Imperfect Lawn

I’m no devotee of the perfect lawn, but I did recently suggest, for the bare palette of ground on which W wanted to plan for a variety of fruits, a patch of lawn. W protested that she hated mowing and wanted a “permaculture planting” that would take little care.

Visitors to my garden have occasionally complimented me on my lawn. The only care I give it is mowing with a mulching mower that lets clippings rain back down. By not cutting the lawn I avoid “mining” the soil for nutrients by repeated harvest of clippings. The clippings also enrich the ground with humus.

Pawpaw tree in my cousin's lawn

Pawpaw tree in my cousin’s lawn

Still, I’d rather grow trees, shrubs, vines, especially fruiting ones, and vegetables and flowers, than lawngrass. But I have plenty of ground devoted to these plants. And the easiest way to care for a plot of ground, short of sealing it in asphalt or just letting weeds grow (some of which would undoubtedly be edible or attractive) is by mowing. Visually, lawngrass also provide a calm backdrop for the scene out my back and front door. Plus, it’s nice to walk and play on.

A lawn need not be the environmental disaster inadvertently promoted by purveyors of fertilizers, and pesticides. As stated above, by letting clippings fall where they may, ground is not drained of its fertility, so fertilizer may not be needed. Especially if you let a little clover invade the lawn to add nitrogen, the most evanescent of plant nutrients.

That nitrogen highlights another approach to an easier lawn: Not striving for the uniform look of artificial turf. My lawn has its share of dandelions and clover and, later in the season, crabgrass, especially if the weather turns dry. I tolerate all this, with a refocussing of my aesthetic lens to celebrate a certain amount of diversity in the lawn.

Lawn care is even more environmentally sound these days with cordless electric lawnmowers not spewing noise, carbon dioxide, and other byproducts of gasoline consumption into the air. Periodic scything is a very pleasant way to get by with less mowing and sheep may be a way to get by with no mowing (but you do have to fence and do whatever else is necessary to care for the sheep).


Eco-mowers: Fiskars push, Stihl battery, and Scythe Supply Co. mowers

Fruits To (And Not To) Grow

Now for W’s permaculture fruit trees, shrubs, and vines — with some lawn, of course. (I think I convinced her.) For starters, I suggested steering clear of apples, peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines, and apricots. All are relatively high maintenance and, even with all that maintenance, still are iffy crops in this part of the world because of our extreme and variable climate and the plants’ susceptibilities to insects and diseases.

Nanking cherry hedge

Nanking cherry hedge

So what’s there left to grow??!! Berries, for one. Most berries don’t stand up well to commercial handling so are picked underripe even though they don’t ripen at all once harvested — all the more reason to grow berries in the backyard where the best tasting varieties can be planted and the harvest need not be shipped much further than arms’ length.

Redcurrant espalier

Redcurrant espalier

Summer's berries

Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries are all easy to grow without much care beyond pruning, which is very important for keeping the plants disease free and convenient to harvest.

And no need to restrict the berry bowl to these most common berries. Also easy to grow are seaberries, elderberries, lingonberries, mulberries, and hardy kiwifruit (which are, botanically, berries). An added plus for these latter berries, as well as the aforementioned blueberries, is that the plants are also ornamental.

There is one common tree fruit that’s easy to grow: pears.  And even easier than European pears, such as Bartlett, Anjou, and Bosc, are Asian pears, such as Chojuro, Yoinashi, Hosui, and scores of other varieties. Asian pears also bear more quickly and prolifically, and are a little more decorative than the also decorative European pears.

Asian pear, comfrey, and lawn

Asian pear, comfrey, and lawn

Avoiding Nightmares

The main problem that I’ve seen with many permaculture plantings is that they look great on paper as well as when first planted. Mouths water at the prospects of all those ornamental, fruiting plants cozied together, fruit on creeping plants beneath trees whose branches strain downward with their weight of fruit. And perhaps a nearby grape or kiwifruit plant insinuating its berried vines in among the trees’ branches.

I’ve seen such plans and such plantings. What a nightmare of management they are or will be, mostly because of the need for relentless, extensive, judicious pruning to keep some plants from overtaking the landscape and starving others for nutrients or light. The result is less fruit of lower quality and difficulty in finding the fruit and getting to it.

A little lawn is good to give the fruiting plants some elbow room and to make them easier to care for.


