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The Secret Origins of Lawns, Pesticides and the American Forest Canopy; Three More Books to Grow On

You Bet Your Garden
Question of the Week © 2023 Mike McGrath

Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.

Q. This all started back in March, when Anneke in Lake Leelanau Michigan wrote: "Do you have a list of books that you like; or a list of books by authors you've had on the show? I am interested in diversity and like hearing what other gardeners are doing." Although initially reluctant, I realized that there were several books that had really entertained and informed me over the years, so I discussed three of them and thought that was that. Well, the response was so enthusiastic, we're back with three more. Let's catalogue them under "cautionary tales".

• "American Green; the Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn" by Ted Steinberg (Norton & Company; 2006). Steinberg makes the same case for lawns as I do: Grass is a great way to manage stormwater, prevent erosion, sequester carbon and produce oxygen. It's only when people obsessively chemicalize their lawns that turf goes from being a great ground cover to a toxic nightmare, both indoors as well as out--lawn chemicals get tracked into the home and trapped in the carpeting, putting at special risk the children crawling on those carpets. (Diazinon, a popular lawn care chemical that was allowed for use up until 2002, notes Steinberg, has a chemical composition similar to nerve gas.)

The history of lawns is truly fascinating. Steinberg notes that we as a species are probably drawn to making our landscapes as much like the savannahs from which we emerged --low gasses punctuated by trees. But originally only the wealthy could do this. In England, a lawn was a sign of high status, because it showed that you could afford enough servants to keep it cut. The industrial revolution changed all that, putting mowers in the hands of Everyman; and despite the expert advice that cautioned "don't think for a moment that you can have an English lawn in an American climate", everyone who rushed to suburbia was told that you could--with the help of explosive fertilizers and poisonous herbicides.

"American Green" is a meticulously researched work that clearly shows the two shades of the American lawn--the green color that lawn owners struggle to achieve, and the monetary 'green' of the massive lawn care industry that frustratingly prevents them from achieving it. But make no mistake--a lawn that's cared for naturally is a very good thing.

• "American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT" by James E. McWilliams (Columbia University Press; 2008). Early American farmers, reports McWilliams, were looked upon as "a disorganized group of amateurs". But he notes that "the solutions they pioneered included a spectrum of useful procedures from the ground up. Without access to chemical insecticides or professional entomologists, planters relied on their systematic interaction with the natural world."

One early example? A 1794 essay contest seeking solutions to insect problems yielded this result: "Some years ago, the cankerworm did great damage to the orchards in this Massachusetts town...but orchards where sheep graze...have universally been cleared of this worm."

Another early beneficial creature to be recognized was one I rely on to keep my garden clean. A publication called 'The Southern Cultivator' asked its readers "do all your trees have wren houses in them? If not make them at once, as every one of them will have a tenant and every tenant will kill more insects than the farmer could do personally." Sheep may be a bit much for you, but every gardener should welcome bug-eating birds to their landscape.

The first half of the book is filled with such stories, but then we all know what happens. The first insecticides--noted by a prestigeous early entomologist to be "an insidious menace to the health of the people"--gain traction, and although crop loss to insects increases with the introduction of each new poison, marketing and promises of easy cures lead the way. "American Pests" is a cautionary tale that reminds us that the best solution to pest problems is to put down the sprayer and go big on birdhouses.

• "American Canopy; Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation" by Eric Rutkow (Scribner; 2012). The old world was virtually deforested--all the best trees for shipbuilding were gone or rare, and in the England of Colonial Times, it was all about the ships. Whoever had the biggest and best ships ruled the seas; and he who ruled the seas ruled the world.

Imagine seeing the new world for the first time, with its pristine forests from coast to coast, especially the tall pines. The heart of a sailing ship was her mast, which had to be tall, strong, lightweight and flexible. American firs were stronger and lighter than the vanishing Balkan varieties and because they had never before been harvested, often reached 250 feet in height--that's 25 stories, or twice the height of the first skyscraper, notes Rutkow. The story of how untrained colonists felled these trees (without breaking them!) and then shipped them overseas--using only manpower, hand tools and ingenuity--is a reminder of all the things that mere humans could once do working together.

But of course, that's just the beginning. For hundreds of entertaining pages, Rutkow chronicles how humans have since changed the face of the forests, and questions whether we've finally developed the will to stop. Oh--and yes, Johnny Appleseed is here as well. Do you know what the fruits of his trees were actually used for? It wasn't to make apple pies, kats and kittens!

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