintain them. And every year, I think another plant slowly dies. And so I get the need to have lawns because they're really easy to maintain. You know, yes, you have to mow them every couple of weeks, but it doesn't take any special skill. It doesn't take a special desire to want to be out and and to be a gardener. And so, again, I feel like this is just another opportunity for people to manage their lawns in a way that, you know, a lot more wildlife friendly.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Susannah, I'm curious with regards to the pressure from neighbors to keep the lawn looking, quote unquote, nice. I remember my parents had a field that they used to let grow wild and they got a sort of pointed letter from the local garden club about it. What are some ways that one might combat that pressure? And I'm personally thinking of signs I have seen about the sort of intentionality of letting grass grow long.

Susannah Lerman:
That's exactly it. And so when we were conducting the study, we placed signs at all of our study lawns to let the neighbors know that no, that the yard wasn't just being let go, that it was part of science. But then after the study got published, we designed lawn signs so people could download for free on the Forest Service website to let people know that it is intentional. And so, again, I think. Making sure that your neighbors know that it's not neglected, but there is that intentionality, I think can really go a long way.

Sam Evans-Brown:
All right, Susannah Lerman a research ecologist with the Northern Research Station of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thank you so much for being with us, Susannah. Do you love mowing your lawn or and does this very conversation make you grind your teeth? Tell us why or have you been experimenting with a slightly less grassy yard scape? And how's that going? Henry Homeyer, I'd like to bring you back into the conversation here. Tom writes us and says, "We have an 8000 square foot area which started as a wildfire mix, but now is dominated by purple lupines and very little else. Lupines look awesome when they're flowering, but it would be nice to have other flowers and color in that area. Do you have any wildflowers you'd recommend to help add color to that area?" And I want to just sort of piggyback on here that the idea of specific plantings that you have to maintain for me personally as a homeowner just sounds like more gardening. And what I want is something that I can ignore.

Henry Homeyer:
Well, yes, there are a number of things I could recommend if he's got lupine's then a black eyed Susans would do well in the same soil and sun conditions. And you can go about this a number of different ways. You can buy a packet of seeds and start your seeds indoors or on a table outside, water them daily in a planting mix until they're a couple inches tall and then plant them in the garden or in that space, pulling aside anything else is growing there and giving them a clean spot to to go into. A wonderful wildflower is queen anne's lace, which would also grow where lupines grow. I'm assuming that he has a fairly sandy, sunny spot. There are three types of soil, sandy soil, clay soil and a good loam. We all want a good loan, but nobody ever gets it without some considerable amount of work and adding compost and so forth. If you've got a sandy soil, those are a few things that work well there. Gay feather or liatris, which is a tall, spiky thing, is blooming right now. You want to have something for each different season because the lupines are early in the summer. You want some some New England asters perhaps. You can go to a garden centre and buy a pot of New England asters and plunk it in the ground and it should survive and thrive. And it's a wonderful plant for pollinators in the fall.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Melanie in Lebanon writes in, "I wonder if someone could offer advice on what to do with large lawns over septic areas. I've been told that we can't plant anything but grass there because it would interfere with our septic field. It's a lot of lawn and I'd like to reduce it if possible." Henry, do you do you have any thoughts about septic areas and what are suitable plantings to go over them?

Henry Homeyer:
That's a problem because the people that install septic systems are very firm about lawn only. I have a brother in law in Canada who emailed me recently saying that the town had come to him and said, you've planted willows over the septic system. That's not acceptable. Well, that probably isn't a very good idea because Willows will really search for water and they may get into the into the leachfield and cause problems, I don't know. I design gardens for people and I don't do anything but grass over leachfields, and I probably need to do more research on that because I'm sure there are plenty of things that don't have deep roots and would be acceptable. But I need to know what the law is on that, too, because there may be regulations that the septic people are actually following.

Sam Evans-Brown:
All right. We are going to go to take a caller here. Jamie in New Boston is on the line. Jamie. You're on The Exchange. What do you have to say?

