"My Notes From Bayside" this month are really more like "notes from exile." Like so many of my colleagues, I spent the 30 days from mid-December to mid-January at home because of federal furloughs and federal snow days. While there was the frustration of not knowing from one day to the next whether we would be allowed to come to work, that very inability to plan more than a day or so in advance led to a lot of low-key pastimes.
One of my favorites was the time I spent with the deluge of seed and garden catalogs that arrive after Christmas each year and cause all sorts of excessive inspiration in the gardener. It seems that the more time one spends with these pages and pages of spectacular blooms and state-fair size vegetables, the more one dreams that this might just be the year the garden reaches new heights of profusion and drama. Alas, too often it turns out to be an unrequited promise made by over-effusive copy read in the doldrums of a winter's day.
Last winter was not like this. December was warm and winter hardly arrived at all around here. You may remember that my foxgloves were still in bloom in the front yard after Christmas. At the time I was so bold as to predict that it looked like after two winters with heavy snow pack and near-record spring runoffs to the Bay, we were in for a mild spring flush of the lands and the rivers into the Chesapeake.
That turned out to be pretty much on the mark, but the way the Bay reacted to all that is still being figured out by our scientists. While the flows were low, the blooms of algae were actually higher than normal in the upper Bay last spring. The effects of this on the oxygen levels in midsummer, when they are most critical, is still being analyzed.
Well, my foxgloves, long shorn of any blooms, are rosettes lying deep in the snow this winter. And spring, if it ever arrives, will be very different. Of course, all the snow could disappear long before it can have much effect on the spring runoff, certainly in the lower reaches of the watershed. But in all likelihood, the snow pack is with us for a while up north and in the mountains, so we could well have another year of heavy loadings of nutrients from the runoff. That will mean three hard punches to the Bay in four years.
All this and perhaps a remaining touch of cabin fever lead me to suggest that we gardeners need to do more for the Chesapeake. We need to convince others of the value of gardens and meadows and nature's other ways of reducing the runoff of nutrients to the Bay. And we need to overcome the American obsession with lawns by setting the right example.
In trying to isolate the values that lead Americans to spend billions every year to maintain swaths of turf around their houses, I was led on two separate tracks. Those with a more anthropological bent claim that as humans we naturally hearken back to our origins on the African savanna, that the yearning to surround ourselves with grasses is deep in our souls. The more sociological view is that our love of lawns derives from our desire to be English gentry, who expressed their wealth in country houses surrounded with greenswards. And we all know that if our ancestors had not been so foolish as to come to America we would have been some kind of gentry somewhere. Sure. It's just that we've replaced the follies with hardware store gazebos and the ha-ha's with the neighbors' yards (which frankly we wish they'd take better care of) and deed restrictions against fences. And if you don't know what a ha-ha is, you obviously wouldn't have been gentry.
Anyway, this whole lawn "thing" is tied up in some national psyche about dream houses and success and the lure of the land. But what if instead of lawns we valued wildflowers and gardens? We already have a great example of the results from a most unlikely place, our state highway agencies. Who can fail to be impressed by the magnificent succession of poppies, bachelor buttons, larkspurs, black-eyed susans, daisies and cosmos that appear in increasing numbers each year in the center strips and along the banks of our major highways? What an improvement over the endless miles of grass strips! Aside from beauty, these plots encourage wildlife and reduce runoff to streams and rivers. And if you believe the highway folks, they save money in reduced mowing costs.
So let's commit to break our dependency on lawns and turn to ground covers and ornamental grasses and meadows and gardens. The garden catalogues are filled with ideas and an ever increasing supply of seeds and plants. My favorite, the White Flower Farm catalog, has finally conceded that it is possible to have a flower garden south of New England, and has put out a special edition this year for southern gardeners. It includes at least 10 ornamental grasses suitable for our region. Burpee's and Park's have dozens of ground covers, and Shepherds includes an amazing variety of sunflowers. The possibilities are endless.
Now we probably can't do this all at once, but what if we spread it out over the next decade, and agreed every year to take out a little more of the old lawn and replace it with something less demanding of fertilizers and pesticides? Soon we'd be able to throw away the power mower with its attendant air and noise pollution. And we would be supporting the nursery industry, not the chemical industry. Finally, think of the good it will do us to get all that recreation and exercise pulling weeds and tending the gardens. I think we'd all be winners, including the Chesapeake.