How to be a good suburbanite

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I see the brown streaks and spots and blotches all across your lawn, every brown area exactly like every other in its tone and hue, because all were caused by a single event, that being your misapplication of high-nitrogen fertilizer, as part of your misguided effort to make your lawn look like a golf course, which I assure you is an entirely futile expenditure of energy. Everyone in the neighborhood does this: They put fertilizer, weed killer, fungicide, grub-killer, and who knows what else all over their lawns. On this sandy plain, most of the chemicals are washed instantly into the ground-water. That ground water is then collected by the city and cleaned up, and pumped into water towers like the one that casts a shadow on your so-called lawn. That is the water we drink, provide to our children, and bathe in. I assume the city has done a good job cleaning your chemical wastes out of the water. But, I also know that they had to work harder and spend more of our money to do so because you put so much fertilizer (souped up with weed killer and grubicide, no doubt) on your lawn that it killed half your grass. So not only are you an idiot because you are shitting, essentially, in your own water bowl, but we all KNOW you are an idiot because you have left incontrovertible evidence of your inability to read and follow directions in the form of giant brown hieroglyphs splayed across what was once a greenish lawn in front of your ugly house, but is now a billboard announcing your selfish suburban sense of privilege.

I am grateful that in observing how foolish you look, neighbor, my own staunch commitment to not add one drop of fertilizer, weed killer, fungicide or grub killer to my lawn is reaffirmed. Which means, since someone else mows my lawn, that I’m done with yard work for the day, and can now refocus my efforts on replacing that leaking water heater.

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28 thoughts on “How to be a good suburbanite

  1. My neighbors who use too much fertilizer and pesticides often have “nice” lawns though, so I wouldn’t harp too much on how it looks. They might consider my non-monoculture unruly, and not dark green enough early enough. It is noteworthy is that they have to mow more, and they water more. Save time and money and fertilize less, or as I and the author do, not at all. In my area (S.E. MI) in recent years folks with “nice” lawns, have had problems with “grubs”, another dividend of the monoculture. They solve this with yet more poisons. On a positive note we have banned the use of phosphorous on lawns.
    One suggestion of some river-lovers near me – throw on some clover seed, since it fixes nitrogen. Another suggestion, plant a strategic tree or two out there, since a little bit of shade saves water too.

  2. My goal with the lawn has always been, prevent erosion. I’ve never understood the masculine obsession with a perfect lawn. I’m sure my neighbors hate me but I’ve come up with an easy way of getting a nice lawn. I cut the grass much taller. this leaves more of the plant to produce sugars and become healthy, also longer grass givers the illusion of thicker grass. I cut my lawn to about 3″ length in the spring and fall and in the summer heat maybe 3.5 to 4″ long.

  3. I should have added that I’ve notice some sort of nascent flocking instinct where when one male starts a mower all the males in the area follow suit. (Maybe this isn’t a flocking thing maybe it is some sort of mating display.) I wanted to mowing my lawn in the middle of the night and during the winter to test how strong this compulsion is but my wife won’t let me experiment on the neighbors.

  4. I moved to Maple Grove 4 years ago, and immediately started on a mostly organic schedule. I use organic fertilizer, hand pick the weeds as much as possible, and try to determine which weeds are OK and which I need to control ASAP. I even plant clover, since it plays well with grass and adds nitrogen. Organic fertilizer is slow acting and doesn’t “crash” like synthetic fertilizer. It encourages beneficial microbes, and the worms come up and eat it, eating the thatch along the way and pooping the fertilizer back out deep in the soil where it won’t wash away. I mulch the clippings, which also feeds the worms, and compost when I have to bag and put the compost on the garden. With our crappy clay soil, I hate to throw away any organic material!
    I don’t do this just because it’s better for the environment. I think I get a healthier lawn this way. It may be more work, but fortunately I enjoy yardwork a lot more than going to the gym.

  5. I express my masculine need to bend nature to my will by using a hand mower.

    Oh, and I got one of those mini-scythe things we all remember from our childhood for the tall pesky stalks that the mower just pushes over. It was at a yard sale, all deceased and unrecognized. Half an hour with a rat tail and it might not look new, but it sure sends the stalks flying!

    If that thing doesn’t outlast me, I’ll have to make one out of a saw blade and a pole.

  6. er, all rusty and unrecognized. It was an estate sale. The previous owner was deceased.

