Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Freedom Lawn (or, How Hannah Holmes Changed my Life)

I have what most American suburbanites would describe as “a crappy lawn.” The US ideal, as promoted by the people at Scotts, Chemlawn, and even the environmentally friendly Nature’s Lawn, is a lush sea of green grass. Neither flower or non-conforming foliage must tarnish the landscape.

My lawn, on the other hand, is comprised of clover, dandelions, paintbrushes, buttercups, strawberry vines, baby ferns, some purple flowers that I kind of like (and some white ones, too), a bunch of things that I should know the names to by now, and at least three varieties of grass, including the crab variety. It’s a mess.

Is this any way to run a lawn?
I even went so far as to contract an assessment (“high weed content”) and quote from Nature’s Lawn a couple of years ago. Despite their promises to not use chemicals and pesticides, I decided that I had better things to spend a few hundred dollars per year on. At least my lawn is already green. Besides, I don’t live in a subdivision, I live on a country road where you can’t see anybody else’s lawn while standing on mine. I figured I could wait before trying to strengthen the grass (and choke out the weeds) on my own.

Then I met Hannah Holmes, who talked me out of even that.

That’s not entirely true. I didn’t actually meet Ms. Holmes, though I live only about 20 miles away from her South Portland home. I did, however, receive a copy of her 2005 book Suburban Safari, in which she spends a year documenting the actions of the flora and fauna in her own back yard. And right there on page 103 Holmes introduced me to the concept of the Freedom Lawn:
The freedom applies both to the plants and the people, the latter of whom
needn’t water, fertilize, pesticize, or other otherwise interfere. Nurseries now
sell Freedom Lawn seed mixes, for lawn owners who life in parts of the world
that have been shortchanged in weeds. But even before I came across the official
term, I thought of my yard as a Darwin Lawn. Whatever could survive the mower
and the drought was welcome to stay.

That’s what I have! A Freedom Lawn. And it’s a good thing, too. Holmes later writes about the problems with having a lawn that is comprised of one species of grass:

Monocultures are sickly, that’s a scientific fact. While it’s true that some
plants fight each other, it’s also true that a high diversity of plants protects
everybody. Together, the plants pool their talents. Each plant probably repels a
few harmful insects. Each probably attracts a beneficial insect or two. The
wastes of one species feed the roots of the next. The bold produce shade for the
shy. They also dilute themselves, making it tougher for diseases to roll from
clover to clover, or ryegrass to ryegrass. This has been proven in experiments:
A plot of grassland hosting many species produces a lot more total greenery than
a plot with fewer species. Even the most carefully tended plot of a single
species can’t compete.
Rather than spend a lot of time an money and resources forcing your lawn to be something that it doesn’t want to be, and isn’t all that desirable (from an ecological standpoint), Holmes and the Freedom Lawn community suggest just letting the thing run free. And indeed, since I stopped applying water and fertilizer a few years ago, my lawn has become more lush and green and (dare I say) healthier than ever before.

Looks OK when you mow it!

Suburban Safari is full of such practical advice. While promoted as a chronicle of the activity in Holmes’ back yard over the course of a year, it is much more than that. Holmes takes on such important topics as global warming, disease, invasive plants and animals, and, importantly, water diversion. The last topic isn’t one that we hear about much in New England, which receives ample precipitation most years, but it is an issue in the desert southwest where rivers and groundwater are depleted to feed agriculture, humans and, increasingly as the population grows, human lawns. It takes a lot of water to grow grass. Growing grass where there isn’t a lot of rainfall requires one to divert water from other, more practical uses. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that human population centers require a lot of pavement, which doesn’t absorb rainfall but instead sends it down into the sewers. Less absorbed rainfall means more water needs to be diverted. It’s a downward spiral.
The book does live up to it’s original billing as well, and it’s an interesting story. Like any good story, there is romance, violence, and the struggle to survive. It’s man vs. nature as well as nature vs. nature. We follow crows, chipmunks, squirrels, ants, slugs and spiders. We also follow oak trees, apple trees, pear trees and grape vines. We see how plants, animals and humans fight amongst themselves for space. Most enlightening was Holmes’ description of the defense mechanisms employed by the trees. We all know that plants are living things, but Holmes portrays them as, if not thinking beings, species that are able to adapt to threats and changing conditions, and even react with unseen, unknown defense mechanisms. It’s a fascinating read.

There is much to be learned from Suburban Safari. Some of it is in the “cool to learn something new” department, like the aforementioned discussion of the trees. But much of it is practical advice for what we as humans can do to preserve the natural world around us. It is an eye-opening look at how our attitudes toward rain water, energy usage, chemicals and invasive species affect our communities and our lives. Highly recommended.


Blogger weasel said...

This is outstanding!

The UMaine extension service also has a dirt cheap pamphlet on sourcing Maine native plants statewide from nurseries and garden stores for your flowerbeds, should you be interested.

Also, I understand that much of the new parking lots, sidewalks, etc built in Germany for the late World Cup use "porous concrete" that allows water to drain through but blocks oil, etc. I bet it costs a bomb, though.

1:33 PM  
Anonymous hannah holmes said...


Thanx so much for reading my book, and for finding the beauty in you freedom lawn!

Hannah Holmes

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sold so count me in! I read about the Freedom Lawn in the New Yorker and now appreciate the logic in this smart approach.

5:01 AM  
Blogger Elisa said...

That is awesome, your freedom lawn is very pretty. I just read about it the New Yorker. I have a bare spot in my back yard where I'd like to plant some clover but I'm having trouble finding seed.

7:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read Suburban Safari a few months back and fell in love with the concept of a freedom lawn. Sadly, I don't have a yard, but if I did...

I'm actually using this book in my graduate program at Goddard College - it's a degree in Sustainable Communities and I want to suggest that small steps, like Freedom Lawns, put us on the right track to more sustainable living. Perhaps I could bounce some ideas off of you, or at least get some information about and pics of your yard.

11:56 PM  
Anonymous landscaping trees said...

There are many plants that can be grown in these wetlands like: red maple, silver maple, carpinus carolianiana, quercus phellos etc. No matter which plant you grow, they will definitely serve the purpose of enriching the natural environment and maintaining the ecological balance. The only thing to be kept in mind is that, you must take the proper guidance and also see with what is your aim of doing the plantation. native plants tree nursery

10:38 AM  
Anonymous kwren said...

I have a couple of nice shots of my Freedom Lawn in Williamsburg, VA. If you want them, tell me where/how to email them to you. Also, is there any site with promotional/design/bumper sticker-type stuff on it? I want to promote the concept at an upcoming Farmer's Market in my community.
Thanks in advance.

9:23 AM  
Blogger hayda said...

Found very useful information on behalf of the social network of people in here, very nice to meet you and nice sharing. Good works.
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7:08 PM  
Blogger Eileen Smith Anglin said...

I am an environmentalist, so I am looking into doing this as well. I really enjoyed reading of your experience.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous tree cutting expert acworth GA said...

This freedom lawn is brilliant! With this idea and proper maintenance, surely your lawn will be greener and more beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

tree cutting expert acworth GA

10:10 AM  
Anonymous Tree Nursery Co said...

Native plants are so important to our eco system. There's alot of online nurseries that has a killer variety.

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Indian Creek Nursery said...

i love native plants too. Elderberry, possom haw and vibrunums too.

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Trees For Sale Online said...

I love anything to do with nature!

10:06 PM  

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