Monday, May 21, 2007

Nature Abhors a Monoculture

It's true. She does. (I'm told she also abhors vacuums, which would give us something in common. Stupid noisy machines.)

Anyway, this is why your lawn has weeds: Nature rejects monocultures. They're not very biologically productive or efficient, and nature is all about maximizing biological efficiency. (Often in ways totally useless to us as humans, but still.) So the weeds say to themselves, "Hm, nobody's filling MY niche in this 600 square foot patch of land ... I think I'll grow riiiiiiiiight here."

(Oh, right, like you don't anthropomorphize things.)

So you'll recall that over the last couple years we've been reducing our lawn monoculture in two ways: First, by introducing "beds" or "gardens" of various sorts and sizes to reduce the overall "lawn" area, and second, by introducing clover to the lawn itself. We've added a fairly large ornamental bed that draws songbirds and butterflies, and features a lot of native plants like coneflowers and Black-Eyed Susans and milkweed, in addition to more traditional ornamentals like day lilies and mums. We've added a 300-square-foot vegetable garden in raised beds. And so forth.

The time invested in the initial installation of these beds was large, but once they're established, they require far less care than a lawn does. We deal with the songbird bed basically twice a year -- in the spring to see if anything needs fixing and to add mulch if necessary, and at the very end of fall to cut down anything that needs cutting down. Since it's mostly native plants, they don't need watering, even in drought. (I also refuse to coddle plants. If it won't stand up to Central Illinois's weather, I'm really not going to bother, because I am fundamentally lazy.) The veggie garden requires a little more work, picking things and thinning and planting new crops and whatnot, but the payoff involves actual food, so that's okay. I end up with stuff like

These crazy blue potatoes. (We are using the ditch method rather than the hill method with the potatoes. I'm slightly skeptical because in Irish literature they always use the hill method. But I'm not sure great books of the English language are a reliable guide to best gardening practices, so we'll see.)

All these lettuces and onions. (There was no way to crop this picture that didn't leave it looking canted all crazy. Sorry about that.) These are two of my favorite vegetables to grow because the payoff is soooooo immediate. Lettuce comes up from seed in days, and the onions come up from their little "sets" (bulbs) like a rocket. Lettuce is also one of those vegetables that's dramatically improved by being fresh from the garden instead of 3 days old at the supermarket. (And I eat lettuce like a rabbit, so it keeps my grocery bills down too!)

Side note: This year I am again having no luck with sugar snap peas. They just don't like me.

Back to the lawn-lawn -- we've overseeded it with clover, which is a nitrogen-fixing legume. The grass growing in and near clover patches is definitely greener than the grass that isn't near clover. (The link above will also show you how green my clover-lawn stayed in drought last summer.) The clover also attracts pollinators, which should improve pollination in the rest of our garden as well. And, as I move on to talking about mowing, if you let the clover go completely, it'll top out at about 4 inches, so you can get away with a lot less mowing.

Mr. McGee this year got a new mower. One of the things that's always made me craziest about lawns is that they're biologically useless to begin with, and then you fertilize them to make them grow, and then you cut them repeatedly to make them be shorter. And you do this using a noisy pollution-spewing machine that sucks fossil fuels. To really no good purpose. (And mowers are very, very dirty in the grand scheme of engines.) It's this bizarre Sisyphean task we've all agreed to engage in for the sake of the neighbor's sensibilities (grow the lawn - cut the lawn - grow the lawn - cut the lawn). Except Sisyphus wasn't facing global warming and rising gas costs when he did his task.

So Mr. McGee got a Brill Luxus 38, a top-of-the-line, German-engineered, old-fashioned reel mower. They're better for the grass, they say, because motorized mowers don't cut grass; they tear it. But they're also better for your ears, your lungs, and the planet. You can listen to the birds sing while you cut the lawn. It's a way different chore. Mr. McGee cuts the lawn at the drop of a hat now because he is so in love with this machine.

The kids in the neighborhood have never seen anything like it, and whenever he mows, all these kids come asking him what kind of mower is THAT and is that a new kind of mower and where did he get something like that? (And then go home and tell their parents they saw this crazy new kind of mower and their parents are like, "Yeah, we used those in the 50s.") He is seriously meeting every kid in the neighborhood because they just can't get over the silent, tiny lawnmower.

On a more practical note, to address the problems many recall from the 50s reel mowers: We do have to pick up sticks and other junk from the lawn. If you hit a stick, you punch yourself in the ribs with the handle when the mower stops abruptly and you keep walking. It does take a little muscle power to push it, but certainly no more (and frequently less) than the heavy motorized mower. (And I don't have to friggin' start it. I hate that pull start engine.) The cutting length isn't as wide as most motorized mowers, so you do make more passes.

On the positive side, it's basically silent, so you can carry on a conversation while you mow, or listen to the birds. You can mow at the butt-crack of dawn without worrying about waking the neighbors. It doesn't fling out rocks (as motorized mowers can) or lop off toes unless you really work at it. You can stop whenever you feel like it without worrying about having to start the mower again. It costs nothing to run -- no oil, no gas. The height is adjustable.


Anonymous said...

Re: the reel mower

If anyone was wondering, maintenance is almost nil beyond not needing oil or gas. I wipe it down after each use, but then you should do that with a gas mower, as well. Every season you have to readjust the gap between the reel and the blade, which takes about 30 seconds. I am told the blade needs sharpening about once every 7 years. It has been keeping up with the grass fine so far this year. Overall, I am very pleased with it so far.

Mr. McGee

Anonymous said...

I am proud of my son. He is 10 years old and I told him earlier this spring that he was mowing the lawn this year. Like all 10 year olds he whined initially but then drew inspiration from it. He decided that if he was going to do the mowing, he was going to do it in an environmentally sound manner. Meaning, he insisted we get a reel mower. So off to Lowe's we went and bought one.

He seems to enjoy doing mowing it all so far. There are a few patches that are thick and tough to push through but overall he handles it well.


anon e. mouse said...

First off, this reminds me that I need to get some of my garden pics up. The boxes are so awesome - so much easier to weed.
Your spuds look a bit ahead of mine. I did a few of the blue spuids, too. Also something called a Purple Viking that is a white spid with purple skin. Reds and whites, too.

Second, I think my dad has a flashback whenever he sees a reel mower. Grandpa had three boys and a large - extremely large - yard. Need I go on?

b said...

Yeah efficient non-noisy mower!

It was one of the first purchases I made after my home.

Save the environment and your ears!

(Well that sounded like stereotypical CA)

dewayne said...

I have a reel mower.
I can attest to your remark about it being a kid magnet. It's such a novelty to the kids. They want to use it all the time.
My 10-year-old begged me to let him mow.
What I like about it is that I can mow very early while it is cool without bothering the neighbors, and no visits to the gas station.