Of Lawns and Neighbors

Every time we publish an article here on the subject of lawns, there’s an outcry.

On the one hand, there are the advocates of the traditional lawn, the one composed of grasses, always green, mowed short every week and irrigated regularly, who believe that its upkeep is a matter of good neighborliness, of respect for others, since it’s more aesthetic and by eliminating weeds we prevent them from invading our neighbors.

On the other hand, there are advocates of the ecological lawn, which is composed of grass, but also of a variety of plants, including those considered undesirable. They believe it’s healthier for the environment because it avoids the use of pesticides and increases biodiversity by providing a living environment for a greater variety of living beings, as well as freeing up time in our already busy lives.

Of course, there are those – probably the majority – who fall somewhere in between.

I don’t know if we’ll ever resolve this debate. And I don’t even know if we should. Should we really be imposing our views on our neighbors?

Photo: Kellie Churchman

The “Perfect Lawn”

I put it in quotations, because, in my opinion, an all-grass lawn, while beautiful, isn’t perfect, but I think we understand each other.

This traditional lawn of fescue, ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass and other grasses is not without its advantages. It certainly beats paved surfaces! A lawn, like any other vegetation, converts carbon dioxide into oxygen and purifies the air, absorbs and filters water, reduces runoff and erosion. And nothing resists trampling like good old grass! When you have children, it becomes an essential recreational space. And, having installed several lawns myself, I can tell you that it’s less expensive than installing perennial and shrub beds.

But it’s a lot of work. You have to eliminate unwanted plants and insects, mow regularly and, if you don’t do herbicycling, add fertilizer or compost and reseed from time to time. Add to that dethatching and aeration, and it becomes quite a chore. Pesticide use is also a problem. We all know someone who has a lawn that’s a little too perfect, and we know that it’s almost impossible to achieve without environmentally damaging herbicides or insecticides. These can kill neighbors’ plants and, in the long term, even trees. And let’s not forget the amount of potable water needed to keep a lawn green, especially in times of drought. And what about the noise of a lawnmower on a Sunday morning? Grrrr!

The “Ecological Lawn”

I put this one in quotations too, because, although it’s my preferred option, if we’re not careful, a lawn left to its own devices can become problematic.

What is an “ecological lawn”? Unlike the perfect lawn, this option isn’t as well defined, because we’re not talking about specific plants. It can contain native grasses, clover, thyme, but also a whole panoply of cultivated or traditionally undesirable plants (such as the much-hated and much-loved dandelion).

Photo: Jill Burrow.

The important thing is to address some of the problems of traditional lawns: the use of pesticides, the waste of drinking water and the lack of biodiversity. By using a variety of plants rather than a monoculture, in the event of a pest invasion, there will always be a species that will resist and take over. So there’s no need for pesticides! Water consumption is also reduced, since in a diversified lawn, there are always plants that stay green, like clover, even in times of drought. And, with all this variety of plants, there will certainly be flowers for our pollinators and, when we mow less, habitats for wildlife.

Less Work, But…

Of course, this type of lawn requires less work. You can space out mowing, even mow only once or twice a year. But don’t abandon this type of lawn to its fate. If you simply stop mowing the existing lawn, what will grow there? The grasses that were already there, but also all sorts of plants, sometimes harmful and undesirable, that grow in the vicinity. There’s a certain amount of work involved in converting a traditional lawn to a more ecological one. You either have to remove what’s already there before replacing it, or add selected plants or seeds to an existing lawn, preferably native ones.

One of the problems raised by lawn traditionalists about ecological lawns is that the weeds (in some cases harmful invasive plants) found in them flock to their homes, sometimes causing real damage to their property and a lot of work to get rid of them.

The “Good Neighbor” Principle

Well, I’m definitely putting everything in quotation marks today!

As I was saying, good neighborliness is often mentioned when discussing lawn care. Good lawn care not only improves the appearance of a property, but also that of its neighbors, whereas an abandoned lawn can make a whole city block look bad.

So how do you reconcile these two opposing visions? With a little creativity, I think it can be done. Here are a few ideas:

Create a Barrier

If you have a different style of lawn from your neighbors, you could install a plastic, aluminum or concrete border to prevent your plants from going over the neighbor’s. Or how about a nice, well-mulched flowerbed to mark the boundary between the two lots – wouldn’t that be nice? I say this to traditional lawn lovers and environmentalists alike. Grasses spread aggressively, just like weeds. Kentucky bluegrass is even considered a harmful invasive alien species in some places.

Photo: Magic K.

Mow After Flowering

I love dandelions as much as the next person, but they’re not for everyone. After flowering, many plants produce seeds that will travel to your neighbors. Cutting your lawn after flowering will help pollinators, but the @#$%?& dandelions will stay in your yard!

Pierre-Béland Parc. Photo: Louis-Étienne Dorée.

Delimit Your Tall Grass

Those who like to let their “lawn” grow taller and form a meadow can mow more regularly around traffic areas, or along neighboring properties. Well-defined tall grass looks intentional rather than messy. It’s important to cut your tall grass about once a year to prevent trees and shrubs from taking hold, but wait until later in the fall to make sure any nesting animals have left for the winter. See my text on differentiated mowing.

For those worried about ticks, create a one-meter-wide mulch or gravel border between your property and surrounding wooded areas. Some suggest a border of three meters or more, where possible.

Avoid the Use of Pesticides

Although I’m willing to compromise on most things, the use of pesticides is not one of them. I’m talking, of course, about products that are harmful to the environment, not those, such as nematodes for beetles, that won’t affect your neighbors. I remember my father’s flower bed facing the neighbor with the all too green lawn, whose plants mysteriously died every year. Not only is it unsightly, it causes real damage and financial loss. Don’t forget to comply with current laws on the use of pesticides where you live, or use the services of a certified professional in the event of problems with harmful invasive species.

Photo: Tytty

Combine the Traditional With the Ecological

As many people already do, it’s quite possible to have a hybrid lawn, composed mainly of grasses, but with other species, such as clover, mixed in. Leaving grass clippings on the ground when mowing or leaving shredded leaves reduces the amount of fertilizer required, or eliminates it completely. Mowing higher up means less watering, as the sun’s rays don’t reach the ground, and remember that if you let your lawn turn yellow during a drought, it will turn green again when the rain returns.

Good neighborliness doesn’t mean forcing all your neighbors to do the same thing, but it also doesn’t mean letting them do whatever they want at the expense of those around them. As a landscaper, I’ve witnessed many boundary disputes. Most would have been resolved with a frank and respectful discussion. Take the time to listen to your neighbors, even if you disagree, and try to find solutions that work for everyone, even if it means compromising. Isn’t that what being a good neighbor is all about?

Mathieu manages the and websites. He is also a garden designer for a landscaping company in Montreal, Canada. Although he loves contributing to the blog, he prefers fishing.

2 comments on “Of Lawns and Neighbors

  1. patcappelli

    Lawns are killing us, removing trees, shrubs and plants that provide shade, temperature control, water, rain, food for all our creatures including us. Lawns should be banned therefore no longer a need to be the good neighbour, no longer adding to climate disasters. If all lawns were converted back to what they were, small forests than global warming could be reversed. Lawns are a dessert of death. No value to humans or any other creature.

  2. Christine Lemieux

    Great ideas around being a good neighbour. I live in a rural setting, but I like to read everything I can about transitioning lawns, and the environment.

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