Growth Areas Imagine A World Without Butterflies, Squirrels Or Chipmunks. Too Many Manicured Lawns, Ecologists Say, Can Upset The Ecosystem. Two Writers Suggest Ways To Make Your Home Environment A Little Wild.

Posted: September 25, 1998

Now is the time to renovate your lawn. Just roll up your sleeves and test the soil, dethatch, aerate, rake, kill grubs and weeds, lime, fertilize, seed and water if you want that all-American ideal, the perfect carpet of grassy green.

Whew! That's a lot of work, money, time, water and noxious chemicals, but if you have dirt around your dwelling you must grow grass, right?

Well, no, actually. Across the country, people who think about gardening - from ecologists and conservationists to garden designers and hardworking homeowners - are beginning to realize that the environmental and upkeep costs of lawns can far outweigh their benefits.

I know, you've always had grass in your family; it's the American thing to do. Suburbia thrives on grass. Anyway, what would you plant instead, a weed patch? Stick around. There are many lovely alternatives to lawns and many good reasons to consider them.

First, some facts you'd rather not hear: Maintaining the more than 400,000 acres of lawn in this country pollutes the air and water, depletes shrinking resources including fossil fuels and water, and destroys plant and animal habitats, which means fewer species will survive. It also clogs landfills and takes precious time in a world where time, too, is an increasingly scarce commodity.

Two influential and persuasive gardening ecology writers, Janet Marinelli and Sara Stein, argue that lawns contribute to what Marinelli calls ``the age of extinction.''

Consider butterflies, says Stein by phone from her home in Pound Ridge, N.Y. ``Now is the time when the monarchs have to fly a couple of thousand miles to Mexico for the winter. There is nothing in lawns for them to eat. They need the asters and the goldenrods.''

The way we grow lawns is contrary to nature, says Marinelli in her book, Stalking the Wild Amaranth, about gardening to save the environment. Grass wants to flower and set seed, yet 58 million mower-wielding homeowners spend 40 hours a year each ``thwarting the grass's sex drive . . . with weekly castrations . . . watering like crazy,'' and ``force-feeding with chemicals.''

By contrast, in a natural grassland landscape, plants produce seeds in fall, just when small mammals need them to fatten up before winter. Larger predators feed on mice and chipmunks. Tall grass and leaf litter serve as winter refuge for insect eggs and larvae, which will hatch in spring just in time to provide high-protein meals for baby birds.

``It's all in the timing,'' says Stein.

How can you get with nature's program instead of working so hard to fight it?

``A few people go the epiphany route - they wake up one day, rip out the entire lawn and create a meadow,'' Marinelli says. But most of us start by ``chipping away at the edges because we're sick of working so hard.''

``Think before you plunge in,'' Marinelli says. Get a list of native plants that have evolved to survive in your area without extra water or fertilizer. These will also be best for wildlife, providing food, nesting spots and shelter.

Marinelli is convinced that home gardeners can actually stem the mounting tide of plant and animal extinctions by providing green paths between larger wildlife preserves. ``Wild gardens in residential areas will enable small animals, birds and insects to move across the landscape,'' she says.

``Because the eastern deciduous forest has been totally tattered by human development, you should encourage your neighbors to create these little corridors with you.''

This does not mean turning your neat suburb into unkempt fields. ``Many people leave a frame of nicely manicured lawn around the wilder plantings,'' Marinelli says. ``It keeps the neighbors happy because it looks like it was intended to be that way.''

A way to start, Stein suggests, is to think of your garden backwards. Instead of broad lawns edged with flowers and punctuated by trees, ``aim for a system of lawns composed of paths and clearings'' linking the plantings together. You can start at a tree, where the grass does poorly anyway, and plant forest understory shrubs like dogwoods and viburnum, adding native grasses mixed with flowers as you move into sun.

New housing developments often have just enough topsoil to support grass over impenetrable subsoil. A benefit of growing native plants is that their tough roots can pierce the hardpan, creating good drainage and organic matter that builds the depleted soil. You probably won't find the most suitable plants at the local nursery, where proprietors, on average, are ``still innocent'' about ecological planting, Stein says. She recommends buying from specialty catalogs such as those listed in Barbara Barton's book, Gardening by Mail.

