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What I learned about lawns

Today I finally got to the museum’s lawn exhibit. I left my child at home so I actually had the opportunity to absorb the exhibit. It is extraordinary. And though I went without my toddler, the exhibit, as with almost everything at the museum, is kid-friendly.

Motivation to do something
The first thing that really struck me was a piece that told the story of Lorrie Otto. It was the 1950s and she was a shy, young housewife and mother in suburban Milwaukee. She prided herself in having a creative and fun-loving family. Over a course of a few years she turned her yard into a beautiful, wonderland for her children. They had a fern garden tucked into one corner and a small plum orchard in another. Otto described it as a magical place. Then one day the city came and mowed the whole thing down saying it didn’t conform to the lawn standards of the city and therefore it was all “weeds.” It was the beginning of a new identity for Otto who eventually received an apology and financial compensation from the city. She encouraged others to fight weed laws, protect wild spaces, and even fought the use of DDT. Otto is now widely recognized as the godmother of the Natural Landscaping Movement. (Hooray for a mom turned environmental activist!)

Scary statistics
I was also impressed with a humorous movie that is part of the exhibit, called Gimme Green. The movie reveals this National Cancer Institute statistic: kids who live in households that use pesticides have six times greater change of developing leukemia.

There were lots of exhibits that reminded us just how much water goes into our lawns. There were a few statistics that stood out:

• American lawns us 200 gallons of water per person per day.
• A typical lawn uses 10,000 gallons of water each summer.
• A typical lawn sprinkler uses 2500 gallons of water in one hour. (This is modeled in an exhibit call Thirsty by Brian Peters and Daphne Firos that uses 1,600 plastic bottles to demonstrate what 2500 gallons looks like.)

There was also a fantastical exhibit of the “missing link” in lawnmower development: a tricycle that mows as you ride it! That exhibit reminded me of another statistic: one hour using a gas-powered mower is the equivalent of driving 350 miles!

Take home lessons
America’s lawn obsession is harming the planet, our children, and guzzling natural resources. So what can we do? A few hints from the exhibit:

1. Learn from Chicago’s public parks and let a natural mixture of bluegrass, clover, and other plants grow. You can mow it all just like grass.
2. Get rid of your gas-guzzling lawn mower. Try a motorless push mower instead.
3. Use natural fertilizers, e.g. from corn, alfalfa, (grass clippings left on the lawn), or compost.
4. Only use natural pesticides or herbicides. Vinegar kills weeds and garlic concentrate kills grubs.
5. Increase the size of your planting beds and try growing food, flowers, or herbs.
6. Plant more native plants: they require less of tending and help with species diversity
7. Use a rain barrel to harvest rainwater off your roof and use it on your yard.
8. Make peace with dormancy: a brown lawn isn’t necessarily dead, just dormant. If you have to water—focus on the trees, water early in the morning, and water deeply and infrequently.

If you would like or need a lawn service, no worries, Chicago has a very eco option: MowTown Green. They will use that push mower, test that soil, and plant those indigenous plants for you.

Also, Chicago provides deeply discounted rainbarrels and compost bins to its residents. The next opportunity to buy one is September 20th from 9 to 3 at 900 E. 103rd St. Visit the City of Chicago’s website to find out more.

Read comments at The Little Green People Show.

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