A Healthy Lawn, Drought Stressed Turf and a Meadow: Finding Our Way to a ‘Better’ Landscape

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A golf course is dependent upon a healthy, vital and uniform turf. It directly influences a course’s playability. Even if you don’t play golf, the landscape can evoke a calm with their pastoral, expansive lawns and views. This is a view down the 14th fairway at Eastmorland Golf Course. Imagine this drought stressed and brown overwhelmed with weeds…both the play and the ‘feeling’ the landscape evokes will be badly degraded.  The perimeter rough areas receive no water and minimal maintenance. To the left is a swath of Blackberry. Other areas are over grown with weeds with fence lines draped with the invasive Clematis.  Priorities are one-sided.

[The world is like a ball of string…pull on the loose end available to you, and you pull on the entire thing!]

Portlanders, Oregonians, often promote ourselves as being ‘green’ leaders.  Cleaning up the Willamette, the Bottle Bill, preserving our beaches as public property, state mandated land use planning, bicycling, recycling, mass transit…and it’s an apt description…to a point.  Combine this with our relatively low population, our huge, diverse and beautiful natural landscape, our progressive ‘weirdness’, and we are firmly on the national map, the envy of many places and a beguiling destination for those who find themselves looking for the laid back, ‘cool’ place, to be.  Our environmental righteousness is intoxicating and clouds our own vision of where we are and the work to be done.  A steady stream of new arrivals brings with them their own visions of Portland, based more on their own desires and marketing efforts than the on the ground reality, skewed by tinted glasses of Portlandia’s popularity, our own boosterism and the ‘boom’, probably transitory, commitment that big money has showered upon us.  Our little town is not what it once was, if it ever was.  But this is the nature of any place, it is many things, often contradictory, when looked at by its many very different inhabitants with their unique history’s and perspectives.

What I really want to talk about here are our lawns and how our view of ourselves, our place in the world, effects very directly, these once green little patches that for many years set off and defined our homes.  Today, in our desire to be ‘green’, to save money and perhaps a bit of laziness, we have ‘browned’ our lawns, as they have come to be viewed as antithetical to nature.  We live in town’s and cities separated from nature, consumptive and methodical, while nature is nurturing and mysterious.  We have defined ourselves in conflict with it, on this point, ceding our superiority, conserving and preserving its wildness in legally defined enclaves, bastions of pristine nature, where our heavy technological ‘hand’ is not allowed, sacrificing everything else.  In this view the mystery and natural wonders of nature are beyond our realm of knowing, we have given ourselves the permission to give up and relinquish our role as part of nature, so it is better to leave these places, the wild, on their own.  Complicating this are the many others of us who see little value in the remaining wild, instead seeing it as little more than an opportunity and raw resources.  This ‘separateness from nature’, the popular acceptance of this view, gives us permission to ‘give up’.  Many of us see ourselves, in this sense, as ‘bad’, a destructive force in the wild world, that all we need to do is ‘step aside’ and let ‘mother nature’ heal herself in an almost magical process, but this ignores the billions of years of development here, the competitive and cooperative forces in play on the planet.  This is a community in the broadest sense of the word.

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This shot is from late August and it is as close to ‘perfect’ as you are likely to get. Its in the nearby Reed neighborhood dominated by ranch style homes that seem to ‘call’ for an expansive lawn.  Few of the neighboring homes come anywhere close to this standard.  There is not one broad leafed weed in it. Across the whole length I saw three individual weedy grass plants, noticeable by their slightly coarser texture. This is an aesthetic lawn. It is a foil for the house and a public front.

The suburban American lawn has been identified with the fall of nature by many.  Today, a good and green American, certainly us Portlanders are included in this, rejects the perfect monoculture of the lawn.  Nature:good; lawn:bad.  Our lawns demand water that could be better used growing food and assuring healthy fish populations, our lawnmowers spew air pollutants damaging to us all, our fertilizers leach away and move off site contaminating ground water and stream flow while our pesticides used on them, more directly attack nature all around us, all of this for no justifiable benefit, only fulfilling some narrowly defined human desire for an outdated aesthetic.  Detractors of the lawn argue against the waste of resources they require and they are difficult to justify if their purpose is restricted to providing a neat and ‘defensible’ perimeter for each house, the appetites of golfers and the youthful fantasies for power and dominance of sport, all increasing the consumption of land ‘stollen’ from nature to sate our hunger for it.  But this view of the lawn does it a disservice.

