A green that’s not so green

Published Tuesday, July 7, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

It’s summer and Canada is once again flush with greenery.

However, amid all the crops we grow, one stands out.  National statistics are not kept, but I’d wager that, in terms of acreage, it ranks among our top ten crops.  It’s grown from coast to coast, and demands considerable inputs – labour, fertilizer, pesticides and more.  But unlike wheat, canola or corn, it yields not one ounce of useful food.

The crop is lawn.  Almost three-quarters of Canadian households have one; the percentage is even higher in Atlantic Canada.

And no question: if you have a lawn, you know how much work, resources and money it demands, for not much return.

Does that make sense?  Perhaps this comic dialogue between God and St. Francis of Assisi, which showed up in my inbox recently, offers a good commentary:

God: Francis, what happened to the dandelions, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow anywhere and attract butterflies, honey bees and songbirds. But now all I see are these green rectangles.

St. Francis: Lord, people started calling your flowers 'weeds' and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

God: Grass? It’s boring, and attracts only grubs and sod worms. People really want grass?

ST. Francis: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing it and poisoning any other plant that crops up.

God: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make them happy.

ST. Francis: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it – sometimes twice a week.

God: They cut it? Do they then bale it, like hay?

ST. Francis: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

God: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. Francis: No, Lord, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

God: Let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. Francis: Yes.

God: They must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. Francis: You aren't going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they water it to make it grow faster.

God: Enough! I don't want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

ST. Catherine: 'Dumb and Dumber', Lord. It's a story about...

God: Never mind; I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

What to do?

So if you have a lawn, how can you make it more sustainable?

  • Water and fertilize less so you can mow less
  • Avoid lawn pesticides; they’re designed to kill things so it shouldn’t be surprising that they might affect us too
  • Convert part of the lawn to a vegetable garden or a wildflower garden for bees and other beneficials
  • Consider alternatives to gas mowers, such as corded or cordless electric mowers.  Tinkerers can find do-it-yourself instructions for building solar chargers on the internet.  Electric robot mowers that mow the lawn automatically, even overnight, are an interesting option.  And reel mowers require no gas and provide a nice bit of exercise.

Why not make your lawn more sustainable?  God may not thank you, but the planet – and your wallet – will.  Plus less summer work means more time for summer fun.