As the lawn-mowing season finally winds down, I look out at Lake Minnetonka and see gobs of algae that I have not seen before, while, at the same time, I hear the enervating drone of mega lawn mowers. This is worse than the Asian milfoil that invaded from elsewhere. And if you drive to southern Minnesota, rivers and creeks have turned green with algae, some of it poisonous. This isn’t global warming, but our payback for continuing the belief that a well-manicured lawn is the cat’s meow.
In California, they have been able to stop this nasty habit because of the lack of water, and here we might be able to do it — by disgust with the algae caused by the runoffs from the well-manicured but lethal lawns. One of our neighbors sits right on Lake Minnetonka and complains about the cost of the chemicals to kill the algae in front of his house while at the same time spending sums to fertilize and chemically spray his lawn.
This whole “tyranny of the turf,” America’s love (or obsession) with thatching, fertilizing, weed controlling, mowing and then even gathering up the clippings has always fascinated, if not befuddled, me. History ascribes the custom of a spacious and well-tended lawn to the British and their temperate, wet climate, where grass can thrive. The Brits invented games that needed mowed fields — rugby, cricket, lawn bowling, croquet and polo. And remember, Wimbledon is played on grass. But the fields were kept “mown” by sheep and hand-held scythes. Then the British class-conscious lords — OK, snoots — would have ample lawns in front of their manor homes. That not only set off the property but also showed that they were rich, since they owned land that did not need to be put to economic use, i.e., farming or erecting a building.
The first time the word “laun” appeared was around 1540. It was related to the Celtic word whose original meaning was enclosure, often used in relation to a place of worship. Suburban developments like Levittown in New York after World War II spurred the growth of lawns in the U.S.
Then, companies came along selling lawn mowers, seeds and chemicals, and they intimated that good lawn care is tantamount to good citizenship. Some communities even have “lawn police” who fine you for letting your grass grow too long. In Minneapolis, the regulations read thusly: “Grass or weeds taller than 8 inches is in violation of Minneapolis ordinance. An inspector may issue an order to the property owner giving them at least 3 days to cut it. If the violation is not corrected inspectors may authorize a contractor to cut the grass and assess the cost and administrative fees to the owner.”
But here’s the rub: You can’t have lawns as they are maintained now and pristine lakes at the same time.
Environmental concerns are starting to grow as fertilizers and chemicals are polluting our diminishing water supply and “land of sky blue waters.” And did you know that 70 percent of residential water is used to water lawns and that this purpose uses as much water as three times the amount of irrigated corn acreage?
So the next time you see dandelions growing and/or infesting someone’s lawn, don’t freak out and criticize them. That person is really caring for our environment. Fine the guy who is fertilizing his lawn, not the fellow who lets it grow.
John Freivalds is a resident of Orono, by Lake Minnetonka.