It rejects the understanding that when it is green and healthy it provides some degree of environmental benefit as well as for certain of our human needs.  It ignores the fact that lawns fulfill other very necessary psychological and social needs in a human community that increase with the physical size of a city and its density.  Concrete and built structures don’t fulfill all our needs just because the price of real estate pushes nature out of most of our reaches.  Ignoring this minimizes some of what it means to be human.  Our lawns, our most intimate level landscapes, those we relax on and our children play and romp over, fulfill very real needs in human beings.  But when these are regularly allowed to go brown, to go summer dormant, they lose much of this value and become more of a detriment to our other landscapes.

Meadows – Natures Expansive and Complex Grasslands

It is important here to note the difference between a neglected lawn and a bonafide meadow.  A meadow, like any other nature derived landscape, is a response directly to a site and the conditions on it, it is an ‘expression’ of the many species, plant and animal, with a historical precedent on that site.  It is a mixed and diverse community dominated by grasses.  A neglected lawn is a mixed aggregation of plants limited largely to aggressive and adaptable exotic species, usually from a relatively short list of Eurasian weeds, that have accumulated in the soil seed bank since the native landscape was scraped off and the site began ‘development’.  A neglected lawn can include even woody species and vines, but, because they are routinely cut/mown down don’t attain their mature stature.  Meadows can be recreated and can be a very suitable choice when the site conditions and uses prevalent on the site are supportive.  Such an effort will entail a lot of work.  There is a substantial recent history working against them.  Meadows are composed of a ‘community’ of plants that have selected themselves over the course of many generations, even thousands.  Neglected lawns are just that, neglected, involving little intention to create a meadow community.  Their ‘management’ is minimized in an effort to save expenses, sometimes supported by a blurring generalization that it’s owners/managers are returning it to its meadow state.  But meadows involve their managers actively.   Blurring these two ‘landscapes’ together is possible only by the ignorant or the indifferent.  Meadows require some degree of active involvement.  Neglected lawns are a result of one’s rejection of responsibility…they are not meadows, nor is ‘healthy’ Perennial Rye Grass lawn a simplified version of a meadow, it is an artifice, a human creation.

Any meadow includes a mix of grass species, usually bunchers and spreaders possibly including Carex, Juncus spp. and a mixture of ‘forbes’ including herbaceous perennials, annuals and geophytes.  These all form a ground level community filling niches, taking advantage of what is available, and modifying the conditions for the other components.  Each is on its own growth schedule and these must synchronize.  Many of the relationships are symbiotic, commensal or at least ‘preparatory’ modifying the overall conditions to favor other members.  Often bulbs are in residence emerging early, ahead of the others, taking advantage of sun, later ‘retreating’, yielding space during the growing season for others.  Various low spreaders fill in between the more scattered, taller growers, each with its supporting root systems occupying varying depths, harvesting their own unique requirement of nutrients.

In the Willamette Valley, less than one percent of these original meadow communities remain, due to development, agriculture, fire suppression, which allows woody species to take over and dominate, eventually conifers, and the channelization of the Willamette.  The Portland metropolitan area alone contained some 36,000 acres of wet and dry prairie and another 56,000 more of Oak and conifer savannah.  Without fire, which we worked hard to suppress, woody plants quickly came to dominate and that which wasn’t put to the plow, graded or built upon succumbed to the shade and roots of tree canopy.  Along with the decline of these landscapes are many, was the decline and loss of many species, often endemic, both plants and animals, that grew as components in association with them, too many of which are today critically endangered.  Others remain slightly more common remaining along edges and fence lines, more tolerant of the disturbances they’ve suffered.  These are subject to continuing development and neglect, which could critically reduce their numbers.  Many animal species are threatened as well including butterflies, songbirds like our state bird the Western Meadowlark, fish and mammalian species.  These meadows once comprised huge prairies that varied in their specific composition selecting themselves in ways that fit a range of water regimes from inundated to upland drylands, soil depths and exposures, cycling through their growth in step with the available soil moisture.  Many of these landscapes historically went summer dormant here waiting out the hottest, driest part of the summer.  Again, a lawn is artificial.  A creation that cannot do this and that does not support the many species at risk.

