What is this blog?

This blog seeks to answer questions about sustainable gardening for those who are not familiar with the practice. The author holds a master’s in environmental science, works as a journalist, and practices a combination of permaculture and native plant gardening in Madison, Wisconsin. Leave your own questions as a comment on any post, and they will be answered soon!

This blog is best read from the beginning.

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What is this blog?

What do lawnmowers do?

Many may remember the frightening scene from the 1971 version of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory in which Charlie and his grandfather are pulled towards a huge fan which they fear will chop them to bits.

This is essentially what lawnmowers do.

The rapidly-spinning blades of a powered lawnmower create a vacuum that pulls grass plants in, only to chop off their vital body parts. And, contrary to common belief, the lawnmower does not quickly and cleanly cut the grass. Rather, the fast-moving but not-especially-sharp blades tear the grass, resulting in more severe damage to the plants.

As an earlier post described, grass plants may be aware that this danger is approaching – but, having no effective defense against it, they are subjected to this harmful experience over and over again.

Lawnmowers indiscriminately shred everything they come in contact with – including grass plants, baby trees, small animals, and people’s toes. As we learn about how tall grass causes no identifiable hazards and short grass provides few, if any, benefits, we might also consider how an act of lawnmowing is terrifying and painful for those who have no control over it and no protection against it. Nowadays, awareness is growing that our own survival and wellbeing depend upon having flourishing nature around us, and more and more people believe that they are not entitled to harm other beings simply to satisfy their own aesthetic preferences.

What do lawnmowers do?

What’s new in natural yards? February 2018

Early on, That Blog questioned whether natural yards increase crime. Now, the US government is betting that they don’t.

Since the Clinton administration, all government buildings in the United States have been required to at least consider incorporating locally native plants into their landscaping, for environmental reasons. Now, the State Department is incorporating natural gardening elements into the landscaping of one of the most secure buildings in the world: the US embassy in London, which opened last month.

The grounds of this high-tech building might be expected to contain similarly complex security systems, but instead the architects are counting on simpler solutions to prevent potential attacks. A pond prevents truck bombs from reaching the building, and a hedge disguises additional protective methods.

To improve the sustainability of the building, and to evoke a sense of America, indoor gardens on each floor of the embassy reflect plant communities found in different regions of the United States. For similar reasons, the hill outside the building will be planted with tall grasses and wildflowers.

Several years ago, a woman threatened with jail time for having a vegetable garden in her yard pointed out that Michelle Obama had planted a vegetable garden at the White House. Now that the US government has deemed natural landscaping to be the best choice for one of its most expensive and important buildings, it is hard to see why any American would be questioned for choosing to use natural landscaping in their own yard.

What’s new in natural yards? February 2018

Don’t dangerous animals hide in tall grass?

Some people worry that if they garden with plants too tall and dense to see over or through, their yard will become a haven for snakes, scorpions, rats, and other unwelcome critters.

(In fact, some homeowners in Arizona fear that they will attract snakes and scorpions by eliminating their water-guzzling lawns in favor of desert-style landscaping with almost no plants at all. Change is scary.)

The idea that natural yards harbor rodents can be dispensed with quickly: rats and mice are attracted to human habitation. Regardless of what is growing in your yard, they are not interested in searching for food among the plants. Instead, they will scavenge in garbage cans. And while it may be true that rodents will nest in brush piles, providing no shelter for them in the yard simply means that they will find a place to nest in the house. The bottom line is that it’s impossible to get rid of mice, and anyway we shouldn’t want to: humans and mice live in the same kind of habitat, and if the mice can’t survive somewhere, it’s probably not a great place for us either.

As for snakes and scorpions, it depends where you live. In some areas, there are small, hard-to-see creatures that can deliver a nasty bite or sting. On the other hand, in Wisconsin, there are no venomous animals, and no predators larger than coyotes (which, contrary to popular belief, only very rarely carry off pets or small children).

Part of the preparation for establishing a natural yard is understanding what kinds of wildlife live in the area, whether they are actually dangerous to people, and how we might gently discourage them from coming too close to the house. Often, the best solution may simply be to watch our step. After all, they were here first – and while we can stick to pavement or indoor areas, they may have nowhere else to go. It is our responsibility to be respectful of our non-human neighbors.

Don’t dangerous animals hide in tall grass?

How do you get rid of geese?

An earlier post on That Blog explained why lawns don’t function as habitat for very many species. They do, however, function as excellent habitat for Canada geese. This is because lawns provide two things that geese need: food, and safety.

Canada geese are relatively small grazing animals. They like to spend their time in areas with low-growing vegetation, where they can eat the plants and keep an eye out for danger. Conversely, they avoid areas where the plants are too tall for easy snacking, and where they can’t see any predators that might be trying to sneak up on them. In other words, geese see a big lawn as a great place to relax and have a meal.

In the early 20th century, Canada geese were actually near extinction across North America. Today, their numbers have rebounded to well over 3 million. This is in part due to active efforts to increase their population – for example, by moving birds to other areas to start new flocks. But mostly, the Canada goose’s recovery was caused by habitat restoration. As people planted lawns in their yards and on golf courses, they inadvertently created perfect goose habitat, and geese promptly multiplied to fill the available space.

