Archive for the ‘Lawncare’ Category

In The Clover

May 28, 2010


  Another favorite constituent of my lawn, exterminated (+/or extirpated) from most others, is clover.  Like the bird’s foot trefoil mentioned above*, it is a member of the pea family – Fabaceae.  It is most widespread in North America, but can be found the world over.

  Much of the year (spring to fall) it but adds to the verdant carpet out front.  Just now however, the plants’ spiky flowers are making their presence known.  And not just by virtue of their small scale beauty.

  Stand before a field of clover in bloom on a warm day with a faint breeze wafting toward you and you’ll see what I mean.  Or, uh, smell what I mean.  It’s incredible.   You’ll be caught off guard and transfixed.  Instantly aware of its ephemerality you won’t move so to enhance and prolong the experience.     

  Now is the time to seek out this marvelous opportunity.  If it is windy or if you’re breathing heavily your olfactory will be numbed past its threshold for delicacy so take care.

  Fortunately for conformists surrounded by nothing but fescue, bluegrass, etc several varieties of clover are cultivated as fodder.  Put yourself downwind of an acre of the stuff and you’ll think of heaven for a moment until it dawns on you that you’ll be inhaling the flinty scent of fire and brimstone for a long time before the visit with St. Peter.

  The Wikipedia clover entry holds that the phrase “to be in clover” grew from the use of the plant by farmers to fix nitrogen in the soil after harvesting their primary crop.  They were done for the season and could relax.

  Could be, but I’ll wager that the person who wrote that had never had the pleasure I’ve just described. To me, “Being in clover” is a metaphor for a state less like relaxation and more like exaltation.

*July 17, 2009

**Ever after first such experience, each time you snap the cap on your honey bear the memory will flash back as you remember that most honey is made by bees from clover.

The Tyrant Next Door

April 23, 2010


 I don’t get lawns.  I mean, I’m glad I have one and I revel in its revivification each spring.  I’m just not particularly particular about its constitution.  Green is great, but green alone lacks drama and verve.  What is up with the incredible close cropped homogeneity that pervades most of suburbia? 

  Well (you read it here) it’s the outer manifestation of a sequestered  concern that there might not be order in our universe – which of course there is not.  At the beginning, for a moment, it was indeed highly organized.  Since, however, we’ve been hurtling toward ever greater disorder.  Entropy.  The universe is a mess, getting messier by the moment, and there’ll be no turning back the arrow of time.  Too bad, so sad.

  The more assiduous the lawn care, the more every blade in a lawn is identical and oriented just so, the more bottled up inner turmoil can logically be assumed to inhabit the owner determined to beat his little part of the planet into submission.  Just watch the reaction after a kid cuts a path and you’ll see what I mean.  Jeers and tears all out of proportion and to no good end.

  Makes me think of Thomas Hobbes.  His Leviathan, published in 1651, is perhaps the most important work of modern political theory.  In it Hobbes asserts the necessity of an iron fisted central authority strong enough to preclude civil disorder as well as to enable a credible defense. 

  It made certain sense back then, especially given the provenance of his thinking.  Told that the approach of the Spanish Armada jolted his mother into labor, he later said that “I was born the twin of fear.”  His point of perspective though didn’t allow him to foresee twentieth century totalitarianism and the associated agony and horror left in its wake.

  Sure, civil society must most certainly be.  But not to the point of heartlessness and cruelty.  As the Dalai Lama says, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy” and dandelions can help.  They are bits of beauty that arrive on their own, unannounced. If allowed, they can provide emotional counterpoint to Hobbes’ famous dictum that “life is nasty, brutish, and short”. 

  Walt Whitman, among others, would agree.  From Leaves of Grass:

Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling,
Give me juicy autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard,
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows,
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape,
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals
  teaching content,
Give me nights perfectly quiet as on high plateaus west of
   the Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars,
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I
  can walk undisturbed.
Give me for marriage a sweet-breath’d woman of whom I should
  never tire,
Give me a perfect child, give me away aside from the noise of the
  world a rural domestic life,
Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my own
  ears only,
Give me solitude, give me Nature, give me again O nature your
  primal sanities!

*Finally, I’m ecstatic to report that the January 2, 2010 Economist (what else?) tells us that dandelions “may yet make the big time”.  They might supplement or even replace Hevea brasiliensis which is the scientific name for the traditional rubber tree.  Can you imagine what a field of them would look like?

Do You Know Where You Are?

