For two years, ever since my friend Hannah sent me, within a month, a photo of their newly built house in Greenville and a photo of their newborn baby, I had been itching to visit her. She had moved there the same summer we moved here to Pittsburgh, so we shared, from a distance, being in the same life stages: new jobs, small children, new communities. Then, around the time we were clearing out multiflora rose here in Pittsburgh, I was invited to attend a June conference in Greenville, and I knew this was a chance I couldn’t pass up. I e-mailed Hannah and told her I was coming with my daughters to meet her toddler daughter, see their house, and finally enjoy a good visit.
In Greenville, Hannah greeted us outside her house with Ellie on her hip and invited us in. It was hot out, and we talked a while inside, letting the girls play and get to know one another. When her husband came home, we all caught up on each other’s news. One notable difference between their lives and mine is that their suburb is a lot newer than ours. The yard, they both told me, was frustrating them, with poor drainage, fire ants, and a lot of weeds. Because the talk I was in Greenville to deliver was on environmentally friendly lawn care, I was really interested in taking a look.
There, in my friend’s yard, I got my first up-close view of what passes for landscaping among modern builders. My friends are not the herbicide types, but they were unquestionably irritated with their lawn, with its tall flowering weeds and flattened prostrate spurge crowding out the grass. In addition, I was there for the first significant rains in weeks, and within minutes of the first raindrop the backyard was two to three inches deep in standing water, which mostly ran off the lawn and into the street. If they had been using herbicides or fertilizer, these, too, would have mixed in with the rain, and would have gone straight into the storm water system.
Soil, in nature, is a bit like a cake the good stuff is all on top. It has a relatively thin layer of topsoil the frosting. The “cake” part, however, isn’t particularly rich, and if your mother served it you’d think she was trying to pulverize your fillings. This deeper layer is heavier, more nutrient poor but generally more mineral rich. While minerals are important to plants, if the soil texture isn’t good and the nutrients aren’t available, plants can’t grow on the extra nutrients, just as we can’t thrive on Tums alone. The level below that, the cake plate, would have enough rocks in it that growing plants would probably be impossible. These soil horizons can vary in depth what drew pioneers to the Great Plains, in part, was soil frosting up to ten feet deep, seemingly inexhaustible until years of plowing followed by drought created the Dust Bowl.
When sod is placed directly on the middle layer, as in newly built suburbs, grass needs to be watered extensively to encourage the roots to grow, which ultimately connects the sod to the soil almost as if it were being sewed a few threads at each spot connecting the layers together. Grass roots grow best where water and nutrients are easily available, in that top, rich layer of soil. If the grass doesn’t take, many weeds are quite happy to fill in the gaps in the sickly looking lawn. As I’ve noted, this is what weeds do, they fill in the gaps, and the whole idea of introducing non-native plants for erosion prevention becomes pretty laughable when weeds are so good at covering soil.
The kinds of plants that do well on this particular type of soil tend to have tap roots, which are carrot like: long, strong, deep roots that break up the high mineral layer and put their tips where deeper water may be available. Plants with tap roots are not low-growing spreaders their tops match their bottoms in the sense that they grow tall and relatively narrow. In other words, they don’t mow nicely, and they don’t cover the lawn with deep green low-lying leaves. Dandelion has a taproot. Plants with taproots are the kinds of plants that homeowners call lawn services about, and the usual turf on which herbicides will be used. Some other weeds, such as spurges, simply don’t need high-quality soil to thrive. So new families are not the only happy residents in these clean, sparkly new communities: the compacted soil left after the heavy equipment departs also makes new suburbs a wonderful place for spurges. The spurge (discussed in the next chapter) in Greenville was thriving because it likes dry, heavy soils.
New subdivisions, then, are doomed to lawns full of hawkweed, dandelion, and other weeds of poor soils. I have read that in the real estate business, fixing up a kitchen or bathroom pays great dividends, but money in landscaping is a waste in terms of resale value. Apparently, landscaping is a waste in new subdivisions as well, because although houses are often sold with a young tree in the front yard, most of them are almost devoid of topsoil. I can’t imagine a potential homebuyer saying, “I love the design and the house, and the yard is large enough, but we can’t buy it, dear it just doesn’t have any topsoil.” Far more homebuyers have probably been turned off by a bad interior paint color than by missing topsoil, yet the long term consequences are far more significant in the yard without good soil than with the ugly wall.
Ultimately, the buyer, like my friends, is put in the position of getting a lawn service and having the herbicides hide the soil problems, or refusing the lawn service and facing either a yard full of weeds or the expenditure of a lot of energy and money into building or purchasing soil. Friend of weeds I may be, but I am equally a fan of high-quality soil. I like a diverse lawn with lots of different plants including many so-called weeds because it indicates healthy, fertile soil. Greenville is not a desert, and if the plants make it look like one, then the soil has been abused.