A meadow is a local response to a site and the water that is available on it.  That system is broken.  Left alone the same cycles and energies are still in play and there would be a tendency to recreate these earlier landscapes, but for the disruption of development, the radically altered grades and drainage, our continuing ‘maintenance’ and the irreversible additions of exotic species, at least the more aggressive and weedier ones…including us.

Lawn – its composition and growth… its ‘strengths’ and weaknesses

What is required to have a ‘healthy’ lawn?  What benefits can and do they provide and how do they compare to the neglected, summer dormant, brown lawns that predominate in many neighborhoods?  What advantages do we accrue by not expending resources on it and what ‘benefits’ are lost, or gained, in so doing.  But, first I’d like to dispel the idea that removing summer irrigation is ‘neutral’ regarding the health and composition of a lawn.  It doesn’t work like a light switch, simply on or off.  A lawn, as simple of a plant community as it is, is still alive and dynamic, responsive to everything that happens in and around it.

The primary component of a healthy lawn in the Willamette Valley is Perennial Rye Grass.  The grass seed industry has spent time and resources selecting grasses that perform best in our soils and climate to grow a durable turf to meet both the passive and more active needs of humans living in compact, modern, communities.  Just like other plants there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to lawn grasses.  In Central Oregon, in the high desert country east of the Cascades, where I spent the first half of my life, it is Kentucky Blue Grass that has been the best choice.  Not here.  Plant that here and, even with the best cultural practices, it will die out yielding to what ever is available immediately. Leave Kentucky Blue unirrigated with the much less abundant water to our east and its coarser/sandier soils and it will fail quickly there as well.  Perennial Rye Grass, grown well here, ’tillers’ and thickens, but it can’t do it on its own, in our dry summer climate.  It can’t do it without regular irrigation, mowing and fertilizing.

Seedling rye grass plants increase themselves vegetatively by ‘tillering’.  From each crown additional stems form capable of forming new plants, roots, leaves and flowers from the nodes along these stems, creating a denser turf when soil moisture and nutrients are adequate.  When soil moisture drops below this level, the plants go into a conservative mode and do not expend energy on tillering and spreading.  Instead tillering stops and rooting goes deeper leaving remaining individual plants more isolated from one another.  In a sense, a healthy, vigorous Perennial Rye Grass turf, is suspended in a kind of juvenile, expansive state, consistently attempting to spread in and cover open areas.  This takes a great deal of resources.  You have to provide it with what it needs in order for it to perform.  A dense turf, having had its summer irrigation schedule disrupted, puts each rye grass plant into competition with all of the others for water.  Inevitably some will weaken, losing any advantage that they may have had and dying, thinning out their population, while the remaining ‘stronger’ plants more successfully ‘chase’ the water down through the soil profile, at least as far as they can.  Lolium perenne roots relatively shallowly, in a healthy turf, only 6” or so.  This thin top layer dries relatively quickly here.  Once the available soil moisture retreats beyond the reach of their roots, these individual plants will wilt and begin to weaken and die as well.

Lolium perenne, is a very resilient, tough plant, when grown well, characteristics that serve it as a turf grass.  When it has access to what it needs it can be a very capable invader of adjacent landscapes.  This is a common characteristic of many selected urban plants because of the generally inhospitable conditions prevalent in many urban landscapes.  Such plants are tolerant of the abuse that these places are routinely subject to, most aren’t, which is why this was chosen, but it isn’t ideal here.  If we got regular, significant, rains during our summer growing season, it would be better suited.  Our maintenance practices must compensate for this.  By cutting off summer irrigation to a perennial rye grass lawn we are removing an essential element for its growth and survival…which compounds the difficulties it already faces.  Over time the Rye Grass dies out and is replaced by a mixture of the most dominating weeds available in the immediate area including other grass species, broad-leaved perennials and annuals as well as woody plants and vines.  In general these turf weeds are plants that tolerate seasonal drought, the compacted soil conditions common to all lawns and the often nutrient deficient conditions common to them.  What can grow, will grow.  These become radically degraded landscapes.  They are not the lawn they once were.

