Earthman was last seen in his mud shoes trudging toward his garden, muttering about weeds, dogs and goldfish and defying the skies to open up while he was out. Until he returns, here is an earlier column worthy of perennial interest.
THERE IS something to be said for lawns, but it does strike me as obvious that lawns are work and that several million blades of grass all together can be monotonous.
These things are subject to fashion, of course, and not reason. The other day I was reading an old account of a man who said the lawn had been chopped down to an acre and a half from its former expanse.
In the old days (before World War II), people sometimes lived in large houses on large lots and lawns were pretty inevitable. You can't, after all, plant irises or roses solid for a city block, or at least that is not the idea of a garden for most people.
But, similarly, it is also true that in tiny 40- and 50-foot lots, to say nothing of those miniscule little warrens of Georgetown and Capitol Hill, a lawn can be rather silly, if you weigh labor versus final effect.
The general tradition, which died about 1910 among the advanced sector of the population, still has its little strongholds, and none is more apparent than the continuing notion that all the best people have lawns.
I can remember quite well when all the best people had cows -- Mrs. Taft, as you know, had her cow brought up every day from Foggy Bottom to graze on the White House grass -- and before that all the best people had deer parks.
All I am saying is that you don't have to grow grass if you don't want to and in many cases, especially on small lots, it makes more sense to eschew it.
What, then, are we to do with the space around the house if we do not put it in lawn?
Here we may take a good lesson from the Spaniards, who are not thought of as great plantsmen, but who at least never spent all weekend mowing grass. They have used paving, pools and small beds of plants (or tubs or pots) cultivated intensively and in this way they have saved money on water, which is, of course, expensive in arid regions.
In California, Arizona and such other deserts, the Americans lost no time starting lawns, a very foolish thing to do, instead of following the excellent Spanish precedent of no grass at all.
In the East, on the other hand, we live in what will once again be a forest, once the cities collapse, and the style of arid gardens (those of Egypt, Greece and Spain, for instance) is not imposed on us by any shortage of water. On the contrary, the natural style of garden for here is the woodland garden.
But on tiny lots, though we might have a tiny woodland or a tiny lawn, it often makes more sense to treat the outdoor space as simply an extension of the house, and to pave some of it or most of it, and to wind up with what is really no more than an outdoor room furnished with plants instead of tables and chests.
A lawn 17-by-20 feet is just fine, if you think a lawnless life is not worth living, but I hate to see anybody badgered and shamed by unholy pressures into growing grass simply because everybody else does.
Often we may see tiny lots overhung with enormous trees, beneath which the poor humans (far more industrious than the ant or honeybee, which only stir because life itself is at stake) dart fitfully about with loud machines, and later creep at all hours to trim here and there. From time to time they may be seen sprinkling grass seed, fertilizer and other gold out of sacks, and they continue this for as long as God grants them energy to move around.
If this provides pleasure -- it certainly keeps them off the streets -- then all to the good, but reason would dictate something other than a "lawn" in such a site. Why not azaleas and camellias, with a little clearing (covered with duff of the forest floor) sprinkled about with Virginia bluebells, lilies of the valley, Solomon's seal, veratrums (if it were damp) and little bulbous things like anemones, crocuses and the like?
The number of shrubs that enjoy light conditions have only recently been considered viburnums -- and while nothing is labor-proof, still it is more satisfying to care for camellias and so on, grown to perfection, than to work like the devil for a scraggly patch of lawn.
The Cryptomeria Glade of the National Arboretum is a beautiful example of shrubs and trees in beautiful harmony without, I am happy to say, a blade of grass in sight.
Or, if the site is not overhung with trees but is in full sun, what could be more delightful than a large lily pool with a terrace on which to spend much time observing the fish, toads, water lilies and other treasures of such installations?
In back of that could be roses or vegetables or whatever you preferred, and there would be no need for a lawn. I am speaking, still, of tiny plots.
If you have, however, a large place and are not very interested in gardening anyway, and especially if you have plenty of outside labor (or if you enjoy weeding and cutting the lawn yourself, and some people do) then nothing is quite like a lawn.
Obviously, if you want the effect of a million blades of grass shorn uniformly, only shorn grass will produce that effect. But I suspect many gardeners would do well to think of something besides grass and the little noisy juggernauts you cut with.