Don’t wait for dry weather to learn about an easy and better (for you and plants) way to water. On June 24, 1-4:30 pm, I’ll be holding DRIP IRRIGATION WORKSHOP at the garden of Margaret Roach in Copake Falls, NY.  Learn how to design a system, and participate in a hands-on installation. For more information and registration,

Lawn Nouveau & Gooseberry Trees

Come visit my farmden on June 21st between 12 pm and 4 pm as part of the Open Days program of the Garden Conservancy. Admission is $5, the proceeds of which go to the Garden Conservancy, whose “mission is to preserve America’s exceptional gardens for the education and enjoyment of the public.” For more information about the Conservancy, go to; for more about the June 21st visit, go to

Some people contend that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I disagree, and especially this year. I’m acting on the belief that if more than three people mention the same thing to me, something is amiss. More than three people have commented on the beauty of their lawns this year, that is, the greenness of the grass on their side of the fence. And these are not people who tend to puff up their chests about their lawns. Nor do any of them hire Chemlawn or some other specialized lawn care company to douse their lawns with various potions to try to create a uniform, lush, verdant greensward.
If lawns are, in fact, greener on these sides of the fences this year, I would attribute it to the cool temperatures and regular rainfall experienced throughout the Northeast this spring. Not, as a radio “expert” contended, to carbon dioxide enrichment of our atmosphere. (Carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and also, as one ingredient of photosynthesis, can spur plant growth. But if it was responsible for this year’s greener lawns, it also would have been responsible for greener lawns for the past few years.)
Anyone desirous of a lawn to reliably brag about year in and year out should move to Britain or some other country of northern Europe. That’s where the climate is ideal for lawns, and where the fad originated.
A nice lawn, but not mine
Lawns had their beginnings in manor estates where the turf was shorn by livestock and the swing of the scythe. Things became more democratic beginning about 1830, when Edwin Budding conceived of the first incarnation of the lawn mower. In the decades that followed, a rising middle class, suburbanization, improvements in lawn mowers and water supplies, and more leisure time afforded by the 40 hour work week all contributed to the spread of lawn culture, which really took off in this country with the housing boom following World War II. Abraham Levitt, creator of Levittowns in that period, wrote “No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.”
A lawn is a nice surface for children to play on and provides a homogeneous, calming backdrop to a garden and home. A lawn also can be a source of pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, provide food for grubs that become Japanese beetles, and can, if sufficiently expansive, be homogeneous backdrop to the point of boredom.
I choose a middle way with my lawn: Lawn Nouveau (as featured in my book The Pruning Book). The more civilized area, that is, the area around my home, is mowed regularly. Further out, the grass or whatever else pops up is allowed to grow unfettered, except for being mowed once a year with either scythe or tractor. Two paths into this meadow are mowed as regularly as is the shorn lawn to provide enticement to walk into the meadow to get to the other side or to appreciate it up close or from other vantage points. Depending on the time of year, the weather, and when it gets its yearly mowing, the meadow might be awash in such colors as yellow from goldenrods or buttercups, or pastel blue from bee balm.
My Lawn Nouveau

I’m wondering if the shorn part of my lawn appears any different to anyone this year than in years past. To me, the grass is neither greener nor less green than on the other side of any fence. It looks the same as every year at this time: thick and lush.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the imported currant worm, a bothersome pest that chomps all the leaves from gooseberry plants in spring. Oddly, it often ignores currants . . . but what’s in a name? I also wrote that one potential control for this pest might be to grow gooseberries as miniature trees. The worm lacks either the smarts or the energy to climb the leafless trunk to get at the leaves, or so my reasoning goes.
Thus far, my reasoning seems sound; nary a leaf has been touched on the “trees.”
My gooseberry tree in the making
I am training my tree gooseberry by pruning away all but the most vigorous, upright shoot and then pruning off the bottom-most two feet of leafy side-branches on that remaining trunk-to-be. I also pinched back the tip of that trunk-to-be at about 2-1/2 feet from ground level to stimulate branching, which has happened.
Over time, the plant will attempt to send up new shoots from near the ground and along the trunk; I’ll cut them off. The cluster of stems up high will need annual pruning, just the same as if they were all growing from ground level.
Another option would have been to graft a gooseberry variety onto the stem of a compatible plant that is more upright growing than gooseberry. European gardeners frequently grow their gooseberries as mini-trees, and create them by grafting on Ribes aureum, the golden currant, a native American plant. I grow golden currant and perhaps I’ll also try to make gooseberry trees by grafting.
Tree gooseberries have their downsides and upsides. On the downside, gooseberries really prefer to grow as bushes. As bushes, they naturally grow new shoots at or near ground level, and those stems tend not to be long-lived. However, a new trunk can quickly replace a dead or dying one.
The upsides to tree gooseberries are that the currant worm is thwarted, the fruit is held up off the ground, and — to me, at least — the plants look really cool.