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This is the new field at Dunaway Park. For years this was a grass turf field, heavily used and abused, the turf crew did their best. Its poor drainage made this even more difficult, the top level saturating making it very difficult to mow. This site served as one of Portland’s first ‘dumps’. Marquam Creek flows, enclosed in a pipe, many feet below the surface. Under Armour moved into the revamped YMCA facility to the south and partnered with the City to install a new track and artificial sports turf, to do what grass turf never could.

Lolium perenne is often referred to as a cool season grass, because it continues to grow well into the fall and winter before freezing temperatures set in in earnest.  It follows the C3 metabolic pathway and, because of this, is not very water thrifty, by grass standards.  Many grass species around the world follow the C4 pathway which is more ‘thrifty’, requiring less water and can tolerate more heat than can this species of Rye Grass as well.  This grass initiates growth early in the spring when cool temperatures predominate.  In hotter parts of the country it will struggle and weaken in summer’s heat, but is often seeded in the Fall by sports teams because of this ability, providing a durable, playable surface and extending a surface’s useful season.  The warm/hot season grasses that provide a good surface all summer quickly decline in the cool of Fall.  This ‘strategy’ is a particularly labor and resource intensive one.  It requires a commitment. Perennial Rye Grass is chosen for this application because of its durability to play, in cool weather.  When it is planted once and expected to perform consistently through out the year, year after year, it requires frequent irrigation in dry summer climates.  Perennial Rye Grass is a compromise.  Turf grass can’t simply be applied, like synthetic turf is these days, and be expected to perform consistently, with or without active use, while not providing for its cultural needs…no plant can do this.

There are many grasses that are more tolerant of our growing conditions, but they lack the durability of Lolium perenne when well grown.  Also many of these C4 grasses are taller in stature with deeper roots systems and don’t respond well to the frequent short mowings that provide us with the low turf that we desire.  Some are bunch type grasses and don’t tiller, so they will never form a dense turf on their own.  Others may be coarser in texture and so don’t lend themselves to use as a turf.  While still others won’t hold up to the repeated regular foot traffic we expect our lawns to withstand.

Here in the maritime NW Perennial Rye will grow year around with appropriate care.  It thrives under cool wet conditions.  An area lawn having been forced into a summer drought dormancy for three months will be considerably weaker when Fall rains return to rejuvenate it.  Our Fall rains are not magic.  The weedy interlopers that have invaded over summer will be established and grow on as well.

Drought also effectively reduces a lawns ‘durability’.  Stressed turf does not have the ability to recover from ‘heavy’ use, lacking the protective density and the ability to recover from ‘injury’.  Use, then, by damaging the cover and integrity of the lawn, speeds its decline.  Over the period of several stress filled growing seasons Perennial Rye will more than likely yield completely to weed species and these weeds cannot provide the ‘protection’ the soil surface itself requires causing it to erode and become more irregular and less playable over time.

Lawns, as landscape features, are particularly difficult environments.  Lawns, as single species, landscapes, can’t exist in nature without our considerable interference.  These are designed and intended as places for certain types and levels of human activity.  Perennial Rye Grass, like any other plant, evolved in mixed, dynamic plant communities, in its case, meadows.  It is relatively intolerant of shade and will quickly yield to other better suited species.  It didn’t evolve with tree canopy unless the trees were very dispersed.  It was a single component of a diverse system.  Grown under the most ideal conditions this grass will still be subject to weed invasion because there are simply too many niches left available.  Perennial Rye lawns degrade over time because of this…even when adequately irrigated.

The Willamette Valley was once covered beneath hundreds of thousands of acres of wet and dry prairie, Oak Savannah, Woodlands of various densities and forest lands supported by soils that ranged from very rich deep alluvial soils to very thin mineral soils atop basalt formations.  Perennial Rye Grass is a low growing relatively shallow rooted grass.   Prairies and Savannahs, with their species diversity, occupy a greater depth of the soil, are more attuned to the seasonal cycle of precipitation, and are able to bring water back up from greater depths, while deeper rooted species capture and retain nutrients leached beyond the reach of others, returning them over time by the shedding of roots and top growth.  In such a healthy system few nutrients are lost.  Soils, and the plant communities upon them, in fact, tend to stay in balance or increase in richness over time.  This all changes, is degraded, as soon as a diverse plant community is stripped away.