Caller:
This is so interesting and I've been in and out because I'm in the car with both hands on the wheel and I had to answer a telephone call, but I did hear the part about queen anne's lace - just gorgeous. There's this field in New Boston that just packed with queen anne's lace. It's gorgeous. I remember years ago seeing a field full of daisies. So people obviously did something intentional there. And I remember a few years ago, somebody told me that the state is selling, or they were anyway, like for ten dollars a pound, you get the flower mixture has rudbeckia in it and a bunch of other things. And, you know, they put it on the state roads. So I have a question about that. And then finally, the reason I mow lawn is because we have poison ivy encroaching in. And if I don't keep that grass, if I don't keep it mowed, that poison ivy comes in more and more every year.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So. So any thoughts about that? Well, first of all, I do remember the story about the Department of Transportation accidentally planting wildflower mix in the median and it causing a problem because cars, so many cars were stopping to look at the beautiful flowers that were really very dramatic. But thoughts about, you know, poison ivy, things to do about poison ivy. But I also wonder there also things like zoning laws or homeowners association rules that require cutting of grass. And if you have any had any experience with those in terms of ways to sort of perhaps convince your neighbors that you're on the right track.

Henry Homeyer:
Well, I think that the idea of putting up signs saying this is an experimental plot following recommendations from the USDA about muling. It will certainly reduce the threat, the call from the cranky neighbor, you may still get calls, but at least they know you're not just being lazy.

Sam Evans-Brown:
In terms of poison ivy, thoughts about poison ivy and ways to combat it.

Henry Homeyer:
It's a real pest. And I agree that mowing to keep it from spreading probably makes sense. But maybe you can do a border around an area right at the edge of your forest where the poison ivy is coming from a three foot or four foot band, where you cut it every week and then leave the middle portion to grow longer and see if that works.

Sam Evans-Brown:
All right. We are going to head to a quick break. When we come back, we're going to be talking about more alternatives to the traditional lawn. And we want to hear from you about your lawn care regime or lack thereof. Do you dread mowing the grass and long to convert some of your turf into something more productive? This is The Exchange. I'm Sam Evans-Brown.

Sam Evans-Brown:
This is The Exchange on NHPR. I'm Sam Evans-Brown filling in for Laura Knoy. Today lawns or rather getting rid of them rather than trying to make your home look like the grounds of the Duke of Wellington's estate. How to choose an alternative school of landscaping. We've got another voice with us now, Thomas Rainer, landscape architect and an author of several books on this subject. Thomas, thank you for joining us. So I'm curious for folks who are are interested in heading in this direction, but maybe are afraid of the, you know, sort of censorious neighbor who who's peering out from behind the blinds across the way. Any thoughts about how to do this, do this type of thing in a way that's that's attractive that maybe we haven't heard yet on on the show?

Thomas Rainer:
Yeah, that's a great question. I think understanding how to create usable lawn, I think one of the problems with the American suburban lawn as many people have said is it's kind of done as the default treatment over in her yard. In many ways, Americans treat lawns the way that houses in the 1970s treated carpet and wall to wall carpeting. You know, remember in the 70s, we had carpets in our bathrooms and kind of everywhere, and I think, you know, instead of thinking of a lawn more like an area rug rather than wall to wall carpeting, and by that I mean kind of a smaller, more defined lawn, and perhaps in front of the house where the neighbors see it the most. And and then using all that extra space where the lawn doesn't want to grow -those areas where it bleeds out under the trees, or next to fences or kind of against the woodland edge, you know, replacing lawn in those areas with lush, biodiverse planting. And in that way, you get a lawn that's right-sized and looks more like terrace, you know, very beautifully defined by planting or things around it and then still have a little piece that makes the neighbors, you know, happy. So to me, I think it's about a compromise. It doesn't have to be about abandoning lawns.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So, Thomas, you work in ecological horticulture at Phyto Studio. You authored the book Planting in a post Wild World. And I think that sort of speaks to to what I'm hearing, which is that, doing this is not necessarily just about letting things completely go wild, but also, you know, actually doing some planting and encouraging of things that might do well in the place. Say more about that.

