Of sheep, scythes, and lawns

Château de Chambord at Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France.
Château de Chambord at Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France.

Once upon a time, when my Great-Great-Greats were dukes and duchesses lounging around in the hills of France, they probably lived in castles (no indoor plumbing, of course), surrounded by acres of lawn. At that time, it was important to have an unobstructed view of your dominion, because you never knew when a marauding army might come rushing up out of the woods trying to steal your golden goblets. Back then, a lawn was more likely to be made of chamomile or thyme than grass, so it could also be plucked to make tea at bedtime or season a peacock for dinner. Sometime during the 17th century, grass lawns came into fashion, though only for the most wealthy landowners who could afford to pay a team of men to cut the grass by hand with scythes.

When Europeans first settled in the United States, no one could afford to waste time or money on lawns, other than the ones kept at the White House and other similarly prestigious locations. Often, sheep were used to tend lawns because they were willing to work longer hours and didn’t mind not getting paid. According to the White House Historical Association, “The sight of sheep grazing on the south lawn of the White House may seem unusual, but during World War I [when Woodrow Wilson was president], it was a highly visible symbol of home front support of the troops overseas. The flock, which numbered 48 at its peak, saved manpower by cutting the grass and earned $52,823 for the Red Cross through an auction of their wool.”

How much time do you spend trying to achieve a "perfect lawn"?
How much time do you spend trying to achieve a “perfect lawn”?

Eventually, as suburbs began to spread across the United States during the post-World War II era, Americans developed their current social norms surrounding lawns, which included the notion that lawns should only be comprised of grass and that they should be trim, tidy and green throughout the year. Power lawn mowers make quicker work than scythes, but the fact remains that today’s lawns have made many of many of us servants of our own dominions.

Apply fertilizer in early fall, not spring, to encourage deeper roots.
Apply fertilizer in early fall, not spring, to encourage deeper roots.

Now that spring is in full swing, many folks are looking to their yards with an appraising eye, wondering how to battle the weeds in the lawn and how to keep up with the grass as it grows. A few strategies will help to make your lawn maintenance more manageable. First, avoid putting fertilizer down in the spring, as it will only make the grass grow faster (forcing you to mow more often) and tends to promote blade growth instead of root growth, making the grass less tolerant to drought during the summer. Set your mower blade higher (3-4in. tall) to encourage deeper roots, and mow less frequently or not at all during dry spells in the summer.

If you have a little more time on your hands and really like the look of a manicured lawn, look for low-cost options that will improve the health of your grass without impacting the environment. Get your soil tested before applying fertilizer (http://soiltest.cfans.umn.edu), install a rain sensor or soil moisture sensor and program your irrigation system to deliver no more than one inch (1in.) of water per week, and aerate your lawn once per year to break up compacted soil. If you’re hiring a lawn service, download What to ask for from your lawn care provider as a guide. Do-it-yourselfers can refer to the Blue Thumb Year-Round Guide to Yard Care or Minnesota Extension resources.

More and more, however, people in our busy modern society are looking for ways to break the chains that bind them to their lawns. Sheep are apparently coming back in style as an eco-friendly option for larger expanses of lawn. In 2011, an assistant principal in Pennsylvania put several of his sheep to work on the school grounds, saving the Carlisle School District $15,000 in lawn-mowing expenses. Two years later, the City of Paris deployed a small flock to a park in the 19th Arrondissement as part of a citywide environmental initiative.

Low-mow lawns like the one picture above only need to be mowed once per year and need no fertilizer or watering, after they are established.
Low-mow lawns like the one picture above only need to be mowed once per year. After they are established, they don’t need to be watered or fertilized either.

Another, perhaps more practical, option that works well for sunny or partially shady lawns is called “no mow lawn.” No or low-mow lawns are made up of a blend of fescue grasses that only need to be mowed once or twice a year when they go to seed. Established low-mow lawns don’t need to be watered or fertilized and will naturally block most weeds. Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin is the most popular place to purchase low-mow seed mixes, though you can also buy them locally at Houles in Stillwater or Forest Lake. The Pollinator Friendly Alliance in Stillwater  also offers instructions on how to establish a “bee friendly lawn” with fescue grasses, white Dutch clover, self heal and thyme. The group recently planted a Pollinator Park at the corner of Owens and Laurel Streets in Stillwater (near Lake McKusick) that will include a bee-friendly lawn as well as prairie and pollinator gardens.

To my knowledge, there are no plans yet to build a castle with sheep anywhere locally in the near future.