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(Stock photo | Thinkstock/Getty Images/Polka Dot RF)
(Stock photo | Thinkstock/Getty Images/Polka Dot RF)

The environmentalist case for well-manicured lawns Add to ...

Grass, marvels Mr. White, can double its length in a week. How many other plants do that? He says it can do wonders for the urban and even the global environment if only we cultivate it properly.

The trouble is that we don’t. Since the wave of pesticide bans, many parks, boulevards and school yards have been overwhelmed by weeds, lending them a scruffy appearance and reducing their environmental benefit.

Mr. White takes a visitor to Burlington on a tour of shame in his big white pick-up truck. We pass a housing project where a neglectful owner has let the grass grow tattered; then a highway interchange where tall weeds and shrubs are overwhelming the carefully planted fir trees because the provincial highways department no longer cuts the grass; then a school playing field where a $100,000 mower is essentially cutting weeds, sending up clouds of dust – something you would never see in a thick field of healthy grass.

Then he shows off his clients’ lush, green lawns. He advises that they fertilize, water once a week for an hour or so, ideally before 10 a.m., and leave the grass to grow between 2.5 and 3 inches high before mowing, longer than many people are used to but better for the plant. “You can’t expect it to grow unless you’re going to nurture it. And if you only sort of nurture it, it only sort of gives back.”

Most park lawns are a “disaster” now because of neglect and lack of understanding, he says. Many commercial properties often aren’t much better. In Toronto, parents of young athletes revolted when the city tried to jack up fees for using sports fields. Why should we pay more, they demanded, when the state of turf is such a disgrace?

The way Mr. White sees things, it all springs from a lack of appreciation for the natural splendor of grass. “It’s such a little plant that nobody really cares about,” he says. Green roofs on office buildings are great, but we could get a bigger return on investment just by tending the grass in public parks.

Mr. White was one of a group of landscapers who volunteered to put down new sod and plantings in Toronto’s St. James Park after it was trampled by Occupy movement protesters last year. He serves at president of Project Evergreen, a non-profit that lobbies to preserve and improve community green spaces.

Those spaces, he says, are our most overlooked environmental resource, a potential boon for the air, water and soil. Like a neglected machine, they sit idle, the engine tuned off. Instead of scorning lawns or neglecting the grass, he demands, “why don’t we just turn the landscape on?”

A green planet may depend in part on green grass.

SODDING EVOLUTION

The word lawn may come from the earlier English word laune, which meant a glade or open space among the woods.

Nobles scythed the the grass around their castles to have a clear sight of enemies, farmers around their homesteads to keep down pests and feed the livestock.

The groomed ornamental lawn seems to have been pioneered by European estate owners. The idea migrated to the Americas with colonization.

In Canada, the popularity of lawn bowling helped it take off. In the United States, the designer of New York’s Central Park, 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, created suburbs that had houses set on grassed plots.

As suburbanization took hold after the Second World War, lawns spread. Today, lawn grass is believed to be the biggest irrigated crop in the United States, covering even more area than corn or wheat.

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