Reader Request Week 2023 #3: Our Giant Lawn

John Scalzi

–E asks:

You have this giant lawn. I don’t get the sense you do much more than mow it (or rather, Krissy mows it). What do you use your giant yard for? Throwing balls for the dog, I’m sure, and taking photographs of yourself in dresses, but do you ever picnic in your yard? Did Athena have camp-outs? What does one do with a giant lawn?

We do indeed have a giant lawn. Our acreage is 5.01 acres, and is almost exactly the dimensions of a New York City block, and with the exception of the concrete foundation on which our house rests, the garden areas around the house, the concrete parking area in front of the garage, and the driveway to get from the road to the house, it is all lawn: grass and trees.

What do we do with it? Well, –E hit on one thing lightly, but which I’m happy to address more in detail: Pet activity. As you might imagine, it’s quite useful to have a yard the size of an ample public park for the dog to run around in and do her business on. Also, since we live in rural America, it’s lovely to let her bound about leashlessly without worrying about her leaving the property or endangering herself down by the road. With the exception of the about-once-monthly break for it to visit the neighbor’s horses and roll around in their poop, Charlie (and Daisy and Kodi before her) stays on the property and doesn’t feel constrained. My mother-in-law likewise brings her dogs over to play and poop in our yard as well; the dogs apparently like our yard better than they like the literal park they live next to.

(Since I know some of you will be curious: every couple of weeks I go through the yard and scoop up the poop closest to the house to avoid inconvenient shoe bombs, and otherwise I leave it to decompose on its own. The yard seems to handle it pretty well. )

Another thing we do with it, or at least part of it: Run our septic system through it. We’re out in the country and we’re not on the city water supply, so we get our water from a well; when we’re done using it, it goes into a septic tank and part of our yard — or more accurately the soil and rock underneath it — is the septic system’s leachfield (also known as a drainfield). This works pretty well, and we recently made an upgrade to the system. As this is a necessary part of the rural experience when you’re not on the public water, I’m happy to have it all contained on our property and not crowding into our neighbors’ space with our effluvia. And again, it seems to have no detrimental effect on our lawn, and perhaps does the opposite.

(For the next set of curious: Yes, our well is far away and upstream from our leachfield, and also we filter the water we get out of well. And for those of you living in western states where sucking up water from the ground is an actual long-term ecological issue, allow me to assure you that in rain-soaked Ohio we are not under the same level of water constraints you are.)

The next thing we do, and specifically I do with my large lawn, is look at it and be in it. Which seems like not much! But hear me out. Having a vast expanse of green around you, and visible to you every time you look out a window, is extremely calming and lovely, and for me, very beneficial to my personal mental well-being. And not just my personal mental well-being; we have people come visit the house and sit on the deck or porch and stare out into the yard, and you can actually see the stress leave their body. It’s nice to be in calm and enjoyable surroundings! Add to that the general quiet of rural America and the distance between us and our neighbors, and overall having a large lawn contributes to a chill and pleasant home environment.

Which matters. I do a lot of traveling and I see a large number of people when I do. And it’s great, I enjoy doing it, but when I come back home it’s actually fantastic to have a level of pastoral isolation, because the fact is I’m an introvert and eventually I need to recharge, and a huge patch of green grass is excellent for recharging. On the flip side of this, when COVID-19 struck and everyone was stuck inside for weeks and months, our being able to get outside and actually walk for a significant distance without worrying about bumping into other people and getting infected by them (or vice versa) was really useful to keep from going entirely around the bend.

And finally, and in a general sense, you know the expression “you need to go out and touch grass?” Well, as it happens I have a lot of grass to touch. And it helps!

(And yes, as it happens, we have had picnics and camp-outs and croquet parties in the lawn, and sledded down the hilly part of it when it snows, and other stuff like that. It’s a lawn, we’re Americans, we do American Lawn Things.)

Sure, but do you need five acres of lawn to do any of that? I hear some of you ask. Possibly not, but as it happens, five acres is what this specific house came with, so it’s what we have. I’m sure it seems excessive to some people, and that’s fine, they are entitled to their opinion. Five acres of lawn means five acres of an agricultural monoculture, although, ironically, it also represents more diversity than the land had in its recent history, since our plot of land was for decades a field that alternated between corn and soybeans, just like every other agricultural field around here.

I have over the years had any number of people suggest all sorts of alternate uses for the land. I have a standard snarky response to that, which is to invite them to come and do all the things they would like for me to do with the land that’s currently my lawn, with their own time and at their own expense. They don’t take me up on that offer.

