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Garden in the City: Should This Grass Be Saved?

 DNAinfo's resident urban gardener questions whether lawn care is worth the effort.
Are Lawns Bad?
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LINCOLN SQUARE — Last week, I inherited an approximately 40-square-foot patch of pristine sod and I'm not sure what to do with it.

The bequest initially seemed benign enough. Either city workers or a crew from Peoples Gas finally restored a strip of parkway that had been torn up over the winter during the repair of a gas leak outside our condo building.

But the new grass came with strings attached — someone other than the folks who planted it would have to nurture the sod (ie, water it) and make sure it took root.

Patty Wetli may slowly becoming the "cat lady" of flora. Here's episode 4 of "Garden in the City"

Par for the course among condo dwellers, the line of volunteers stepping forward to take responsibility for this chore consisted of no one. That's why we pay a management company, goes my neighbors' line of thinking.

As we are in the midst of firing our property manager, that option went out the window. The task, by default, fell to me if only because A) I care and B) I've demonstrated the ability to operate a hose.

I am now, it would seem, in the lawn and garden business, and they are not wholly compatible pursuits.

Though I consider myself as "green" as they come — I have literally hugged trees — I'm ambivalent when it comes to grass. It's so one-note and devoid of purpose when compared with the diversity and productivity of my flower and vegetable plots, I can't get excited about it.

So I've doused the sod on the handful of occasions when I've also watered my flower beds, but mostly I've left the heavy lifting to Mother Nature, trusting that her rainfall would adequately hydrate the grass.

Where my flowers and shrubs are thriving under a similar low maintenance agreement, the strips of sod have grown further apart at the seams and their green is fading. The question now is whether I deploy the necessary resources — namely hooking up a sprinkler for hours on end — to bring the lawn up to snuff or simply let the sod fend for itself.

Transporting myself back in time to the Ohio suburbs of my childhood, there would have been no question regarding the appropriate course of action: I'd have hauled out the sprinkler. My dad, and all of our neighbors, maintained meticulously groomed carpets of grass that were meant to be seen, but not trod upon.

In plenty of neighborhoods today, lawn care is still viewed as "an important civic responsibility" serving to "unify the American landscape," author Michael Pollan writes in his essay "Why Mow."

But on my street, occupied by other condos, apartment buildings and a Park District playlot, lawn care is more of a spotty affair. Some yards are positively suburban, others are littered with cigarette butts and the rest fall somewhere in between. Because none of us knows each other in the way that single-family homeowners do, no one is held culpable.

 Most of our lawn is a mix of "grass," clover and weeds.
Most of our lawn is a mix of "grass," clover and weeds.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

Our condo building stopped chemically treating our lawn some time ago — I suspect as a cost-saving measure — and we haven't bothered to seed bare patches the past year or two. Come July, the "grass" — which is actually clover and other assorted weeds sprinkled intermittently with turf — burns out and then revives itself in the fall.

This laissez faire approach to lawn care actually places us, admittedly unintentionally, at the forefront of the anti-lawn movement.

Though the Scotts Miracle Gro website lists a number of ways in which lawns are awesome — they prevent soil erosion, absorb rainwater and sound, clean the air and cool the environment — conservationists and organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency paint a different picture.

According to the EPA, nearly a third of residential water use goes toward landscaping and the average gasoline-powered lawn mower emits 11 times the air pollution of a new car for each hour of operation.

In an opinion piece titled "Are Lawns Bad?," Mark Hostetler, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, noted that lawns "are like concrete to most species and have very little benefit for wildlife."

Hostetler recommends the same approach to turf that I've been taking in my garden: make better use of native plants.

Those bald patches that have proven immune to seeding? "Accept that turfgrass will not work there and replace with vegetation that is more appropriate," he writes.

And here's the real kicker:

"Remove turfgrass from areas between the sidewalk and the curb — those areas are almost impossible to maintain sustainably."

So here's what I'm going to do about the sod: Nothing.

No sprinkler. No fertilizer. No pesticides.

If the sod dies, it dies. If the adjacent weeds and clover overrun the thus far pristine turf, so be it. That's just nature, doing its thing.

For previous episodes of "Garden in the City," check out the podcasts here: