“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: Our father’s lawn would always be the pinnacle.
Not to be defeated, I'd taken up a different battle.
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 nine 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 father 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 that you wouldn’t hesitate to bound across barefoot along with the dogs.
Even though my father 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.
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 weren’t widely known.
Having a cropped, uniform lawn also has 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.
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 a privacy barrier. Our drought-tolerant perennial garden 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 are 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 father. Finally, I got it. He’d worked so hard on it in an effort to care for something so stunning for us. Although I didn’t inherit my father’s obsession with the lawn, it turns out, like him, I do love a solid day of tinkering and beautifying the yard.
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, but I do still like to make my father 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, said, “Yard looks nice.”