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Monday, August 24, 2009

Lawns, Weeds, and Good Reads

It's the end of the summer and you have a little bit more time to read something inspiring before the pace picks up, but you've got this expanse of grass that needs attention. After all, the neighbors are starting to notice that you've fired the landscaping service, ditched the chemical enhancements, and started pushing that reel mower around for exercise, giving up half way through after making an interesting circular pattern through the knee-high dandelions. Well, Nancy Gift knows how to inspire you to think even more creatively about that expanse of green that stretches from your front door to the sidewalk. Environmental Studies professor and acting Director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Gift has written a lovely paean to those other plants we tend to vilify. A Weed by Any Other Name: The Virtues of a Messy Lawn, or Learning to Love the Plants We Don't Plant is a great place to start thinking about how we shape our outdoor environment, what we believe when we create categories of good and bad plants, and how we want children to relate to the larger natural world.
What can you do with a lawn other than plant grass? Vegetable, herb, and other kind of edible gardens are not only beautiful but productive. Stone walkways and patios with thyme or sedum make yards more interesting. Consider a meadow full of cosmos or high grasses. For a great start, The Wild Lawn Handbook is a good guide to reinventing your front yard. Another terrific resource is Marc Carlton's Gardens for WildLife website.
While many landscaping services and garden centers are starting to provide plants, advice, and materials for alternatives to monoculture, high-maintenance lawns, Gift's approach is for us to re-think the whole idea of weeds and cultivars, since such distinctions rest on cultural ideas of what we think we need in any given spot rather than environmental interests such as promoting wildness and diversity, allowing people to enjoy nature in less managed states, and reducing our impact on the entire eco-system. Some plants can stand to be eradicated (poison ivy really has to be removed where people dominate spaces), but others can be encouraged and coaxed to take over some of the expanses now covered in uniform, chemically-managed greenness. Gift's book is a great read, partly personal narrative, part in-depth exploration of a few plants in context of a larger botanical landscape. In her blogs, Gift also helps us think about the outdoors as a place that's becoming less and less important to people's every day lives. For children in particular, this seems like a great loss of knowledge, physical memory, and engagement with living things. Luck for us, Gift also takes the time to think and write about what to do when you can't push mow or when your children are spending too much time indoors.
So, as summer winds down, pull up a lawn chair, pour yourself a big glass of dandelion wine (okay, well, if you're not THAT into Euell Gibbons, lavender iced tea will do), and let your kids run wild with clover between their toes.
photo credits: Nancy Gift, Beacon Press, Gardens for WildLife.

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10/13/2009 03:18:00 PM  

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