Monday, June 19, 2006

Grass x 3

This is the type of grass that's most prevalent in my backyard:

Which is a mix of perennial ryegrass and whatever else grows well in midwestern lawns. You'll notice it is chopped and torn at the top, and that it isn't setting seed, as the entire purpose of a lawn is to prevent it from ever having grass-sex, so it keeps putting energy into growing "leaves" (blades) which stay nice and green while it tries to photosynthesize enough energy to reproduce. Then we hack down any attempts to get tall enough to do so.

But I also have some of this grass:

Which is known as "Big Bluestem" or Andropogon gerardii or Turkeyfoot or the Monarch of the Prairie. Big Bluestem is responsible for the midwest; it can grow as tall as 10 feet, grows in terribly inhospitable soils, and its deep-reaching roots break up thick, clay-y soils and turn them into loam. (If I recall correctly, its roots can go almost as deep as the plant is tall.) Its tenacious roots also account for why it wasn't until Mr. John Deere introduced the steel plow that the prairie was truly broken to agriculture. Before that, farming on the prairie was a backbreaking and frustrating labor: the richest soil in the world was there for the taking (free from the U.S. government, no less) but the Bluestem that had made the soil wasn't willing to give it up.

My bluestem here is already sending up a seed head, obeying its biological mandate to reproduce, and I hope it does. It's awfully pretty in the fall, and you only have to hack it down with a machete once a year in the autumn, rather than mowing it weekly. Plus, I like to tell people I've been hacking things with a machete.

This is the final kind of grass in my yard:

Which is corn. It's much less hardy than the Big Bluestem, and even less hardy than the relatively wimpy non-native lawn grasses. Corn has been domesticated for more than 10,000 years, and is no longer capable of surviving in the wild. That seedhead on my Big Bluestem is basically the same thing as an ear of corn, but on my Bluestem, it's sticking way up on a slender stalk, shouting "SOMEBODY FERTILIZE ME! And eat my seeds and then poop them somewhere far away so I can spread my DNA all over the place!" The corn, which hasn't sent up its seeds yet, will be the familiar enclosed cob that we all know, slowly bred over millennia so that the kernels are fat and juicy and protected by the corn's own leaves from marauding birds and other animals, relying on humans to ensure it can be fertilized and then replanted the next year. That's corn's evolutionary strategy, a deal with humanity: we'll hide our kernels from everybody who doesn't have opposeable thumbs, but you have to be responsible for propagating us and preserving our DNA.

It struck me the other day while working in my garden that I have a sort of primer of midwest grasses: the Big Bluestem that built the prairies before man even arrived on this continent; the corn that lured immigrant farmers to our rich soil and feeds the midwest (and much of the rest of the world); and the lawngrass that proclaims a wealthy leisure class (that is, one that can afford to use land for something other than food production) has arrived.

More than any other plant, the simple grass, in all its myriad varieties, tells the story of American midwest.


Laura McGowan said...

Big Bluestem is totally awesome - I plan to start a patch of it. I was walking down the street the other day and noticed how many yards had beautiful white clover growing in them. Beautiful!! A diverse lawn is a healthy lawn. Let the clover, plantains, dandelions, and creeping charlie flourish and keep each other in check. Mow often. Let the clippings decay and fertilize the ground. Don't send them off the landfill in bags!

Love your blog - very relevant.

Anonymous said...

all that was missing from that post was the "beep" telling me when to advance the filmstrip.

Anon E. Mouse

Eyebrows McGee said...

Oh dear. Now I have splorted, Mouse! You owe me a new keyboard!

Laura, thanks for the kind words. I don't mind any lawnweeds as long as I can walk barefoot on them, so I mostly only bother with the spikey ones.

Tony said...

No creeping charlie! It will take over everything, even clover...