July 17, 2009

  birds foot 6 001

    No, alas, this is not in my yard.  Not yet anyway.  It’s called Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus to a botanist) and is a member of the huge Pea or Bean (Fabaceae or Leguminosae) family.  The photo was taken along the interstate at the end of our ravine.

  The name Trefoil comes from Latin via Old French meaning three leaves -like the clover to which it is related.*  It has just come into bloom now and will remain so for most of the summer. This bright delight is not native to North America having been imported from Europe for forage.

  According to Iowa State University Extension, it was only first planted in 1938 but now covers more than 500,000 acres in Iowa alone.  Farmers like it because it is hardy once established; will withstand close grazing; is highly nutritious; and non-bloating.  It has provided daily weight gains in cattle exceeding a 30% premium over fertilized grass.

birds foot 4

  Laterly the plant became popular with road crews whose mission was/is to stabilize roadside growth.  It creates a dense low mat, will crowd out plants with a yearn to grow tall, blooms low and so can be cropped close.  If you live around here and are not agoraphobic, it will doubtless and frequently play a role in your field of view.

  Not surprisingly, citing almost exactly the same factors listed above, the philistines about consider it invasive, a weed, and incredibly difficult to control. “An ecological threat”  Control by conflagration not only doesn’t work, but instead increases seed germination!  Ha!

birds foot 6 002

  There is a new book out** that explores the chasm between us and our setting – the green movement notwithstanding.  The author writes of the seafarers of Puluwat in the South Pacific who can navigate by means of subtle swell patterns.  And of the Inuit who do the same with wind.  The Bedouin the stars.  Here in suburbia some use a GPS to cross town.  What’s up with the disconnect?  Is there a cost?

   The Trefoil’s beautiful, isn’t it?  Shades of yellow pea-like flowers with clover-like leaves.  The seed pod arrangement sort of resembles a bird’s foot hence the name. birds foot seed pod Doesn’t the fact that a lowly weed can be so gorgeous and have such a wonderful back-story give you pause?  Makes me think of Blake: 

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour. 

*The word also serves as a term in Gothic architecture referring to a manner of ornamentation by foliation or cusping. Look for it in church window-lights. 


**The book is You Are Here Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon but Get Lost in the Mall, by Collin Ellard.  It was reviewed in the NYTBR Sunday July 12 by Jonah Lehrer.

Spirit of Place

July 3, 2009


  Ok.  I’m just about ready to rest my case.  I’ve written several times of the special beauty of my lawn.  The photo above ought to put all doubts to rest.  Representative of a good part of my small plot is that arrangement of several grasses, flowered clover, yellow oxalis, and wild strawberries. 

  Most people spend untold hours in the cultivation of their yards, but end up with only blade after boring blade of the same dang thing.  I spend as little time as possible and, well, results speak for themselves. 

  As opposed to most, I don’t attempt to inflict my own narrow opinion of what it should look like upon the earth.  Instead, I endeavor to create a condition in which such subtle wonder can unfold of its own accord.  Believe it or not, I planted virtually none of what you see above.

  What is more is that those colors are nearly perfect counterpoint for the string of Tibetan prayer flags strung across my roof high above.  It is said that with each flutter of every panel a prayer is repeated. They are nearly always moving.

Prayer Flags 010

  Perhaps that’s how the character of my lawn developed, having not always been so.  Only several years after the death of a brother (in whose memory I connected our chimney and roof vent pipe with the red, blue, green, white, and yellow squares) did things begin to change.  Or at least to my notice.

  It was imperceptible at first.  Then we had several seasons and several families of ducks that made home in front of our house.  And elsewhere coons and deer and cats and dogs and varieties of rodents wild and domesticated.  Five tree houses and now a yurt.  Once, while digging a hole for a fence post I found an ancient stone hatchet head.

yurt 1

  The prayer flags eventually wear out and I replace them with new crisp colors covered with tiny uchen letters.  It is somehow comforting to watch them waft in the breeze.  (Even though some folks ask just why we have our laundry line way up there in the encircling crown of maple and ash!)

  We’ve been here thirty + years and I absolutely don’t mean to say that I’ve things just the way I want them.  Yes, I trim and fertilize from time to time, but that’s just so these particular emergent rhythms don’t dampen.

  DH Lawrence wrote that “Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like.  But the spirit of place is a great reality.”*

  We’re all – flora, fauna, parents, and children – deeply imbued with the great reality of the spirit of our contorted tiny bit of the planet.

*Speaking of Lawrence, it may be obvious, but I’m also trying to make sure that the gamekeeper my wife runs off with is me…

Please Don’t Let My Wife See This Either

April 16, 2009

  A while back* I described the joy I take in the gorgeous array of dandelions that presents itself every year at about this time.  More subtle (at least visually) as well as more interesting is the ground ivy which is just beginning its ephemeral (again visually) resplendency.


