“Dad and his dang lawn,” I said to my older sister. She’d just fetched me from the airport, and we were pulling into the drive of our childhood home in North Dakota, along the Missouri River. The yard was its usual unmarred pelt of green. She shook her head, and we both laughed. We’d never be able to match that extraterrestrial color: Dad’s lawn would always be the pinnacle, and he’d forever bemoan the sight of our weedy plots.
Not to be defeated, I’d taken up a different battle. After becoming a first-time homeowner in Nashville, I quickly learned that a pristine lawn like my father’s would take all sorts of spraying. And call me a hippie, but this allergic, asthmatic gal finds toxic chemicals creepy. That’s why I began my slow, purposeful destruction of my grass.
Lawn care is pretty rotten for the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, lawn maintenance chemicals run off into our groundwater and can cause harm to ourselves, pets and wildlife. U.S. households use nearly 9 billion gallons of water in their yards per day. And that’s not even getting into the emissions from gas-powered mowers.
Whenever I’m back home, I see my dad out making perfect lines with his riding mower, a task he performs twice a week in the summer without fail. He appears pretty peaceful, cranking those zero turns, gliding along and listening to his favorite radio shows or a ballgame on his giant headphones. I certainly won’t begrudge him his devotion. Having a beautiful lawn is in his bones. Before retiring, he and his sister owned a third-generation business selling farm and grass seed and doing landscaping. And truth be told, I’ve always loved the fruits of his labor. He cares for grass so soft and pristine, you wouldn’t hesitate to bound across barefoot along with the dogs. (Though you might be hard-pressed to find a stick for them to fetch.) He takes pride in his work, too. During my trip home, we were out on the pontoon looking back at the houses along our rural stretch. “I’ve got the best damn lawn out here,” he said, the corners of his mouth curling. I was beaming, too.
Even though Dad wouldn’t let us have a Slip ’n Slide because it would dent the grass, my childhood memories are undeniably tied to that velvety turf. There was a hot minute after my husband and I got the keys to our modest Craftsman that I wanted to emulate it. I believed I should carry on the tradition.
America’s obsession with lawns has been passed down from generations like my father’s, his father’s and even his grandfather’s. The goal for the perfect expanse of green evolved rapidly over the 20th century. The lawn mower grew in popularity as a household item starting in the mid-1930s. And the advent of synthetic herbicides in the 1940s made serious weed warfare possible — in a time when the potential environmental or health consequences of using them weren’t widely known.
Having a cropped, uniform lawn has also long been a way of keeping up with the Joneses. But do younger generations really aspire to murder the clover, the wild violet, the dead nettle and the dandelions in the name of impressing their neighbors? I don’t think so. People constantly post on our neighborhood Facebook page in search of someone to do just a quick mow. Folks aren’t keeping up with the Joneses anymore; they just don’t want a random Jones to call the city or give them the side-eye for letting their lawn go to seed.
I began destroying my lawn intending to create a yard that helps take care of itself, and one that’s uniquely ours. Out front, a section of fruit trees now lines the fence, serving as our own private orchard and privacy barrier. Our drought-tolerant perennial garden blooms with the calendar and will eventually make a slow creep to the street as I divide and transplant. A hardscaped walkway leads to the porch and around the side yard, letting thyme and sedum sod grow between the pavers. Wild violet and dead nettle is welcome, too. My husband built a fire pit out back with a wide pea-gravel perimeter. A large swath of river rock provides the base for several raised beds, where I’m planning a shade garden. In the meantime, the dog uses it as his personal agility course.
Of course, most of that took some of the same hard work — at least initially — that goes into maintaining a perfect lawn. I’m not blind to the irony. So when I was putting in a rain-barrel irrigation system for the huge veggie plot, I couldn’t help but think about my dad. (I’d once accidentally broken his sprinkler’s water pump, and man, did I get in trouble.) Finally, I got it. He’d worked so hard on it in an effort to care for something so stunning for us. I directed a silent apology to the northwest and continued my project, sweating in the Tennessee summer. Although I didn’t inherit my dad’s obsession with the lawn, it turns out, like him, I do love a solid day of tinkering in the yard and beautifying it.
Before his most recent visit to my home, I wondered with a bit of anxiety about what he’d say about our total lawn neglect in favor of other landscaping endeavors. I may not care about impressing the neighbors with a flawless grassy expanse, but I do still like to make my dad proud. Upon arrival, he got out of the car and immediately surveyed the front, while I braced myself for comment about weeds or brown spots or the need to fertilize — maybe even a sarcastic question about whether the lawn mower was broken. Instead, this man of few words, and even fewer compliments, turned to me and said, “Yard looks nice.”
Not even Mr. Perfect Lawn himself is expecting any of us to strive for an outdated, impractical, or unattainable goal. We can change the status quo and have yards that work with us rather than against us. We can let our fathers have their lawns — and do whatever we want with ours.