April 28, 2014

Clover and Violets and Squill, Oh My!

I still have my copy
from high school
“God bless the lawn mower, he thought. Who was the fool who made January first New Year’s Day? No, they should set a man to watch the grasses across a million Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa lawns and, on that morning when it was long enough for cutting… there should be a great swelling symphony of lawn mowers… People should throw grass spray at each other on the day that really represents the Beginning.”

In Ray Bradbury’s wonderful autobiographical novel, Dandelion Wine, a character opines that it is the year’s first mowing of the lawn that ought to represent the changing of the year, rather than some arbitrary day set down by the Romans two millennia ago. Sadly, it’s one of those impractical sentiments that doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny (were such a law enacted today, it would be 2014 in Georgia two months earlier than in Massachusetts, and California and Florida might be stuck in some twilight zone in which the year never changes).

In mid-April, we limed the lawn.
Soaking rains washed the lime into
the grass' roots.
Those obstacles aside, I have a soft spot for Bradbury’s view because, to me, there’s nothing like that first mowing to demonstrate that spring is unequivocally here to stay. Crocus and daffodils can be reduced to mush by a hard freeze. A late snow can turn the emergent leaves on a tree or shrub a dispiriting black. But when the grass – scratched into life with a spring rake and a dose of lime – gets to be three inches high, it means the new season has truly arrived.  The lime, by the way, is purely of the inexpensive crushed variety.  The notion of paying a premium for crushed limestone that has been clumped together with wood glue ("So that it won't blow in the wind") is anathema to both common sense and Yankee ingenuity.

I mow around the Scilla
We had our first mowing of the year this week. Instead of the typical quadrangles or up-and-down pattern of our neighbors (and their lawn services), we follow the sinuous contours of our perennial beds. It takes longer to mow such a pattern but the effect can be seen for a week afterwards: long swirls of repeating curves with the grass bent ever so slightly one way, then another in a yin-yang pattern that pleases the eye, especially from a second-story window.

Because our lawn is mixed with clover, we cannot (and choose not to) use the broad-leaf weed control products that are found on most lawns. Instead, as I mow, I am constantly on dandelion patrol. I carry a screwdriver in my back pocket and, when I find the tell-tale spiky leaves flat to the ground, I pounce and dig out the offending plant, root and all. I found perhaps two dozen dandelions that first mowing. They won’t be the last. Around here, dandelions rarely make it as far as a flower and never get to a seed head.

Dandelions are pulled out by hand
Taraxacum officinale, the botanical name for the dandelion (the common name is an Anglicization of the French dente-de-lion, or lion's tooth, so called because of the jagged shape of the leaf), is not allowed in the lawn. Yet, in addition to clover (encouraged and even overseeded), we tolerate violets (white and purple) so long as they don’t spread conspicuously, and we actively make room for an early spring wildflower, scilla siberica, which is attempting to colonize one corner of our lawn. Our tolerance for the scilla is such that I mow around the stems in order to ensure that adequate nutrition gets to the bulb for next spring’s bloom.

We converted to a cordless electric mower four years ago. It was as much a statement about my dislike of changing oil (and figuring out what to do with the gunk) as it was of ‘going green’. One overnight charge givers us the requisite power to mow the roughly 5,000 square feet of lawn than remain of the 10,000 square feet we inherited when we purchased this property in 1999.. The new mower makes a cheerful ‘hum’ rather than the clatter of its gasoline-powered cousin. I find I don’t miss the old one at all.


  1. Though this winter outstayed its welcome, I do appreciate the forgiving blanket of snow that hides all of the late falling foliage ... and the natural fertilizer that someone once told me snow provided (somehow?) But presently, our lawn looks like we must own several large dogs who provide their own fertilizer ... we have no dogs, nor wanderers ... what we have are eighty-feet tall white pines, and they have enormous pinecones that, open, are admirable but closed in the wet rains of this "spring" look abominable. Some time soon I'll go out and start gathering them ... to do what with, I've no idea.

    Would the principal undergardener consider writing a column with ideas of recycling such visually undesirable tree refuse such as acorns and oversized pinecones? Please and thank you :)

  2. Hi, Neal ~

    We enjoyed a visit from our grandson last week and got to play croquet on our small patch of so-called lawn. We love the clover! However, I'm beginning to wonder about the grape hyacinths (Muscari). They are spreading like wildfire all over the so-called lawn! Do you think they are invasive?

  3. Love that Scilla, Neal! I actually miss mowing the grass. It was a time for thoughtful reflection and I always felt gratified when finished. No lawn to mow here. Chris does a quick weedeating twice yearly.

    Have you noticed more of the purple violets this year? I've never seen so many.

  4. Neil, what type or brand of electric mower do you prefer and like best?