Thomas Rainer:
Yes, we're really interested in kind of the hybrid between the world of ecology and the world of traditional horticulture. Horticulture for too long, too long, it's been focused on kind of plant this individual object, these ornamental diva kind of set in a sea of mulch. And instead, we really want to replace that idea of planting as biodiverse system, as three to 10 species in a bed that are multiple layers. And we really think about building groundcover. We think about plants as mulch, as a replacement to the enormous amount of bark mulch thats used in the United States every single year, which is a huge problem in terms of carbon. Most of the mulch we put onto our soil, not that much is all bad, but a lot of that much off-gases, the carbon into the atmosphere, very little back to the soil. And the best way to get more carbon into the soil is to plant roots. And so a lot of what we focus on in the book is to teach people how to build groundcover. And so this means looking at a plant body language. For example, the last guest talked about black eyed Susans or lupine, these tall perennials that grow in a garden. If you look at where they grow in the wild, they never grow by themselves. There's always plants underneath these taller, upright plants that very often have naked feet underneath them. And so we're really focused on helping people to lower the maintenance in their garden beds by replacing mulch with things like violets or green and gold and golden groundsels and a whole range of native groundcover that really the whole purpose is to create more stability and reduce labor.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Adam in Dunbarton writes, "New Hampshire needs more lavender. Replace your lawn with a hardy variety, like phenomenal, excellent for bees and butterflies, drought tolerant, insect repellent, beautiful, full sun fragrant and a cash crop if you're so inclined." Kathleen in Bow says she's looking for more information about food plants for butterflies, butterfly food, also called host plants. Very important to continue the lifecycle of butterflies and moths. I'm curious, Thomas, thoughts about about these calls. When you when you talk about replacing mulch, which I'm really glad you brought up, because I think a lot of people, when they don't want to grow grass, mulch is sort of the go to solution. What kinds of plants are we actually talking about in a place like New Hampshire?

Thomas Rainer:
So we're thinking about plants that are typically very low. They're typically a bit shade tolerant because a lot of these plants are going to be grown underneath shrubs and, you know, those lupine and and those taller, more charismatic plants. So these include things like sedges. There's a whole range of kind of low short grasses called sedges, many of which are somewhat winter present. They include plants like violet. We've seen violets in lawns in talking about a wonderful larval (inaudible) birds, butterfly, moth species. That is just a remarkable one. All kinds of plants like golden groundsel, which is a low, horizontally spreading,rhizomatous plant. And so a big thing about what we encourage, people do have two or three basic types of groundcover in a planting bed and then just kind of randomly mix them. It might be something low and clumping like sedge with a leafy plant like an asparum or a green and gold or something that spreads rhizomatously. And all of these plants, they're a little bit aggressive, but when a plant is aggressive and eight inches tall, you know, we tend to welcome that kind of aggressiveness. When seven feet tall and aggressive becomes really a bit of a problem. So embracing kind of these clonal spreading behaviors of the plant that will spread around and intermingle and form a dense thatch that can grow underneath our azaleas or our rhododendrons or some of the bigger plants we have in our garden.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Denise in Keene is on the line. Denise, you're on The Exchange. What are you doing in your yard?

Caller:
Hi, well, thanks so much for giving me the chance to speak to this, because the lawn at my house, fortunately, we have two very tolerant neighbors who deal with the fact we mow - perhaps mow is not the right word, but we cut the grass about twice a year, by and large, lots and lots of wildflowers. And the reason I wanted to call is because my son has taught us to use a scythe, a tool that, you know, sort of traditional for cutting. Like wheat, you would see the Grim Reaper carrying his scythe. We don't wear black when we use it. But, you know, we cut the grass with the scythe and it's wonderful. It's actually been a really beautiful thing in our family because it's really quiet. There's no fossil fuels. It's good exercise. You're out. And then some time really in among the wildflowers and it creates mulch that we then use in our garden bed. So I wanted to share like how far out on the spectrum.

