Boyce: In defense of lawns and yard work as Ottawa embraces spring

Lawns are not desolate sites. You can often see chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, raccoons, weasels, groundhogs and so on. Yard work is also very therapeutic. And it’s safer for your child to play on a lawn than on bare soil, gravel or rocks.

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Back in the late fall, a Citizen opinion writer argued that a lawn is “in fact unnatural at best, and at worst it is an ecologically devastating instrument of colonization.” There’s a much better way to look at this, and now that we have officially entered spring, let me explain.

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Urban green space is, if anything, a North American phenomenon. The proliferation of lawns, which may or may not be “environmentally friendly,” is preferable to the concrete and stone labyrinths of cities in most other countries. The open spaces in our cities are filled with trees, lawns and parks, which contribute significantly to moisture retention, carbon dioxide capture and temperature moderation.

Very few lawns, if any, are monocultures. Most lawn grass seed mixtures consist of three or more species and usually several varieties of each species. The three principal species are: bluegrasses, fine-leaved fescues, and perennial ryegrasses. Fine-leaved fescues, and bentgrasses (for golf greens), are native to North America, as are most species of bluegrasses. Perennial ryegrasses are of Eurasian origin but rarely persist more than two years in a lawn. These are not invasive species unlike quack grass and crab grass (finger grass), which are invasive and of European origin.

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The status value of lawns is overstated. Historically, the grassy slopes in and around rural estates and farms were grazed by large flocks of sheep, goats, cattle and horses. The open areas helped keep predators, insects and diseases at bay. Today, it is not the expanse of grass that is the status symbol but rather the size of the lot and the square footage of the residence in the neighborhood or countryside.

Another misconception relates to the care required for lawns. A mature healthy lawn is resistant to weeds and other pests. Most lawns are not watered or treated with pesticides but do require occasional feeding to maintain growth. Grass clippings are generally returned to the sod or composted on site. Of course, more care is required if you want golf course-like appearance. But when was the last time you saw parks and roadsides being watered?

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Lawn care and yard work is also very therapeutic. Whether it is tending to the lawn, the garden, or flowers and trees, helping things grow and prosper is enjoyable, relaxing and a great distraction from other issues. A few hours of yard work every week or so is a great way to clear the mind of the stress and pressures of work and family.

Grasses have a phenomenal record in soil building and site restoration. The so-called “bread baskets of the world” are historical grasslands. The Canadian prairies, the US Midwest, the Ukrainian and Russian steppes, and the Argentine pampas were grasslands, not forests. These lands arguably have greater diversity than old growth forests, where nothing grew under a towering canopy. Urban lawns and parks are not desolate sites. You can often see chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, raccoons, weasels, groundhogs, porcupines, foxes and occasionally deer. On disturbed sites, such as landfills, mine tailings, road construction, pipelines and more, the first order of reclamation involves over-seeding with a grass mixture (with perhaps clover and vetches). On highly erodible sites, sod is often used to stabilize the soil. as is hydro-seeding of a grass mixture.

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Lawns are ideal for children, pets, sports and physical activities. Grass-covered green spaces and parks are far safer than bare soil, gravel, rock or dense shrubs and forest, and lawns tolerate high traffic. Children of all ages can run and play on grass without fear of tripping over roots and rocks and the subsequent cuts and bruises. Open, grassed spaces tend to have many fewer harmful insects. For those who wish to live in forested and other “natural” settings, enjoy your black flies, mosquitoes and ticks.

Ottawa’s Fred Boyce is a retired agrologist. He was raised on a farm, obtained his B.Sc. with a major in soil and crop science, and enjoyed a career that included work with Alberta Agriculture, United Grain Growers Seed Division and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada.

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