Alternatives to the Perfectly Manicured Lawn

Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton

Meadows can be beautiful

A meadow is a natural expanse of grassland supporting wildflowers, grasses, shrubbery and fodder (not to be confused with a pasture which is planted by humans). Our property, just north of Ailsa Craig, is a long, narrow, three-acre tract of land. The back acre is essentially a meadow. Three seasons of the year it is teeming with life. Countless species of birds, insects and small mammals inhabit the landscape because it offers them food and habitat.
In winter, the insects may be at rest in their cocoon stage on a weed stalk, or lie beneath the soil waiting to emerge in spring. Birds continue to find sustenance from the seed pods of wildflowers (weeds to some), including goldenrod, chicory, buttercups of various types, daisies, and Queen Anne’s lace. Tree branches heaped into a brush pile are stripped as the deer forage for any available energy source. Coyotes and foxes find small meals like cottontails and field mice. Various hawk species patrol the meadow in hopes of a similar meal.
Between our back acre and the adjacent farmer’s field stands an amazing hedgerow. This network of rusting wire fencing, mountain ash, dogwood, raspberry canes, grapevine and a potpourri of other shrubbery, provides effective cover for birds and mammals. Remember Peter Rabbit’s briar patch? He would never have survived without it. I have seen massive flocks of cedar waxwings perched in the hedgerow during migratory stopovers. Various thrushes and sparrows, warblers and finches find cover there as well.
Last year during an autumn walk on the back acre with Molson the Labrador, I witnessed hundreds of tree sparrows foraging throughout the meadow. They were extracting seeds from the wildflowers with the utmost dexterity. Had the area regularly succumbed to the ravages of the lawn tractor, this rich habitat would not have been available to them. All too often, we see large expanses of manicured lawn that could have been left as a natural meadow. With a little encouragement by planting some native wildflowers (black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, bee balm, etc.), nature will do the rest. Better habitat for wildlife and less greenhouse gas erupting from your lawnmower.

The cottage-style garden

Try viewing your front or back lawn more like a cottage-style garden with wildflowers and groundcovers, rather than the stark monoculture of the suburban lawn. Our front yard was once the typical expanse of grass that took the better part of a half hour to mow. Seven years ago we transformed it from lawn to mulched berms, countless perennials, and groundcovers. Periwinkle, English Ivy, Snow-on-the-Mountain and wild violets (which appeared on their own) cover about 60% of the area. The more they spread, the less we have to top up the mulching material. A single grassy walkway takes less than five minutes to mow. The flowers and groundcovers support many species of birds and butterflies.

Defending the lowly dandelion

In the back yard, when dandelions are showing their sunny faces, we do not react with chemicals. Instead we cut them off with the mower. Sometimes the small, tender dandelion leaves end up in a tossed salad. Tolerating a couple of weeks of the flowers going to seed seems merely an inconvenience, when the alternative is chemicals entering the fragile ecosystem. The chemical-free approach still results in a green lawn. The best piece of advice I was ever given is that sometimes we need to adjust our thinking. If more of us applied this concept to how we treat the environment, plants, animals, birds, and humans would undoubtedly be healthier for it.

Elinor Clarke writes:
I live on 50 acres (a big building lot!) half way between Grand Bend and Parkhill and we thoroughly enjoy our walk around the farm every morning. We have a good selection of birds including lots of hummingbirds, orioles and even a pair of veeries.
We have an unusual happening; we have what I think I have identified as a juvenile cow bird who has spent more than the last two weeks and almost all day, jumping at our windows. We have tried putting a board at the first favourite window and it just stood on the top of the board and continued jumping. Then we tried pulling all the blinds down but as we have windows with no blinds it just moved there. It seems to want to come in.
One day I was in the bedroom and when I moved to the bathroom it followed me to that window. Have you ever heard of such a thing?

Jenipher Appleton:
Thank you for your message. What I understand about bird species that insist on pecking at the windows is that they are very likely seeing reflections they view as rivals. It usually happens in the spring when they are nesting and establishing territories. It is generally short-lived, although some birds are stubborn about it. I have seen cardinals and robins behaving this way; a cardinal persisted at a car side-view mirror for several days in our driveway. Glad to hear that you have the veery pair. We do not, but I often hear them on walks near the woods.

Nature columnist Jenipher Appleton can be reached by mailing us at web at grandbendstrip dot com, Attn: Jenipher