2009-06-25 / Local & State

It's Green, But Is It Grass?

A gardener surveys her patchy suburban lawn and decides to let the plant life fight its own turf wars
By Elisabeth Ginsburg THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

I am a suburbanite, so I have a lawn. Or at least I call it a lawn for lack of a better term. It is definitely a flat patch of ground covered by green stuff - lots of green stuff. Family and friends have had picnics on my lawn and even played croquet there. Most of them probably haven't even noticed that there is almost no grass in the lawn.

This was not my idea. When we moved into our house 10 years ago, the lot was upholstered with swaths of green and I just assumed that the situation would continue forever. I was wrong.

The front yard can support an abundance of grass, but being a gardener, I have slowly but surely expanded the beds and diminished the lawn area. The remaining grass is so lush and deep-rooted that grubs are afraid of it. So is the resident groundhog, which confines its snacking to certain ornamentals in the back. The neighborhood cats roll deliriously in it, and if I don't mow it at least once a week, it starts to resemble an extremely green hayfield. I have not watered the front yard since we moved into this house. The grass seems slow to succumb to drought and quick to recover from it. My neighbors, who are always spreading lime and herbicides and grub controllers, probably think that I have found some long-lost lawn-care secret. I have - it's called total neglect.

The backyard is a different story. The "grass" I saw from a distance when we were shown the house proved to be mostly broad-leafed weeds. Those weeds died off after the first season, leaving bald spots that were home to widely spaced clumps of anemic crab grass in midsummer. Even the crab grass seemed to prefer the richer soil of the garden beds.

I couldn't afford expensive sod, but I had visions of bringing in topsoil and grass seed and starting over from scratch. Fortunately, I was too busy to get to the grass seed and topsoil project. Time went by. Then, the spring after we moved in, the bare patches began receding, pushed back by a high tide of plant life. Common violets shaded the bare patches with their rapidly growing heart-shaped leaves. Ajuga, which had previously popped up here and there, suddenly popped up everywhere, spreading its chocolate-colored spring foliage and sprouting six-inch spires of blue flowers. Dozens of clumps of what looked like extremely coarse grass began to appear amid the ajuga. This "grass" turned out to be Hyacinthoides hispanica, or Spanish bluebell. When it bloomed, every single plant sported pink flowers, but I was so amazed that I didn't care. Suddenly my backyard wasteland was looking more like a flowery meadow, and it has only gotten more flowery with the passing years.

Nothing is perfect. In the spring, onion grass runs roughshod through the landscape. Digging out five clumps a day with my trusty garden knife gives me a sense of satisfaction but does little to stop the onion grass. I refuse to use herbicides on it because they might kill something that I like - the pink bluebells, for example. If I am having company, I mow the onion grass so it is the same height as the surrounding greenery. Most of my friends, gazing down on my flowery meadow from the safety of the back porch, would not be able to spot the freshly barbered onion grass anyway.

If they notice the onion smell, I just tell them that my neighbor is making onion soup.

For the first few summers, the crab grass fought a pitched battle with the ajuga. Now it has been beaten so thoroughly that it is forced to hold court in neglected corners of the back garden beds. The same thing happens every year to the luxuriant spring chickweed. Unable to cope with the Spanish bluebells, the chickweed insinuates itself into the clumps of daffodils and hyacinths. If I can't get it all out while the spring flowers are blooming, I wait until the daffodils fade and pounce on it.

Chickweed has shallow roots - unlike onion grass - and it is no match for my weeding implements.

Could I have a back lawn if I wanted it? Possibly - especially if I were willing to transplant grass plugs from the front lawn. However, there is a reason for everything, and far be it from me to try and understand the ways of ajuga. I just go with the flowery flow.

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