Stein chronicles her induction into ecological gardening in the book Noah's Garden, and offers clear, detailed instructions, illustrated with her own drawings, in Planting Noah's Garden. The benefits have been substantial, she says. ``I haven't had screens on my windows for decades, I never fertilize anything, and I only water new plantings. Sure, it looks like it's been through something in this drought, but the only plants I lost are the new things.''

Two Bucks County gardens prove that you don't have to go wild to be nearly lawn-free.

Six years ago, when interior designer Douglas Crowell bought an 18th-century stone farmhouse in Lower Makefield, the land was covered in lawn. Standing in the former garage, now a serious cook's kitchen overlooking the vegetable bed, Crowell leafs through a photo album showing the house plunked rudely into a vast sea of grass.

An admirer of English gardens, Crowell commissioned a series of garden rooms filled with flowers, and built three terraces with French doors leading from the house so he could ``live outside.'' Most of the grass was replaced.

A weathered gray gate covered by fragrant white autumn clematis leads to a somewhat formal area that Crowell had planted in roses and perennials. The focal point is a verdigris bronze torso set off by a circle of clipped boxwood and - yes - a ring of clipped green turf.

Crowell is not a gardener, nor was he an ecologist. ``It was strictly aesthetics to me. When I did the garden, I didn't know about the [ecological] reasons.'' But he embraced them as he learned. Crowell's garden is chemical-free. He's concerned about runoff into well-water and poisoning wildlife.

``Chemicals aren't necessary to make it work. We have a family of goldfinch and the biggest night crawlers you ever saw in your life! The rabbits don't nibble my garden because I leave the clover for them.''

Today the roses and most of the perennials are gone. Crowell was disturbed by the amount of maintenance, chemicals and watering they required, and by the garden's tattered appearance in winter. But he saved the buddleia, phlox and other high-nectar plants to ``attract birds and butterflies.'' Now most of the color comes from pots on the terraces like the tub of eucalyptus, petunias and heliotrope that perfumes the air where he likes to sit.

Crowell's eight acres are still developing. Kevin Hasney, a neighbor and brilliant gardener, hired on to replace the front cottage garden with rare evergreens and ivies (Crowell can't conceal his pride that the three-week-old installation looks like it came with the house) and construct a path through rocky terrain in the woods.

Hasney has been working on his own garden for 12 years. It started as overgrown grassy fields, became a wildflower meadow, and is now an enchanting maze of rare evergreens, grasses and bamboos punctuated by ponds, plus a paved, fenced-in vegetable plot where Hasney sunbathes on warm winter days.

Wherever you turn, there's a new picture: overlapping leaves, needles and berries in variations of blue, green and gold. The paths - sometimes turf, sometimes rocks set in gravel - are so narrow, you brush against a soft grass, causing a gentle swishing sound, or an evergreen releasing the scent of Maine woods. A lotus pond appears with a basking frog. One would not be surprised by a panda feeding in the bamboo groves. There's a rock garden paved in soft, creeping thyme, and a raised Mediterranean bed with lavenders, santolina and other gray shrubs.

Hasney, who does all the planting and maintenance himself, says the garden took years of planning, but requires little upkeep and is beautiful all year.

If he had to be weeding and feeding, there would be no time to track down the rare plants he loves. This garden is not completely chemical free. He weeds using Roundup in a backpack sprayer and puts pre-emergent herbicides on the gravel paths.

And what about the large sward of drought-parched grass behind the house?

Sitting on his small bluestone terrace, where one tiny, wild cyclamen glows fuchsia in the shrubs, Hasney, 40, explains that the lawn is a compromise. ``My partner is from Brazil,'' he says. ``I keep it for him. Lawns are rare in Brazil. He thinks expanding the beds would be like the jungle encroaching.''

Still, this is far from the next-door neighbors. ``They have more land than I and grow nothing but grass,'' Hasney says. How do they spend their time?

``Mowing, mowing, mowing.''

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