Sunday, April 6, 2008


He hated yard work. Trying to take care of Kentucky bluegrass in the middle of the great American desert was lunacy.

—Dan O'Brien, Brendan Prairie

Lincoln residents, I've heard, lead the nation in per-capita spending on lawn care. I've never quite understood the cult of the lush green lawn, particularly in a place with such inconsistent rainfall, but I've seen the cult at work. A former neighbor used to power-wash the underside of his mower in between cutting his front and back yards, so that if he happened to pick up a weed seed in the back yard it wouldn't contaminate his front yard, or vice versa. People who obsessed about crabgrass and dandelions, I used to believe, were insane.

Now I'm one of them, but with a crucial difference.

Last year, to the consternation of most of our neighbors, Susan & I eliminated a good portion of lawn. We killed it with a liberal application of Roundup, then power-raked the whole area, leaving bare dirt—which we then sowed with native (and mostly drought-resistant) grass and wildflower seeds. Owing to our late start, we had time for only one round of herbicide, which did the job on the existing crabgrass but left many years' worth of weed seeds unaffected.

When our seeds germinated, so did the weed seeds, and I can't begin to tell you how many hours we spent sitting or kneeling on the ground under the blazing sun, weeding out crabgrass, dandelions, morning glories, bindweed, etc., by hand. I sweated profusely, put enormous strain on my back and knees, and cursed the non-native pests with a fervor I couldn't have anticipated.

We never got them all, but we kept them from taking over, giving the native plants we had sown a chance to prosper. After all the hard work, I was pleased with the results of our prairie-garden experiment. (My daughter called us "prairie wierdos", but I think she liked the garden, too.)

It's probably just fatigue, but I started having second thoughts today. The doubts started as we raked up mats of fallen oak and cottonwood leaves and I saw how little green is so far underneath. Even as I cut and piled the giant skeletons of last year's annual sunflowers, I began to lose faith in spring and the capacity of our little prairie patch to renew itself.

[Annual sunflowers]

So I'm posting these pictures largely to remind myself what it looked like last summer. I'll try to remember the goldfinches, the monarchs and painted ladies and blues, the box-elder bugs. And I'll try to have more patience, more hope. The warm-season native grasses will come back when it gets warm; it's too soon to expect much growth now. The flowers will grow and bloom, the birds and butterflies will return, the sweating and cursing will probably continue but will be worth it in the end.

* * *

[Illinois bundleflower leaves and seedpods]

[Ratibida and Susans]

[False ("oxeye") sunflower]

[Purple coneflower and big bluestem]

[Last two: A little of everything. All our seeds, by the way, came from Stock Seed Farms. Their website is not just a seed catalog, but also loaded with how-to information on small- and large-scale prairie restoration—including recommendations for a second spraying of Roundup. When we get around to doing the back yard, I will get an earlier start and then follow their instructions to the letter.]


Andy said...

Hello Mark -

As I drove from Ohio to Tennessee to Ohio this past month, I noticed that all of the things turning green or blooming early are non-native. This makes some sense to me - we all want a green and flowery landscape as early in the year as possible, and it is non-natives that accomplish this for us. Daffodils and other bulbs; forced breeds like Bradford Pears; Lamium species and such. But what we sacrifice (native species) in April we lose out on in June, July, and August. Check archives of Julie Zickefoose's blog in July and August to see an absolute riot of native plants.

Ignore the neighbors until June when you can point out your blooming Coreopsis where they have dead space from past-prime crocuses, tulips, and other such imports.

I owe you an e-mail; soon!


Donna said...

Nice natives Mark.

Wish I could get some Joe Pye going. My asters, susans, cone flower and cosmos do pretty well.

I actually used some RoundUp last summer after careful consideration with consultation. The fact that it biodegrades in 24 hours made the difference. After I spot sprayed I worked nearby to keep the birds from picking the soon-to-die non-native grass.

Native plants are wonderful and nearly indestructable once established.

Mark Churchill said...


We didn't lose any sleep over the neighbors' reactions to the dead lawn and the bare dirt. Then, once the garden came into its own, several of them stopped by to compliment us, while admitting they had had their doubts. Even the Lakota guy across the street had been skeptical—he and his girlfriend kept a very tidy lawn and gardened with the very non-native plants you mentioned, and while sympathetic to the concept, he honestly thought we were just growing weeds until things started to bloom.

Mark Churchill said...


The Joe-Pyeweed is one of my favorites, and we included it in our seed mix, but I haven't noticed any coming up. Not sure if the soil conditions weren't right or if the birds ate all the seed. (We sowed a lot of Rocky Mountain beeplant, but it turns out the seeds are a favorite food of mourning doves—they were definitely feasting during the bare-ground stage, and I only found one plant all summer.)

Unfortunately, the seedlings I had started in the "greenhouse" failed, probably because I delayed too long getting them in the ground, and I didn't collect any seed from our existing plants this past fall. I'll save some for you this year.

As you know, I'm not usually a huge fan of chemical treatments, either. The very short active life of Roundup, combined with the goal we had in mind, made it an easier decision to make.

Matt Mullenix said...

Wonderful stuff Mark!