Sam Evans-Brown:
It's very interesting that you say that that is because as we heard at the top of the show, that's where lawns had their start, is with, you know, sort of grand estates in Europe and gardeners hand scything down the grass. So. Thomas, I'm curious thoughts about scything?

Thomas Rainer:
Well, I've never done that, but I love the idea and love, you know, kind of the meditative connection. You're doing a different kind of practice that engages people and, you know, slowing down and I think is wonderful. No, not not every place probably can get away with that. But I think it's wonderful to kind of push the boundaries on what we can do and how to make it look good.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And real quick, one of the points that she made, which I wonder if we could if we could unpack here, is that she mentioned it was an idea that her son brought to the family. And I guess is this a trend where you're seeing younger folks who are perhaps concerned about climate change and have a different conception of what a what homeownership means, might have might have different ideas about what looks good?

Thomas Rainer:
Absolutely. We are seeing a generational change in approach to horticulture. I think that the garden club and many of the traditional kind of suburban lawn or that kind of the bastion of horticulture and growing them in the American suburban lawn is now shifting to millennials who don't have houses and who are much more open to new and different approaches. I think we're really at the beginning of a generational change and rethinking how college and horticulture can work in small, suburban and urban plots.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And Henry Homeyer, I'm curious to hear from you as well. You've been you've been writing and working in New England gardening for a long time. Are you seeing that here in New England, which is, you know, a place that's fairly staid, fairly traditional?

Henry Homeyer:
Yes, within limits. So going back to scything, I have a scythe my grandfather was a fantastic scyther. It's hard to do even if you're good at it. You have to carry a wetstone in your back pocket and you have to sharpen your scythe. If you're fighting for an hour, you will have sharpened once or twice. The weed whacker, particularly if you get a battery operated weed whacker which are readily available with 24 volt batteries. That has replaced the scythe. I don't think even millennials will use the scythe because it's hard work and it takes a great skill to make everything come out at the same height. My grandfather could do it. I never mastered that. I can cut down a field with a scythe, but if I had to do it, I would probably use my battery powered weed whacker.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Ok, so let's talk more than about this generational shift. What are you seeing in terms of ways that norms and values are shifting? What are the types of landscape designs that are becoming more popular as folks are becoming more critical of you know, of sod, of turf? And I'd like to throw this to you first, Thomas.

Thomas Rainer:
We are landscape architects and we do a lot of public sector work, and one of the most fascinating changes in the last 10 years is what I call the High Line effect, having like, for example, a mayor in Fredericksburg, Virginia, asking for a public park to have their version of the High Line. And by that, he really meant that this kind of a celebratory planting that was lush and more biodiverse and more kind of local, being a big part of the experience, the park. And I think that's really wonderful when you have kind of a project like that, really inspiring other areas of the country to embrace more ecological horticulture, more inventive and innovative public planting that are not only more biodiverse, but also more colorful and very exciting. And the High line has changed real estate values in New York City. Many people complain about that. But, you know, it's really exciting to think about how an exciting horticulture and public space can do that. So I think we're seeing more and more people wanting a piece of that action.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Henry, you mentioned when we spoke to you before the show that you've recently been involved in a project converting lawn into something else. What was that project and what did you all do?