    Further evidence that human multitasking is a myth.

  7. A good away to control weeds is to cut the long Mr Ed style (long) for a few rounds, then cut it short. Most weeds grow from the upper parts, while grass grows from the lower parts. This tricks the weeds into getting tall enough to get their little heads cut off.

  8. I am about half-way through my estimated ten-year project of getting rid of the green plague. I’m saving about half the back yard as a lawn, to play on. The rest is now 50% converted to garden. I wouldn’t advise this for someone who is trying to reduce their yard work, however.

    For those folks I recommend considering replacing the grass with any number of non-traditional lawn substitutes. Bouteloua dactyloides (buffalo grass) is native and drought tolerant, rarely grows more than 4 inches. US native clover, chamomile, pennyroyal mint, thyme, sedums of various sorts, all provide an attractive alternative to grass. Note that there are few ground covers that can handle the foot traffic which grasses can. Some towns allow turning your yard into a proper meadow (butterflies! no mowing!).

  9. Greg, I’ve tried the “growing long then cutting short” method of weed control, and it didn’t seem particularly effective. But keeping the grass longer and watering deeply but less often encourages deeper roots, which improves the soil and health of the grass. And healthy grass chokes out the weeds, or at least doesn’t allow them to get started.

  10. When I was a kid, my dad told me that the best way to control weeds was to avoid cutting the grass too short. My mower is set at five inches. I never water my lawn; I never apply fertilizer, herbicides, or pesticides; and my lawn is flourishing.

  11. no matter how many dandelions i pick, there are more. everyday. more and more. two or three brown grocery bags full every day. (i have a double wide St. Paul lot)

    any suggestions other than hand picking? tried that.

  12. Rob, hand picking is fuitle if your grass is weak. If the grass is strong, then the dandelions will have a hard time getting established. So you have to figure out why the grass isn’t growing well- insufficient nutrients, water, or light, incorrect pH, compacted soil, any of those could keep grass from growing and allow dandelions to flourish. Once your grass is growing well, then you can start eliminating the weeds. In fact, if you were trying to grow dandelions, and had the right conditions for grass instead, you’d have a tough time keeping the grass out,

  13. Or you could replace the dandelions with some small plant that produced pretty yellow flowers and whimsical fluffy seed thingies that toddlers love to pick and blow on.

  14. Greg, good article on a topic that needs more attention. But, it’s entirely wrong to assume that these lawn poisons are removed in water treatment plants making potable water from lawn run-off and percolation.

    Water plants just get filter the turbidity down, adjust the ph, flash the microbes with chlorine (or forever-there chloride salts) and sell the water on down the line. If it’s in solution going in, it’s usually there on to the tap.

    Of the 80,000+ chemicals in production, and 3,000-4,000 used in production levels of more than a million pounds per year. Only a few hundred are regulated, and fewer are properly understood (toxicological profiles). No precautionary principle here–sell it first, test later, if ever.

    Most chemical testing is short term, and looks for LD50 and LD100 thresholds, now repro-toxicity or immune function loss or countless other real-world effects from chemicals that weren’t in the real world not many years ago. How strange that we can be assaulted [lawfully] by the “weed and feed” crowd.

    Some of these poisons, like clopyralid, found in the weed and feed products, sail right through composting and GI tracts of animals, and make compost and soil toxic for years. A quart (about $100) will make 40,000 tons of compost too toxic to grow vegetables. So don’t buy compost you don’t know where it came from, and you may have a greenthumb after all…Washington State learned the hard way, as they tried to compost yard wastes and killed a lot of gardens and nurseries with compost containing these poisons. Seattle’s Zoo Doo was banned, too.

    And nitrogen–as nitrates in drinking water, it causes miscarriages. Just search “CDC nitrate miscarriages” to read how proven and prevalent that is…yet we have to have boring golf-course toxic lawns. And, golf course superintendents die of cancer at a far higher rate than the rest of us.

    … enough for now. Thanks again.

  15. I’ve been xeriscaping for 30 years now. Most of my front yard needs no water, and the rest gets no water. I plat to turn my small patch of lawn into native drought tolerant plants. My back yard gets no water either. It is seeded with drought tolerant grasses.

  16. no matter how many dandelions i pick, there are more. everyday. more and more. two or three brown grocery bags full every day. (i have a double wide St. Paul lot)

    any suggestions other than hand picking?

    There are people who weed dandelions?

