When I was a small boy in the 1950’s our next-door neighbor was a man who struck me as a bit spooky, likely because he lived a frightening life. He was somehow involved with designing a missile which was supposed to blow up Russian missiles as they approached with an atomic warhead, an antimissile-missile. He therefore knew too much about the doom which superpowers flirted with at that time, and how close we were to war, and the fact his factory was a prime target, and that he himself might be a target of the KGB. Lastly, he was forbidden to talk to anyone about what likely scared him. He had good reason to walk around looking spooked. But, as a merciless child, I just found him creepy.
One habit he had was to walk about his lush, green yard hunched over, a weed digger in hand, peering about like a hawk for dandelions. He was death on dandelions, and his yard was nothing but grass. He would look in dismay over our yard, which held very little grass, and was largely trampled dirt, white clover, and dandelions. His dismay was greatest when our dandelions went to seed, and the seeds became airborne, heading towards his pristine lawn.
In my eyes they looked like little parachutes, but in his eyes, they probably approached like Russian missiles. I felt like, if looks could kill, I’d be dead, though he probably was directing is murderous gaze at our lawn and not at me.
In any case I grew up feeling there was something not quite right about people who fussed too much about dandelions on their lawns, and in the 1960’s, in the emerald suburbs of Boston, I felt I was in a distinct minority. For some reason people bought into the belief a lawn was contaminated if it included anything but grass.
I was not entirely against this belief, for I could make jingling silver dimes and quarters if I rid people’s lawns of weeds such as dandelions, but I also couldn’t muster much loathing towards the dandelions I pulled, due to my father. As a doctor, he was aware many weeds have uses in medicine, and he was always curious about such medicinal benefits. He might pluck a dandelion leaf and say, “This stuff is like bitter lettuce and is loaded with vitamins; folk used to eat it in the spring to recover from a long winter; they say it is good for your guts.”
Or he might look at another disdained weed such as plantain:
And he’d say, “This stuff is loaded with vitamins too, but tastes a bit mushroomy. When I was a kid boys used to chew it and smear the chewed cud on cuts and rashes, saying it made healing faster. I wonder if there’s any truth to that?”
In any case, I had a different attitude towards a weedy lawn than most suburbanites, and in the 1970’s tended to side with the tree-huggers who were violently opposed to pesticides and herbicides, but who also were generally too poor to live in suburbs and have any lawns. The people with lawns kept seeking the perfect lawn, which was a lawn free of any plant but grass. This eventually led to weedkillers such as “Roundup”, which may or may not have caused cancer in gardeners and suburbanites, (and has made many lawyers wealthy).
Rather than exploiting this lucrative longing for the perfect lawn, I, as a landscaper, tended to attempt to convince people to skip the bother of seeking such perfection, claiming Mother Nature knew what to grow and grew it, and it wasn’t wise to mess with Mother Nature.
One time a customer was bothered by moss. I charged her only twenty a week to mow her lawn, for the grassy part was small and the mossy part never really needed mowing, except for now and again because some invasive grass might send up a few strangling strands. But then the customer, who tended to worry too much, began to press me to work more, promising to pay more. When I explained the moss grew because her beautiful shade trees made so much shade it created a habitat more suited for moss than for grass, she worried I might just be lazy and making up excuses to avoid extra work.
I had to then be careful, for it is not good practice to offend a customer. I shrugged and said maybe she was right. I would look into finding a grass that grew well in the shade. If I found one, I could then rip up the most beautiful moss lawn in town and attempt to replace it with an ordinary grass lawn. Lastly, I added it would likely cost hundreds of dollars to do; far more than the twenty per week I ordinarily charged. Then I promised to get back to her. (I had hopes the way I said “the most beautiful moss lawn in town” might make her think twice.) Her response was to say she’d be making inquiries of her own.
When I stopped in to mow her lawn the next week, (far too busy to have done the investigating I had hoped to do for her), she greeted me with a surprisingly broad smile, and told me she had asked a friend about moss in lawns. Much to her surprise she discovered her friend had paid a landscaper to make her front lawn be moss. It had cost her friend ten thousand dollars. I laughed and said my customer’s much-larger lawn must be at least a twenty-thousand-dollar lawn, (which is what we called it, from then on). Rather than being embarrassed by her mossy lawn my customer became proud of it.
This only added to my feeling that all-grass lawns were merely a fad and fashion, fleeting and due to a copycat tendency among suburbanites, wherein somebody somewhere says something is “politically correct”, and everyone else follows without asking why.
Now I’m old and run a Childcare whose playground is thick sod enriched by two hundred years of manure from farm animals. It is likely 50% grass, but much grass is not lawn grass, but rather is rank grass like witch-grass, or seasonal like crabgrass. The rest of the lawn is perhaps 30% white clover, and 20% an assortment of many plants which can withstand mowing. This includes the aforementioned dandelions and plantain, but also many swift wildflowers which can survive mowing, though their flowers can’t.
This brings me to an interesting detail in many old poems, written back in the day when mowing was done by sickles and scythes. Often it is merely a passing mention, an aside, but it adds a certain mood or flavor to the poem. It is that, in the business of cutting grass, the grass-cutter avoids cutting a blooming (or even merely budding) bunch of wildflowers. In “Ode to Autumn” John Keats mentions,
...While thy hook Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers...
Now, rather than using a sickle or scythe, I whiz about in a rider mower. I might not be able to write like those old masters, but I can mow better than they, and also, I can spare flowers with the best of them.
This is especially true of daisies. A few years back I noted their foliage is very different from the look of other plants on the lawn, and that, by swerving my mower, I could avoid cutting a patch of two. This led to a patch or two of daisies waving in the wind, for a few weeks, before they became brown and ugly and I mowed them down and the lawn reverted to a lawn in its entirety.
This experiment was such a success I expanded it. This was partially due to the fact the daisies spread, and partially due to the fact I left areas too small to be edged by a big rider mower for edging with a smaller hand mower. Rather than two patches I wound up with many more.
This was wildly successful for two reasons. The first is that it looks very nice, for a couple of weeks, after which it starts to look very ugly, and I mow it all down. During the two weeks it looks nice I receive many compliments for flowers I did not plant.
But the second reason is because the lawn, being the playground of a Childcare, is full of children, and it is fascinating to see them interact with the daisies.
Early on I do teach them not to rip off the buds, explaining they soon will be flowers, but once the flowers are blooming there are so many daisies that I let the children pick all they want. Children seem to like this. They get to pick blooms without being scolded for it.
Also, because the daisies grow in patches, and I use the hand mower to cut pathways between the patches, the children skip up and through and around the daisies inventing all sorts of imaginative scenarios only young minds can envision.
Daisies become a wonderful playground toy, better (and cheaper) than any “education stimulating” plastic object on the market, and good for my teachers as well, for they have only to stand back and watch. The daisies are the curriculum. I also like to just stand back and watch the children in the sun.
What is interesting to me is that rather than something I did, this is due to what I didn’t do. Where I could have mowed, I did not mow.