Replacing it with a vastly simplified monoculture like turf, allows much to be lost.  Other abiotic factors, like the solar energy to power growth from the sun, continue at the same level.  Absent the ground level diversity and layers, much of this sunlight is now available to power the growth of other plants, either weeds or more desirable community constituents.  Several key abiotic conditions on a site remain largely the same and a single species landscape, like turf, cannot utilize them all.  The energy remains free to other plants that can avail themselves to it.  Taller plants, deeper rooted plants, plants that can take advantage of resources that the Rye doesn’t both when it sits dormant and is in active growth.  As other plants move in the composition of the community changes.  The Rye may disappear completely and its absence be masked by the occupation of weedier and more aggressive grasses.  Owners may still have it regularly mown so that it serves some of the original function, but it is not the same.  The exposure, the reduced level of care, the species now occupying the space, have themselves changed the growing conditions in the lawn and for the surrounding landscape.  Over time these changes continue to accumulate and new invaders, available in the immediate area, move in.  You cannot simply turn off the water and magically become ‘green’.

A degraded turf landscape, which is standard fare in much of Portland, may free up some water for other uses, or to remain in streams and the aquifer, but such landscapes, generally, provide unattractive spaces for our ‘social’ needs as people, as places to relax or a good surface for our more active pursuits, nor does it meet the needs of a healthy and diverse population of local fauna.  These degraded turf landscapes support a population of aggressive weeds that possess relatively poor wildlife value.  Were these landscapes left unmown and taller weeds and species allowed to mature, flower and set seed, its value would perhaps be greater for birds and wildlife, providing nesting cover, and food for more adaptive species, however, this would place an even larger weed seed burden on all other area landscapes, including turf, agricultural lands and the remaining intact and recovering native plant communities.  Lawns, done well or poorly, are inherently very unstable, leaving many niches unfilled.

While many argue, rightfully, that the model single species healthy lawn provides very little habitat value, it does provide human value as a desirable place for activity and relaxation.  Healthy turf cools and softens the surface of the soil making it more desirable and comfortable.  Both allow excess rainfall to percolate down through the soil helping recharge the ground water which is otherwise greatly reduced across our redeveloping and denser city.  The idea, that many homeowners have, that turning their lawn sprinklers off is an unmitigated good, is wrong and demonstrates their lack of understanding of what is being lost by making that choice, as it undoubtedly does lead to the decline of these landscapes and increases the weed pressure on all others.

Maintaining a healthy single grass species lawn requires that other resources be utilized as well.  As I stated earlier such a landscape draws heavily on the nutrients in a very narrow band of the soil profile, depleting it while water soluble nutrients not used immediately by the grass are washed down beyond their reach during the cooler/wet season and lost.  A healthy plant community, like a natural meadow, differs from turf, in its species diversity and in the ability of theses species to take up, hold and later release these nutrients.  Natural meadows also include various nitrogen fixing species, an essential nutrient for plant growth, that a single species lawn does not.  This root zone, the rhizosphere, supports a more diverse community of organisms that physically and chemically modify and enrich the soil increasing its fertility and capacity for healthy growth.  Plants, animals and soil all work together modifying and improving the overall conditions for life in any one place.  The soil is not inert.  It’s qualities and capacities are not fixed.  They respond to the life within and upon it.  Stripped of this life, reduced to a relative few species and actively maintained in such a condition causes the soil to deteriorate, diminishing it, rendering it unable to support what it once did…without building it back up over time. Fertilization is then required to maintain healthy vigorous turf.

Regular mowing is also necessary ‘encouraging’ the grass to spread and thicken forming a denser more durable turf.  Allowing turf grass to grow taller than the desired 4” or so begins to detract from the uses most people want it for and cutting it less frequently, from a taller height, results in more shock to the plants and weakens them.  Weekly mowing, while promoting active growth, is best for good turf.  This density, created by the active tillering of vigorously growing Perennial Rye Grass is more durable, able to withstand more active human use over time.  Mowing also allows light to penetrate to the base of each plant and thereby ‘power’ the new growth there, including the growth of aggressive, taller weeds.  Not mowing allows a taller, thinner, overall structure to form as the plants grow towards their mature flowering stage.