  17. Alternatively the brown streaks and patches could indicate where the dog has pissed recently.

    BTW: It’s a $5000 fine here in Oz for watering your lawn or washing your house/car in drought conditions, and those laws have more or less 100% support amoungst the general public. The same goes for public parks, gardens, sports fields, etc.

    My yard was bare sand for nearly a decade. The drought broke last spring and (without any help from me) it’s now a lush green carpet of buffalo grass.

  18. While I cut my front lawn occasionally I delight in seeing the wild flowers that establish it it, but don’t have the courage to leave it to become a fully developed hay meadow. At the back the aim is to encourage wild life (particularly the birds and insects) but this year felt things had got slightly out of control – the 35 foot high sycamore tree – planted in about 1973 was really too big.

    I refuse to conform and recently sold a ten year old van, used for transporting dogs, which I know had not been washed for 9 years – with all my neighbours washing their cars almost every week end. It got a wash before it went on the market and there was no evidence that the failure to wash it had had any effect whatsoever.

    It is surprising how the suburban estates here in England, and I assume the U.S., leads to peer pressure in many ways – and I am very much reminded to the song “Little Boxes” which all looked the same – which I used as an introduction to my web site when I first set it up. Doing things just because your neighbours do them has never
    appealed to me.

    (In reply to an earlier commentator – Dandelion leaves can be used as a salad vegetable.)

  19. June, they look very different; Plus, one day the lawn was green, one day it had a quater acre of identical brown burning in the pattern one would get if one applied a dry fertilizer by hand or using a scoop instead of a spreader, and no dog lives there!

  20. I haven’t fertilized or poisoned my lawn for years. The birds seem to know that. During the winter months, a flock of ibises hangs out in my yard probing for the delicious grubs. I haven’t seen them on anyone else’s yard. I also have resident cardinals, mourning doves, palm warblers and brown thrashers, to list a few. That’s enough reason for me.

  21. Where I am the neighbors all seem to have full lawn services, they put stuff on the lawns and they get ‘good’ results, their lawns are dense and green and they’re mowed by someone else. I do that myself and don’t use fertilizers, my lawn doesn’t look nearly as nice as theirs. I might put some weed killer out this summer.
    Our area is going to have a ‘native species’ seed sale, with a particular emphasis on native grasses, hopefully I can get some of that and seed that and not have to worry about it so much.
    You definitely have a responsibility to keep your lawn looking tidy, doesn’t have to be a golf course obviously though.

  22. Just one of the stupid things people do to their lawns is treating for grubs. Grubs are almost never a problem that need treating. Neil Sperry, famed Texas horticulturist once said on his radio program, that he had NEVER treated for grubs on his several acre country home in 30 years. Grubs are only a problem that need treating when the ground is teeming with them. Texas A&M recommends only treating when there are more than 8 of one type and 15 of the other main type of grub per square foot. That’s like the ground is squirming with grubs. You have to take a trowel and mark off 1 square foot and just dig it up, and count all the grubs.
    Two very effective totally organic ways of treating for grubs are 1) milky spore disease(available as a powder – MSD doesn’t work for some kinds of grubs, like the ones we have here in Texas, it works great for Japanese beetle grubs), and 2) Beneficial nematodes – predatory microscopic worms that attack and kill and multiply in any soft bodied soil insects. Besides beetle grubs, they kill fire ant larvae, fly and gnat larvae, many other soil dwelling soft bodied insects, and even subterranean termites(they have a special formulation just for termites). They don’t harm earthworms. The makers recommend retreating every 2 years, I used them once over ten years ago, and think I’m still getting benefits. Although this marketer recommends drenching mounds, I recommend mixing the nematode containing substrate(moist vermiculite) with several gallons of water, swirling it around and using this strained into a hose-end sprayer. This should be broadcast sprayed everywhere and immediately chased with lots of water. Apply during or right before light rain would be ideal, as the nematodes left on plants, leaves or hard surfaces will die, if not washed down into the soil before they dry.
    One more thing, they are completely and utterly harmless to all higher forms of life, like birds, frogs, pets, children, etc.

  23. Here’s a fun thought experiment. What would happen if an asshole neighbor deliberately grew dandelions and ran an X Ray tube to cause mutation? And used Round Up a little to accelerate natural selection? God Forbid! Weeds that are Round Up proof. Say goodbye to that equity in the house. Take that, suburbanites!

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