Henry Homeyer:
It was a homeowner in Grantham, New Hampshire, who did not like having to mow the lawn, didn't like the look of lawn, wanted to have a field of flowers, and we hired young people in, you know, their late teens to come and work with us to remove the grass first, and the weeds that were there, and then planted specific plants that were good in a hot, dry location similar to the High Line. I just wanted to clarify, the High Line is two miles of elevated railway line abandoned in New York City that's been converted into the number one tourist attraction of New York City now. People come from all over the world to walk this two miles. I've done it. It's lovely. It was designed by a Dutchman, Piet Udolf. And part of the garden that we planted was based on Udolf's use of decorative grasses and wildflowers and supported pollinators. So it's only in its second year. It's looking lovely. It does take maintenance. This is not a work free environment. And getting a garden like that established means you have to have water in a dry summer like this one, which is a problem because water restrictions are now in effect in that part of the town.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Taya in New London writes in, "When we purchased our house, we inherited a large area of our even larger lawn that was planted with crocus and daffodils. We decided to let that area grow out after blooming. I just had it mowed, but will not mow again until November and leave the clippings through winter. Everyone loves the spring blooms, and I'm sure some neighbors think it's odd. But I have fireflies, butterflies, birds, bugs and snakes, even deer bed down in the long grass." Thomas, thoughts about this in terms of wildlife benefits? I mean, I personally have noticed that we have a ton of birds in our front yard, many more than than spots where it's just green grass.

Thomas Rainer:
I love that idea of a bulb lawn, I think that's another one of those ways of adjusting to an existing lawn and we're actually planning some at Arlington National Cemetery for a future project. And this is just the idea of taking from naturalizing early season bulbs like crocuses or species daffodils, both of which can be really good for early, early season pollinators, implanting them into an existing lawn. And then you let you know they're very short. They bloom kind of in the spring, and then you do kind of late spring/early summer cut. Then you can go back to resuming mowing your lawn as normal, at least for the spring season. You get all that wonderful color, a lot more benefit for pollinators.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Bernie tweets in with this question: "I tested part of my lawn, let it grow out for a full summer. But just Norway maple saplings and clumpy long grass. How does one achieve that wildflower meadow without installing it?" Henry, You mentioned that, that these landscapes do still take maintenance. I'm curious when we're talking about maintenance, apart from watering, what are we talking about if it's not, you know, weekly mowings.

Henry Homeyer:
Pulling out those Norway maples and other invasive seedlings is very important. And that takes time, person power.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So I'm thinking of of our of our little patch. What we do is we cut it once a year. Usually in the spring will we'll head out with like a brush hog and take down all the the woody growth. Do you think we're on the right track or is that should we be doing something different?

Henry Homeyer:
No, it sounds like you're doing a wonderful job with it. And I'd like to come visit it sometime and write an article about it. I write a weekly gardening column 52 weeks out of the year and and next winter, when I've got nothing else to write about, I'm going to write about Sam's lawn turned into a wonderful pollinator space.

Sam Evans-Brown:
I want to give you the last word to you Thomas. For folks who are interested in heading down this road and trying to find some resources, where would you send them? What should they what should they read? You know, who should they who should they be reaching out to if they're interested in changing up their their yardscape?

Thomas Rainer:
There are some wonderful resources, our book to be shameless, Planting the Post-Wild World. There's Larry Weaner has a book out called Garden Revolution. I think a wonderful kind of primer on an alternative. There's other resources in the book. We love nurseries like New Nursery and North Nurseries website because they have a really curated list of species that are good alternatives in planting beds. So those are some good starting points. .

Sam Evans-Brown:
Thank you so much, both of you, for taking the time to be with us. Henry Homeyer, a long time gardening columnist, author of four gardening books here in New England. Thank you, Henry Homeyer.

Henry Homeyer:
Thank you for having me. It was great fun.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And Thomas Rainer, landscape architect, also author of Planting in the post-Wild World. Thank you, Thomas, for being here. That is it for today. Thank you all for calling in and for writing in. Our show's producers are Jessica Hunt, Christina Phillips, and our fellow is Jane Vaughan. Senior producer is Ellen Grim. Michael Brinley is our program manager. Our regular theme music was composed by Bob Lord, our engineer. Very patiently today, Dan Colgan. Remember, this conversation continues online on Facebook and at Nhpr.org. I'm Sam Evans-Brown. Thanks very much for listening.