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This is a section of the lawn on the PSU campus portion of the South Park Blocks. The Farmers Market is going on in the background. Throughout the Park Blocks the lawn has a difficult time. While it receives regular irrigation most of the Blocks are under heavy shade due to a tree canopy greatly weakening its growth, making it much more subject to damage from pedestrian use, something it also receives a lot of. In Parks, we were often criticized because we ‘couldn’t even grow grass, this said by those who knew nothing about it what were doing or the problems we faced, but told us this full of condescension. We would overseed with a shade mix which utilized varieties of Fescue which are more shade tolerant, but less resistant to foot traffic.  All of the foot traffic leads to extreme soil compaction as well. It is an impossible situation.

As a functional surface for our activities, turf areas are subject to compaction which will compromise its vigor.  More compact soils, will detract from the grasses’ health and vigor while also promoting conditions that favor certain weeds over the desirable Perennial Rye.  This may necessitate the seasonal use of a core aerifier, cutting and pulling ‘plugs’ to promote better water percolation and provide better opportunity for air to penetrate the soil making it available for the necessary exchange with roots required for cell metabolism and growth.  Turf soils can degrade and compact even with relatively low human use due to the limited root penetration of the soil.  Soil structure is created and supported by healthy root growth and the root associations with fungi and various soil bacteria.  Simplifying plantings limits the opportunity for healthy soil conditions to be created and persist over time.  Healthy plant growth is a requirement of healthy soil.

Regardless of what we do, there will always be ‘weed pressure’ on turf areas, especially in urban areas.  Turf is an aberration in nature, an over simplification of the landscape.  Ignoring it, stopping necessary summer irrigation is not a neutral act.  Urban landscapes and soils have a long history of weed invasion and this history can be read in part by examining the seeds that are available in the local soil seed bank.  The more weeds that have been introduced to a given area, the longer they have been on site producing generations of seeds, the more thoroughly contaminated the soil seed bank will be.  As I’ve stated above a single species turf is perhaps the most unstable and volatile landscape that we can have, barring only bare soil.  These seeds will germinate when they can.  Given the weakened state of most lawns and the vigor of weeds, invasion is inevitable.  The only question is how fast this will occur.  We are the only force potentially standing in the way of this.  When we ignore our role and responsibility, it is only a matter of how long before the grass turf is completely transformed and lost.

People gravitate to a green lawn.  Given a choice, they avoid the dry surface of the drought stressed lawn.  It is hotter, dirtier, harder and scratchier than a vigorous, well managed, stand of a grass lawn.  There is no doubt as to which is more durable as a surface for our activities, nor which provides a ‘safer’ surface for them.  Neglect, as a management practice is always a poor choice, a choice that will lead to greatly increased costs for others.  Nature cannot and does not conveniently step in when we deny our responsibility.  Nature does not possess an integral aesthetic and value system that is capable of righting a landscape, of bringing it back to what it formerly was when it has been radically altered or degraded.  Nature is a ‘conservative’ force, it works toward keeping living systems, communities, as they are, dynamic and stable at the same time.  It builds stability over very long periods of time.  Whatever changes have been made change the course, redefine the possibilities.  Nature is a ‘way’, a common path that includes all of the forces, energies, components and actors.  There is no set ‘destination’.  Change the soil, change the species that interact upon it, change the uses and activities upon the land and the outcome changes…and can do so radically.  That is where we are today.