Contrast new subdivisions with the process of improving existing urban development. “Gentrification” is the term for one type of urban development: a “bad” (crime-ridden, drug-infested perhaps) neighborhood is purchased by a developer or a city, and old homes get torn down. New, more expensive homes are built, which then raises the values of nearby homes. Property taxes rise, and longtime residents may have to move or simply choose to do so because the neighbors they knew and cared for are gone. We watched this process in Hyde Park, Chicago, where the blocks south of Sixtieth Street went from being considered uninhabitable by University of Chicago graduate students in 2001 to being prime real estate for them by 2005. Oddly enough, success (from the city’s point of view) will be when graduate students can no longer afford these properties because even more prosperous residents faculty and business people who commute downtown might buy them next, further raising property values and tax revenue.
This process could also be observed through plant identification. Weeds can indicate lack of care in a residential property. In the front yard of a house, if one observes ailanthus (tree of heaven), small Norway maples, Japanese knotweed, and dandelions the size of cabbages, then one would guess that a boarded-up window might adorn the front of the house. These plants are all notorious for growing quickly, but none would tolerate even a yearly mowing. A friend of mine who works with the local land conservancy has suggested that ailanthus and Japanese knotweed could be surveyed and correlated with neighborhood income levels. I suspect he’s right. A couple of years ago, a colleague and I did some soil sampling on a number of vacant lots in Homewood, a neighborhood near the university, and I thought that I could guess the length of vacancy by the weed populations there. One lot, which neighbors told us had been vacant for years, was a forest of Japanese knotweed. Another lot, in which neighbors didn’t speak to us but peeked out their windows at us instead, bore a landscape of annual weeds, much like those one might see in a cornfield left unplanted. I’m guessing this one had been vacant only a year, perhaps two at most.
A lawn composed of a single species of grass, not a clover or dandelion in sight, and no full-grown shade trees, would probably be thriving in front of a brand-new condominium, with white trim and shiny doorknobs, bland and ready for your own decorations within and your own flowers outside. This type of lawn means that the existing weeds were bulldozed out, and fresh soil was brought in to cover the trash and toxins of past sins. In Chicago, in fact, those who wish to grow vegetables are advised to add eighteen inches of clean topsoil (a raised garden bed is ideal for this) before planting greens, because the existing soil lead levels are high enough to contaminate the family vegetable consumers. I’m not a big fan of sod, because I prefer planting from seed and establishing a root system that grows in place, but even sod has an appropriate use. On the South Side of Chicago, sod is probably necessary as a cap on the soil lead if children are going to play in the yard, and I have wondered if even that is enough.
If the grass is a bit faded in its green, and the weeds are starting to poke through the sod, you know that someone moved in a few months or a year or two ago and hasn’t yet employed a lawn service; this is the situation of my friends in Greenville. This kind of lawn is what we are left with, in new subdivisions, if we move in with ideals but not time or skills to complete what the builders left undone. This kind of lawn can mature with tree plantings and soil building into something lovely and diverse and healthy. Along with unpacking and choosing furniture, nursing the baby, pleasing the boss, and meeting new neighbors, the new homeowners just need to do a bit of yard ecosystem development work.
When we were shopping for our first house, we were in our early thirties, and I had by then a fairly clear vision of what kind of yard I wanted. I know that the whole idea of wanting a yard is in conflict with city planning to minimize driving, so I was willing to compromise with a small yard and a good nearby park. But still, emotionally, I wanted a particular kind of yard. I wanted shade trees, in a variety
of ages, with one perfect for a rope swing, an apple or cherry tree for home picking, soft green grass with a relatively level surface for the kids to play ball and run on, and flowers for us to decorate the home and for the kids to pick for themselves. Shrubs as landscaping were a bonus, though many times these end up overgrown and unsightly. From the lawn itself, the kids should be able to pick flower bouquets and blow a dandelion or two, and I should be able to make an occasional batch of dandelion wine, but once the dandelions go to seed they should instantly become invisible. Trees should provide shade for the house but should not make shade so dense as to prevent the grass carpet from extending beneath them. I have noticed that arboretums have this landscape frequently basically, a mowed meadow with well-spaced shade trees in a variety of species. When I go to an arboretum, I realize that my ideal landscape is a vision shared by many others in very different cultures, and sometimes I wonder what in human history led us to this preference. Defense? Easy hunting? Plants for food? Whatever the historical use, all we know is that we like it.
My ideal landscape is not an unusual vision, but I do have a particular request about weeds, just as some people always order their food in restaurants slightly different from the way it is presented on the menu. If I were to order my yard from a menu, I would ask for a generous dollop of hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum) on the side. I have gotten lucky in this respect, as we have a small cluster of them in the backyard, which were invisible on the early spring days we were looking for a house. Hawkweed is in the same genus as a scattering of other plants whose common names all end in “weed” or share the name “devil”: orange hawkweed; rattlesnake weed; field hawkweed, with the auspicious alternative name king devil. These plants all have a cluster of ground-level leaves (like dandelion) with a single flower stalk rising boldly up into the range of the mower blade. My favorite, orange hawkweed, is also called devil’s paintbrush. Its color is divine, and I think of it as being the color of the best sunsets, red toward the center, fading to a rich, bright orange at the petals. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide notes that this one is a “troublesome weed of fields and pastures.” I find that hard to believe based on my own limited experience in agriculture, but in any case, these plants aren’t doing any real harm in a lawn.
