Nurturing Nature by Letting the Lawn Go

I live under a great old oak tree. Roughly 80 feet tall, it towers between Snowden Lane and Leavitt Lane. A large oak tree near a wood fence in back yard area

My large tree is by no means the only one in the area. There is a small forest of oak, maple, and coniferous pine and spruce trees in this area that extends between Hamilton and Franklin Streets.

My oak tree dominates my backyard. It provides shade for my house and yard in summer. In autumn, acorns and leaves drop into the yard and provide food for the squirrels, insects, spiders, and all the fungi and bacteria that live in the soil. During storms, and in winter, tree limbs and branches may fall, but if I have trimmed the tree properly, they shouldn’t fall on me!

When I first moved in, ten years ago, I tried to grow turf grass in my backyard. Having little success, I eventually realized the giant oak casts too much shade to allow a conventional grass lawn to thrive. In addition, the roots from the trees capture rain water and soil nutrients. All this means that grass will not grow without a great deal of effort to artificially add water and fertilizer. Watering the lawn is expensive and an unnecessary use of precious drinking water. Chemical fertilizers can also be expensive, and can take significant energy to manufacture, transport and apply. There are also concerns about runoff from artificially-fertilized areas entering the water supply.

So I began to accept the obvious fact that I live in a forest, and turf grass does not thrive in such a location. I now truly realize that my backyard is part of the local ecosystem, and that I need to live with the natural environment as it is supposed to be, and not resist the force of nature. Princeton is part of the temperate northeastern deciduous forest, and would be again if humans did not struggle relentlessly to maintain roads, houses, and grass lawns.

I strongly believe that, in Princeton, sustainability means that our backyards should be managed in ways that coexist with the forest. In my view, successfully embracing sustainability requires me, and others to live with nature, and not to try to subdue it or change it.