The weed invasion of a single species lawn is an inevitability.  In a sense it is nature attempting to ‘heal’ itself, to move it back to a more natural and stable state.  The problem is that it is so heavily ‘damaged’ and there are so many weedy, dominate, exotic species on and near the site, changing forever the possible outcomes.  If disruptions were to cease, eventually, after enough years of uninterrupted growth, a new balance would be attained, with new associations, new relationships, not just a mixture of available species, but a new landscape, that would be recognizable, spread across a region, that shows a consistency across like sites and variations on others reflecting the different conditions active thereon.  But I am talking many, many years.  many human generations.  Enough time for the soil seed banks to be able to reinforce any ‘injury’ or disruption, including the supportive soil fauna.  Nature responds to our disruptions of its processes as if to an injury.  Because the scale of our disruptions is so far beyond that of any single community member, nature, the wider community, has no response to rein us in.  We have ‘left’ the community and function as actors outside of it.  We could choose to reclaim our role as community members, as stewards acting within the ‘framework’ of our place, working to reclaim the dynamic balance and ending our practices that consistently undermine this.  Weedy disturbed sites cannot simply be redefined as nature reclaiming place.  We must recognize them as what they are, symptoms of our own dysfunction and whatever we choose to do, we need to begin actively and consistently toward working to healing our relationships with the places upon which we live.

If we are to continue living in urban communities, which has become a necessity, then we need to acknowledge our own needs as active social beings as well.  The landscape is where we interact with each other and this places upon which we live.  The reality of urban conglomerations is that normal, wild, nature cannot withstand us and our activities so we must modify part of our landscape to better meet our needs and do it in such a way that these artificial places pose as little ‘threat’ to the wider landscape as possible.  We must have food.  We must have places upon which we can live, so we must do these efficiently and as benignly as is possible. Our old patterns and ways are failing us.  We need to recognize them and alter them in ways that we as intelligent, reflective, beings can.  The alternative is to continue on pushing the world ever further out of balance, which is unsustainable.  Our urban landscape, our lawns, are as good a place as any to assess our relationship with nature and the planet.  If we can’t address the issues at an individual and community scale, then there is not much hope for us doing it at all.  If we wait for the powers that be to ‘correct’ things from above, we will wait in vain, because so many of them are even more removed from the problem and its ‘cure’ than we are.

There are many related cliches that point the way: ‘Be the answer you seek.’  ‘Live your dream.’  ‘If the people lead, the leaders will follow.’  These may sound trite, but they aren’t.  Powerful people often trivialize those things that most threaten them.  Ridiculing and diminishing them in this way steers our attention away from the power that this strategy contains.  We do remake the world everyday.  Every morning we wake up facing infinite possibilities.  We can each make different choices.  It is only in relinquishing this ability that we yield this power to others.  We must ask ourselves how much longer can we trust in them?  How well have they done with the trust that we have given them?  Cliches are such because they contain a truth.  This is within our ability to do.  It is in fact the only way we can see this through.  Indifference, inertia, greed and power blind the rest.

We have really never had the option of doing nothing, of stepping out of mother-nature’s way…it is a self-deception to accept this.  We are very powerful actors in this world, as both individuals and a society.  We have to acknowledge this.  Our designs.  Our intentions.  Our mistakes…have reshaped the world.  Much of our maintenance, our patterns of living, are a continual disruption of, a re-breaking of, the patterns that were once in place.  Each cycle of this we repeat provides opportunities for either re-infection of the site or the chance for weeds new to the site to gain a root hold.  Our only real option is to reject our old habits and patterns and to acknowledge our responsibility as a part of nature, to change our relationship with nature and place.  As Oregonians we have done better than many states in some things, but we are a long way from where we and the planet need us to be.  As individuals and as a collective, we can do so much better.  This is not the time for complacency.

It is one thing to maintain an out of balance landscape for our own uses…it is completely different to create such landscapes and, through our neglect, allow them to degenerate putting all other landscapes under much more weed pressure, under more threat.  In the end, understand that a healthy vital lawn is an asset to an urban community, when well grown.  It can play a vital role.  A drought stressed, neglected lawn, serves nether the ‘social’ functions that we need of it nor is it an adequate stand in for our lost meadow and prairie landscapes that once covered much of this place, fulfilling vital habitat roles for wildlife.  A degraded landscape diminishes us all.

A Few Helpful Resources:

  • Spend a few evenings perusing “Urbanizing Flora of Portland, Oregon”_2009.  It’s available on line in PDF format.  It is a compilation of the early botany work done in the portland area, with substantial references.
  • Heritage Seedling’s ‘manual’ for creating a meadow in the Willamette Valley, is a detailed guide for creating a meadow giving the reader an idea of the complexity of this type of landscape.
  • Check out also the Meadowscaping Handbook from the West Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District.  This one is geared more for the interested homeowner.
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