Is it time to rethink our lawns?

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

Full disclosure – I have never been a fan of lawns. I’ve had a 20 year plan to convert my large property to perennial gardens and paths, and I’m getting there, slowly but surely. 

However, I am fascinated with how (and why) people are so attached to their square green spaces of grass. 

A little history first..

Lawns became popular with the aristocracy in northern Europe from the Middle Ages onward, evolving as a sign of wealth.  Originally they were mostly used as pasture – lawns like we have today first appeared in France and England in the 1700s when André Le Nôtre designed the gardens of Versailles that included a small area of grass called the tapis vert, or “green carpet”.

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Immigrants to North America brought these traditions with them as they settled the land. Particularly after the Second World War, the creation of the middle class and suburbia and the advent of chemical fertilizers led to a North American culture of ‘the lawn is king’, with the requirement that it was every homeowner’s responsibility to keep it watered, mowed, repaired, and cultivated, just like their neighbours. One article I read even went so far as to blame the rise of lawns on the Scots, who brought their love of lawn bowling and golf to this continent (and therefore the need for flat green areas).

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Lawn is a cognate of llan which is derived from the Common Brittonic word landa (Old French: launde) that originally means heath, barren land, or clearing.

Lawns are expensive to create and maintain, so why do we still have them? Simply put, the belief is that lawns are indicative of success – if you have a well maintained lawn you have the time and money to create and maintain it, and you care about belonging to your neighbourhood.

Fast forward to current times, where we now see articles in the Globe and Mail asking whether “it’s time to decolonize your lawn” and efforts are underway in many areas to convert lawn areas into more ecologically responsible landscapes to support our pollinators, birds, and wildlife. Whether you simply overseed with some white clover, and reduce or eliminate fertilizers, or convert your entire lawn into a wildflower meadow, there is a full range of options to consider.

Such changes have not been without their challenges. A recent newspaper article shows the conflict between those who want a new attitude towards our properties. Nina-Marie Lister, a Ryerson University urban planner and ecologist removed all her lawn, replacing it with “a lush and layered landscape” filled with “milkweed, boneset and black-eyed Susans, among other plants largely native to the region.” Her neighbours complained and she was visited by a Toronto city bylaw officer – under Toronto’s municipal code, residents need to “cut the grass and weeds on their land” whenever they grow past 20 centimetres.

The comments community lit up, and well known gardener Lorraine Johnson even penned an editorial in the Toronto Star about it.

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Naturalized gardens are becoming a widespread phenomenon, and municipal bylaws will continue to be challenged by those that advocate for increasing biodiversity by creating landscapes that support an abundance of species of flora and fauna. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see someone complain to bylaw about a green lawn destroying biodiversity, filling the landscape with chemicals, wasting water by watering, and creating air and noise pollution through mowing? You see, it’s all a matter of perspective.

The debate is far from over, but gardeners should enter the discussion and think about whether there is a way for their green spaces to be just a bit more ecologically friendly.

Whatever your opinion, I encourage you to read these articles and think about the issues surrounding our garden spaces. I know I will never convert the staunch, lawnmower riding king to create a wildflower meadow, but if I just get a few people to think about how they can make a small difference in their own backyards I will be happy. I don’t have all the answers – I just want to stimulate the discussion.

FUN FACT – clover was an accepted part of lawns until the early 1950s, only becoming a ‘weed’ because the earliest 2,4-D herbicides killed it off along with the dandelions.

For those interested the Canadian Society for Organic Urban Land Care is hosting an online discussion and learning series on the role of land care, horticulture and landscaping in cultivating social and land equity. One of the topics is “Cultural values and how they frame horticultural norms” where the colonization and control of our natural landscapes will be the topic.

For more information:

The American Obsession with Lawns

The History of Lawns

Decolonizing Horticulture by Sundaura Alford-Purvis

4 thoughts on “Is it time to rethink our lawns?”

  1. I am having such trouble with weeds in our lawn in Bridgenorth, I am wondering if a lawn seeded mainly of clover is viable. Is there low growing clover and/or other ground cover that could literally become a lawn? We have an total infestation of a weed with a thin deep root which spreads 5-14 inches across the surface of the dry grass underneath and has become the green cover to our very discouraged lawn. How can I arrange a consultation with Green Up lawn expert person? I could meet in person.

    Photos here show the main weed; lawn is also interspersed with new crab grass.

    Stella Pulkinghorn 705 292 9771

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    1. Hi Stella, Emma here. Unfortunately we can’t see your photo. But yes, white clover (Trifolium repens) or microclover ( (not red) can be seeded to create a lawn, and the bonus is that it will not go brown like other lawns in the summer. Clover also crowds out other weeds. Does it have to be clover or grass? As one author in the article below put it “Why does it have to be either-or? A mixture of traditional grass and clover is a happy medium! Or think of it like this: You’re letting the grass and clover duke it out on the front lawn. Survival of the fittest: Let the strongest prevail.”
      Please email the Peterborough Master Gardeners with your photos at contact@peterboroughmastergardeners.com and we will try to help. These are also good articles on using clover.
      https://dengarden.com/gardening/Clover-Lawns (overview)
      https://www.danakayal.com/post/clover-lawn (someone’s experience)

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  2. I speak from experience as a retired landscape architect, certified garden designer and family man. I value lawns as glorious places for kids play and family gathering. Lawn grass is tough and forgiving in those conditions, so I designed them to be big enough and easy to look after. for myclients and my family.
    However I got got rid of all unnecessary grass because it took up space for plants for all wildlife , vegetable plots and a vast visual display. Over 40 years of practice I steadily reduced lawns. My front lawn disappeared once my kids stopped skidding down it in Winter, replaced by a garden the attracted favourable comments from my neighbours. Slowly the amount of front lawn went from almost everyone on the street to almost none! My neighbours changed without persuasion! My practice followed a similar route. I kept lawns for practical reasons, then filled in the gaps with native, colourful plants suitable for the sun,,,/ shade and soils
    The positive responses from my clients kept me going. I now live in the country with wildflower meadows and small patch of lawn for family. I summary lawn grass is excellent, just in the right place. Culturally we have changed to recognize the need to have lawns and plants that suit our particular needs, not what the community thinks we should conform to.

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