  To all but those who take pride in their bluegrass and fescue, the lavender blanket is a welcome sign of spring.  That the color lasts but a week or so makes it worthy of a Basho haiku.  He’s long no longer with us so: 

Lush thick lavender.
Funeral blanket for the
Mouse the hawk swooped up? 

  It’s scientific name is Glechoma hederacea and is found just about everywhere.  When in flower, it stands only a bit taller than the newly awakened and as yet uncut lawn.  It is a member of the mint family and spreads even more aggressively than the Derby Julep eponymous component.

  I find it interesting on account of its provenance.  Settlers from Europe brought it to the new world to help in the brew of their beer.  Its use predates hops and was called Alehoof and employed widely by Saxons for the flavoring, clarification, and preservation of their favorite beverage.

  There should be no surprise that it found its way to these parts given the large scale nineteenth century emigration of people from that region of Germany to our area.  Some of my own ancestors, even.  Prost!

  Most of the time when we hear about mankind abetting the migration of some species or other from here to there it is with a more or less negative tone.  Like zebra mussels across the inland waterways, or rabbits to Australia, or (believe it or not) everything not winged or finned to New Zealand.

  Diets of the developed world would be far less kaleidoscopic had it not been for, say, potatoes coming north from Peru, tomatoes and corn to Europe, and ground ivy from our Teutonic ancestors.  And the sun in my every breakfast, oranges.


  Columbus himself brought them to these shores (well close), but they are thought to have originated in China near the South China Sea.  From there they made their way down the Malay Peninsula and then probably with the Indian Ocean current to the east coast of Africa.

  Caravan north to the Mediterranean and thence throughout Europe. In Paris Louis XIV thought so highly of his 3000 orange trees that 1n 1617 he built the Orangerie in the gardens of the Louvre to house them.  In that pre-Versailles palace is no longer a citrus arbor, but rather a display of Monet’s water lilies of incredibly ineffable beauty.  It’s a 360 degree experience and imbues even the most stolid with a wonderful spiritual tumescence.


  Funny how stuff works out.  Just think of all that would be lost if we were alone in this universe and collided with an asteroid.  Poof.  Remember, In Heaven there ain’t no beer. 

*5/9/08: Please don’t let my wife see this.

**If you like oranges read John McPhee’s Oranges  It’s fascinating.

Please Don’t Let My Wife See This

May 9, 2008

  Dandelions are beautiful.  If it was only with effort that they could be seen, like edelweiss in high alpine meadows, there’d be songs about them and they’d be the national flower of someplace.

  The yellow tuft is a glorious early bit of spring and offers an earnest greeting to those receptive to it.  What kind of a black heart does not smile at the sight after a long and cold winter?

  Dense green homogeneity as the suburban standard is but the latest installment of our tribe’s misguided quest for control.  The “Enlightenment” as manifest in the gardens of Versailles has now devolved into the verdant compulsion of Middle America.

  With a lot of work and fertilizer,   bluegrass, fescue, and rye can be made to sit still and stay from May through September.  Nice carpet of green in the foreground for dogs and kids to stay off of.

  Dandelions show up on their own early and often.  They need no care and establish themselves quite tenaciously. Their taproot makes one wonder how the description “grass roots” came not to mean weak or ephemeral. The obvious part of their life cycle is compressed and its end even more bothersome to the fastidious. 

  But have you ever (since you were a kid?) closely examined one of those white spheres (“clocks”) of a mature flower head?  Then blown on one?  It’s an incredible effusion of joy.  A transmigration.  It fills me with the same sort of wonder as a gaze into the sea or a star lit night.

  Then look closely at one of the tiny fruits suspended from its parachute.  They float along swaying gently to-and-fro until their path is blocked, the fruit separates from its chute, and the whole thing begins again.  Sometimes if a dispersal is blocked before it has a chance to travel far and spread out, the parachutes are shook free of their loads and coalesce into something just this side of the emperor’s new clothes.

  Product of evolution, but a miracle all the same.

  The evolution of the name parallels the evolution of its place in our consciousness.  Early on in French it was called “dent de lion” or tooth of a lion for the shape of its leaves – which can be used in a salad or made into soup.  In modern French it is a “pissenlit” meaning, uh, urinate in bed.  This is due to the diuretic nature of the aforementioned courses of a meal. 

  That’s what we get for leaving the garden. 

  Dang it Eve – you mow.