Want to change your lawn? Talk to your neighbors

March 09, 2000

"Communication" is the big buzzword these days - the answer to most of the world's problems. Now I've found that it's even a way to get out of mowing the lawn!

cont. from lifestyle

I don't mean you should try to talk other people into doing it for you. No, the trick is to talk them into letting you stop doing it.

I got to thinking about this as the result of a letter I received from a reader in Martinsburg, W.Va. She lives on a one-acre lot in a development, and she resents having to pollute the environment to keep her lawn looking nice.

Her lawn mower burns gasoline and causes air pollution, and she has to use all sorts of toxic chemicals to make her neighbors happy.


"Is there a way to keep a lawn looking nice so the neighbors won't want to throw us out, without using weed killers, fertilizers, etc.?" she asked.

She inquired specifically about "alternative" grasses, preferably native grasses that require little or no watering, fertilizers, pesticides or mowing. She saw a TV show about experiments using grasses that were supposed to grow only to a certain length, would stay that length and never would need mowing.

I called the Turf Research Center at the University of Maryland to check into this. The good news is that yes, such grasses do exist, the best one being "buffalo grass," which grows no higher than 5 inches and requires minimal water and fertilizer.

The bad news is that it likes sandy soil and a dry, but not humid, climate.

In other words, it does great out West, but not in Maryland or West Virginia.

Even worse, I learned, there virtually are no grasses native to this area because the natural landscape is woodlands, not meadows.

The best they could suggest was that she plant zoysia grass, which requires relatively little care. But unfortunately, it's a monoculture that provides zilch in the way of benefit to wildlife.

She also could hire an "environmentally responsible" lawn service. There's one based in Frederick, Md., called NaturaLawn of America. They plant conventional grasses, but then use organic-based fertilizers and an "integrated pest management program" that reduces the use of pesticides by at least 80 percent. They'll even go completely organic upon request.

No matter what change she might decide to make, however, it will involve getting rid of the old lawn before starting a new one.

That's when I'd suggest doing away with the lawn and creating a wildlife habitat with a mixture of wildflowers, shrubs, trees and meadow grasses that would provide a haven for wildlife, and, after years of work, a relatively maintenance-free yard.

That's where the communication comes in, because neighbors usually don't respond too well to such initiatives. Too often they interpret your project as laziness and neglect.

But there are good ways around this, according to a book called "The Wild Lawn Handbook," by Stevie Daniels.

The author goes into a lot of detail about choosing what to plant and how to plant it. But she advises strongly that the communication angle is a first step.

Properly maintained wildlife habitats can be an asset to the neighborhood and can be appreciated by almost everyone, if they're approached properly, she writes.

She quotes one expert as saying, " ... the key factor for most neighbors to accept the more natural and nontraditional look of ecological landscapes is a demonstration of care by the owners."

Daniels recommends doing three things:

* Check to see if there are any regulations in your community about such landscapes.

* Draw up your plans on paper.

* Inform your neighbors in a short letter that explains the purposes and benefits of your new "lawn."

In other words, talk about it.

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at 12364 Harvey Road, Clear Spring, Md. 21722.

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