I mow around our one cluster. This June, I was leaving for the Greenville trip when I could see its flower heads shooting up. Normally, I am the mower of the family, and if I left a patch it would remain unthreatened. However, since I was leaving, I had to ask my husband to leave them for me, and he graciously agreed. Although it does leave the lawn a bit unkempt like a few hairs sticking up from an otherwise well-sprayed hairdo they bloom for only a short time and are simply stunning. What’s more, after they bloom, they unlike dandelions lack the audacity of fluffy seeds. If their seeds are spreading invisibly to the neighbors’ yards, well, at least the neighbors won’t notice them en route from our house.
Unfortunately for my friends in Greenville, the hawkweed relative in their yard, mouse ear (Hieracium pilosella), is merely yellow. Not only is it the same color as dandelion, but like dandelion it has only one short-lived bloom per stalk. Hawkweed itself bears a small cluster of flower buds, of which one blooms daily for about a week. It also has this extraordinary warm color combination, not following any of my mother’s old rules about color matching (green, red, and orange together). Mouse ear is less audacious in its beauty and is visually more easily categorized as a weed. I tend to value hawkweed more both because of its richer colors and because its blooms last longer. Mouse ear, in my experience, is common enough that it doesn’t warrant any extra attention or care; I respect my friends’ view of it as one of the problem plants in their lawn.
But true hawkweed is another matter. It doesn’t spread wildly. I’ve never seen it in a corn or soybean field. Hawkweed won’t take over the world, no matter how much I cultivate it. I can think of only one problem with hawkweeds they can be illegal. In our community, a law states that weeds cannot exceed eight inches in height in a lawn, and a flowering hawkweed certainly is taller. The suburb in Greenville very likely has a similar law. Perhaps in Greenville, as in our little township near Pittsburgh, there is even a lawn maintenance professional on the board of citations.
Back when we bought our house and didn’t yet own a mower,
I called a professional recommended by our real estate agent to mow the lawn before we moved in. Our conversation went something like this:
“Hello, I was wondering if we could have you mow our lawn during the month before we move in.”
“Sure, I mow once a week.”
“Actually, I was hoping you could mow it every other week.”
“I only mow weekly. Overgrown lawns put too much wear and tear on my equipment.”
“How about you just mow once, in the middle of the month?”
“I can’t do that. Besides, township regulations say that your lawn has to stay under eight inches in height.”
“Oh, I doubt my new neighbors will turn us in our first spring just before we move in.”
“Well, I am on the board of citations . . .”
You see how that worked? This threat, overt or implied, did not inspire me to employ him, but it did inspire me to call a different mowing service and to buy my beloved reel mower sooner.
I looked up the regulation later and found that it doesn’t actually say that the lawn must be kept under eight inches. Our township rules state:
Lawn: a grass area with or without trees which may be used by the residents for a variety of purposes and which shall be mowed regularly to ensure a neat and tidy appearance.
Natural area: an area of natural vegetation undisturbed during construction, or replanted; such areas may contain pathways. Meadows shall be maintained as such and not left to become weed-infested. Maintenance may be minimal but shall prevent the proliferation of weeds and undesirable plants. Litter, dead trees, and brush shall be removed and streams kept in free-flowing condition.
Also, we are provided with this “Good Neighbor Reminder” in our summer newsletter: “Grass must be cut prior to going to seed and all weeds must be cut or removed.” Weeds are not defined. Hawkweed remains unmentioned, as do all my other favorite lawn species, and there is nothing mentioned about height just “neat and tidy.” I’ve seen lawns that weren’t neat and tidy, but I think some really beautiful gardens look a bit long in the tooth. As far as I can see, as long as I consider the lawn ornamental and can find at least a couple of people to agree with me, it’s legal.
I don’t know what the regulations are in my friend’s Greenville suburb, and I don’t know whether Hannah and her family, or their neighbors, are going to be able to live with mouse ear or hawkweed or prostrate spurge. As long as new suburbs continue to be built with soil abuse as a starting point, lots of owners of new homes are going to be living with difficult questions about what it means to have a neat and tidy lawn.
Our children, when they are big enough, might ask: Is a weed just a plant with “-weed” at the end? Is a weed defined by our nextdoor neighbors when they call the police to report us? No, my dear Virginia, a weed is a plant you don’t want for yourself. And I want my hawkweeds, so they are living tall in our lawn. Let me say for the record, for all to hear, that I cultivate them, every chance I get. I invite the neighbors to call the police and have me arrested, although some may want to start cutting down their multiflora rose bushes first.