The Flowery Lawn

For a week or two in mid-spring, there is magic. I’m talking about that ethereal time between seasons when the tree leaves have started to emerge but are not fully open. The star magnolia, the Juneberry, and the redbud float their blossoms on the fresh spring air. The grass has started to grow but has not yet been cut. It’s at this time that it’s most apparent that our lawn is not a monoculture.

lady's smock cardamine pratensis

Our lawn turns into an ephemeral garden for a magical week or two.

Besides the familiar dandelions, several other delicate wildflowers burst into bloom, including lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis). Lady’s smock grows in damp meadows, and our lawn is typically pretty damp in spring, thanks to the snow melt and the spring rains.

lady's smock cardamine pratensis

Lady’s smock is also called cuckoo flower, because it’s supposed to bloom at the time one hears the cuckoo call.

Scientists haven’t made up their minds if lady’s smock is native to North America or introduced, but the name “cuckoo flower” is probably of European origin, as is the bird.

bluets Houstonia caerulea

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea) are far less common than lady’s smock, and more treasured because of their scarcity.

I tried digging some up and growing them in my garden, to no avail. They don’t show up in the same spot each year, either. I would just love to see pools of these sky-blue stars in my lawn. They are also native to North America.

violets in a lawn

Other parts of our lawn are filled with violets.

violets Viola sororia

Viola sororia is native to North America.

It is a sad commentary on our society that violets are considered lawn weeds. No! No, they belong there, as do the dandelions and the lady’s smocks.

The concept of a “flowery lawn,” as implemented by Chanticleer, the public garden in Pennsylvania, should be more widely adopted. You can read about it in The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer, as I did. Their flowery lawn is deliberately planted with spring bulbs and summer annuals. The fine-leaf fescues are permitted to grow to their natural height of eight inches, surrounded by a frame of cut turf to reassure the viewer that such tousled extravagance is intentional. Our lawn was not deliberately planted with these native wildflowers but we certainly don’t try to rid the lawn of them. I sometimes try to imagine what our yard would look like if we only mowed paths in it, and permitted the rest to grow, mowing it all down only in the fall as Chanticleer does.

Alas, our lawn is eventually cut. It’s easier to keep the woods at bay if you cut the grass regularly, otherwise the tree seedlings turn into saplings in a few years’ time. Also, it’s easier to play soccer on a mown lawn. At Chanticleer, they cut their flowery lawn once a year, in November. They don’t mention what they cut it with, but I bet it’s not a typical lawn mower. Even when cut, our lawn has flowers for most of the growing season, just not in the wonderful profusion of the first growth. Ken Druse, in The Passion for Gardening, calls our type of lawn a cropped meadow.

Flowery lawn or cropped meadow, they both are far more pollinator-friendly than pristine swards of lawn grass religiously and dutifully shorn. I know there are homeowner’s associations all across the country that enforce that kind of monoculture lawn, thinking (probably correctly, at this point) that it keeps property values up. And while a flowery lawn or cropped meadow may not take more work, it takes a different kind of work, different kinds of tools (to mow foot-long grass at the end of the season), and most importantly, a different kind of mindset, a different way of thinking about lawns–which at this point, we (as a country) don’t have.

from Cold Climate Gardening


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