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Healthy, insect- and bird-friendly, edible: the new 'lawn'

Until I spent a year in New Zealand 20-plus years ago, I was under the impression that everyone had a lawn that consisted of ... grass. I was very surprised to learn that in New Zealand, "lawn" is not a word people use to describe a grassy spot i...

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Purple salvia is attractive to bees. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Until I spent a year in New Zealand 20-plus years ago, I was under the impression that everyone had a lawn that consisted of ... grass. I was very surprised to learn that in New Zealand, "lawn" is not a word people use to describe a grassy spot in front of or behind their house. Those spaces are called "gardens" and there is precious little grass to be found there. On all sides of their houses, people grow flowers, lots of them, interspersed with vegetables. The town that we lived in had an ordinance that made it illegal to use any pesticides on town or private property.

I had children by that time and chose never to use any type of weed/insect killer. The statistic, that your child was seven times more likely to get cancer if pesticides were used around the home, was a risk I was not willing to take. Also, we had a dog and I knew about the link between lawn pesticides and canine lymphoma. Then there was the problem of tracking pesticide residue indoors, pesticide"drift" and the effect of these chemicals on birds and insects. Just this year, the World Health Organization has determined that glyphosate used in such popular pesticides as Roundup and Rodeo is a probable carcinogen and 2,4-D herbicide, used in agriculture, is a possible carcinogen.

Even though I had decided against using pesticides, I must admit I still had the mindset that dandelions were a weed and grass was not. Then one of my biologist friends told me that a weed was a plant that was not where you wanted it to be. For example, if you found grass in your flower garden, it was a weed but in your lawn it was not. I had not thought about it in that way before.

As time passed I stopped being concerned about dandelions. I learned that in the fall and spring you could crowd out "weeds" by seeding in grass or clover. (If you have a dog, clover is undamaged by dog urine and it is drought- and pest-resistant.) If compost was added and the lawn mowed a bit higher - 3 inches - the grass had a stronger root system. If you didn't want dandelions you could apply corn gluten, sold at feed stores, in the spring and fall.

Gradually, we've been getting rid of our "lawn." We have planted flowers, trees and bushes. This year we took out another chunk of grass and put in red currant bushes and mountain ash, both of which are prized by birds. We moved several juneberry sprouts into the area where they have joined raspberries, a volunteer elderberry and some red dogwood, good additions to the yard.

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We're on the water so we planted some native shoreline plants, and also native woodland plants, for the more wooded areas around the house. Researchers have found that native plants are more nutritious for birds and insects.

We have hummingbirds, so in addition to the bergamot, there is butterfly weed for the butterflies and purple salvia for the bees. Bees' favorite color is purple and the day after we put the plants in I saw a bee buzzing around them. These are all perennials, so we will see what survives the winter.

We have moved away from lawn and moved toward habitat. We look forward to seeing what species - birds, insects, plants - will thrive in our more natural environment.

Jan Conley is a former educator and nonprofit director. She is a volunteer for Wildwoods, Hawk Ridge and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Jan Conley
Jan Conley (Photo submitted)

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENT
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