As we create habitat in our yards, it is wise to think about who we are creating habitat for. Wildlife will show up to use the resources we provide, and it may be the case that not all species are welcome visitors. We can edit the guest list by mindfully not providing for the needs of animals we don’t want nearby. For example, if we don’t want geese hanging out in our yard, we can simply garden with tall plants that don’t provide the geese with food and sightlines. As they fly over, the geese won’t see anything they like, and they will go elsewhere.

By understanding the needs and preferences of different species, we can invite in the ones we want to see more of, while discouraging those we would rather not have around.

How do you get rid of geese?

How do you get people to stop walking on the grass?

We’ve all seen them: signs asking us not to walk on the grass. Some property managers even put up fences to keep people off the lawns.

Why is this? Lawns are good at very few things. They don’t clean the air as effectively as other types of plantings. They don’t absorb as much water. They aren’t especially pretty and they don’t do much for our health. They provide habitat for very few animals, and they take a lot of work. But one thing lawns do excel at is putting up with being walked on.

Lawns, by their nature, invite people to walk on them, to play soccer on them, to spread out a blanket and have a picnic on them. Lawns are an excellent landscaping solution for any area that is meant to be used in that way. Any area that is not meant to be walked on, sat on, and played on, quite simply, should not be lawn.

When an area is planted with anything taller and denser than a lawn – be it prairie plantings, a row of shrubs, or closely-spaced trees – people instinctively don’t try to walk over it or through it. A few dedicated hikers will cheerfully plunge in, but most casual pedestrians will stick to the nearest path without even thinking about it.

Therefore, to stop people from walking on the grass, plant anything other than short grass.

A lawn that is not meant to be walked on is a kind of landscaping oxymoron. Anyone who finds themselves with such a lawn should ask themselves one question: What is this area for? If it is for strolling and sunbathing, take down the signs. If not, plant it with something people can enjoy walking alongside… and still take down the signs. You won’t need them.

How do you get people to stop walking on the grass?

Does a lawn produce enough oxygen for a family of four?

Lawn service companies often say in their advertisements that a well-maintained, average-sized lawn produces enough oxygen for a family of four. A popular political fact-checking website might rate this claim as “mostly false.”

It is true that if you count up all the oxygen molecules that an average-sized lawn puts into the air, that number is approximately equal to the oxygen needs of four humans (at least, if the four humans sit very still, and avoid engaging in any activity that might increase their oxygen demands). However, doing the math this way assumes that the system of interest includes a lawn, four humans, and nothing else.

The companies that promote this claim surely intend for the system to also include themselves and their services. In other words, they mean for it to include lawnmowers. And it turns out that the amount of oxygen produced by an average-sized lawn is somewhat less than the amount of oxygen that is consumed by the internal combustion engine of a lawnmower in the course of cutting that lawn.

So, a more realistic calculation finds that lawns result in a net loss of oxygen from the atmosphere.

Even if the claim were completely true, the savvy consumer would ask themselves how much oxygen is produced by lawn alternatives. A prairie planting or forest garden produces more oxygen than a lawn of the same size, while sacrificing less of that oxygen to motorized maintenance equipment. A homeowner who wants to be sure their family has enough air to breathe would be better off going with a natural yard than a lawn.

But in the end, it is somewhat strange to evaluate landscaping options on the basis of how much oxygen they produce, since our planet is not suffering from a shortage of oxygen. Running out of breathable air is not a problem we are going to face in the foreseeable future. If a company is trying to promote lawns by claiming that lawns solve a problem that does not exist, we should wonder why this company doesn’t have anything better to say about its product.

Does a lawn produce enough oxygen for a family of four?

What’s new in natural yards? January 2018

A candidate in this year’s Wisconsin gubernatorial race has named lawns as an issue he would address if elected. In a post on his campaign website, Jeff Rumbaugh says that if he becomes the governor, he will not ban lawns, but will work with municipalities to make alternative forms of gardening more accessible to property owners.

As a reason for this position, Rumbaugh focuses on the wasteful water consumption associated with lawns. He also mentions the connection between lawns and climate change, and the amount of work involved in maintaining a lawn. He proposes wildflower plantings, vegetable gardens, and gravel as more environmentally-responsible kinds of yards.

Rumbaugh’s campaign promise follows California’s statewide restrictions on lawns – effective as of December 2015 – and Madison’s easing of its regulations on natural yards. Meanwhile, a governmental task force in Delaware has recommended phasing out the use of non-native plants, which currently make up more than 70% of the plants sold at garden centers around the state.

Evidence is gathering that the era of the lawn as a dominant element in American landscaping is at an end. Natural yards are likely to become much more common over the next several years. There is still time for savvy homeowners to be part of this mainstream movement, rather than being the last on their block to adopt new gardening practices.


That Blog does not endorse political candidates. This post is simply a commentary on the continuing emergence of lawns as a political issue.

What’s new in natural yards? January 2018