But they’re also not entirely wrong, and it’s something Krissy and I talk about. She’s the one who handles most of the day-to-day maintenance of the lawn, either by taking care of it herself or by managing and directing the professionals we have come to do the things she chooses to offload. At some point or another she might decide that she’s done with all of that, in which case we’ll start working with some local experts to rewild some or even most of it, and to do it in a way that a) isn’t just weeds and mess but actual local flora, b) doesn’t antagonize our neighbors by making it look like our house has become That Abandoned Meth Hut On The Hill. We don’t have an HOA or anything like that, but we also understand our neighbors have to live near, and look at, our property. We want to be good neighbors whatever we do. Which means that whatever we do will take planning and effort and won’t be any less work than maintaining a huge damn lawn, just different work.

Until and unless, it will remain a sea of green, which I am not displeased about, and which I enjoy for itself, beyond any other practical use. It’s nice to have, and it’s nice I get to have it. I’ll keep it for at least a little longer.

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Leave in the comment thread at this link.)

— JS

27 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2023 #3: Our Giant Lawn”

  1. Do you have pictures of the garden you mention (here and in the FAQ)? My wife is a major house gardener, and I get the benefit of being able to view it, smell it, and even occasionally eat from it. Also, I am in charge of composting, the chickens, and worms.

    Anyway, I love pictures of folks’ home gardens. I hope someday you choose to share some photos

  2. “Shoe bombs.”

    Gosh, I haven’t stepped on one – I call them “shit land mines” – in a long time!

    Dude, you certainly have the right idea; scoop up the dog poop in areas close to your house and more well-trod, and let nature take care of the rest!

    Nice post!

  3. While fully acknowledging that no, I have no desire to come over and convert your yard to something more “natural,” I would encourage you and Krissy to consider allowing some native plants that wander into the yard to stay, such as the dandelions and clover, rather than applying weed killer to them. Our pollinators need all the help they can get these days–especially the native bees which, unlike honeybees, don’t have people doing intensive hive management for them.

  4. Well, at 5 acres “neighbours nearby” becomes a relative term (at least when you look at it from inside a city, there’s that).

  5. Friend in Oregon has nearly that much, and a good part of it is a hayfield, rented to a local farmer. (This was done by the previous owner; friend is continuing the practice. It’s also the site of the annual neighborhood picnic.

  6. When we moved out to the relative boonies (2 hours from Seattle), we had to replace the septic system at my folks’ old house in order to get a permit to rebuild.

    Let’s just say it was a learning experience. We’re close enough to water and to a bluff edge that there are a lot of constraints re septic placement and therefore house placement. Fortunately we had already decided to use the existing foundation, because we wouldn’t have been able to put the house anywhere else on the lot.

    For people who haven’t ever dealt with septic, the most important takeaway is that a septic system is more like a roof than a sewer. It has a designed lifetime (20-30 years) and requires regular maintenance.

  7. My family and I lived out in rural America (southern MD) for a couple of decades and had a similar lawn. Among other things keeping the grass cut helps keep the snakes and other critters away from the house. (Not mice, though, especially in the fall when they were hunting for a warm place to winter over. That’s what the cats were for.)

    One thing we did that you haven’t that was great from out perspective — we planted a small orchard of various fruit trees. Apple, pear, cherry, and peach trees. We did plant them at the edge of our yard, so we didn’t have to worry about picking up the fruit that dropped off onto the ground or that we didn’t harvest. A great source of fresh, in-season fruit with little work on our part other than occasional pruning once the trees became established. While we did plant them far enough apart we could easily get the riding mower in between, we had to periodically drag the push mower over there to cut close around the trees.

  8. When you have grandkids, they will find all sorts of uses for that land.

  9. The kids’ grandparents have a much smaller lawn where their dog poops and…it’s all land mines. It’s appreciated when there’s a safe place to step.

  10. You know what they say, “The grass is always greener over the septic system.”

  11. Having grown up in a small Kansas town with a 1.5 acre yard (I composed many extended versions of favorite songs while spending hours riding our lawnmower), I can attest to a lot of that. We didn’t have a well, but had a small spring that started in the back of our neighbors yard. Sledding was great (enough of a grade on our street I could go several blocks). The main downside of that much grass in the summer is chiggers, which I don’t miss at all.

  12. That’s a big garden! John, have you ever thought about flying RC model aeroplanes? It’s a perfect area.

  13. I’m also one of those people telling you to replace the lawn with a native wildflower meadow. And no I don’t want to come and do that for you. I can’t even get that done on my own single acre plot.

  14. Beautiful yard John. I guess the reason I’m commenting is I find it a little odd that you keep essentially a monoculture of grass on such a large property. You are somebody who has very vocal opinions about progressive causes, and one of the biggest causes for progressives is environmentalism. Adding native plants to your lawn would be a huge boost to the ecosystem around you. And I know you mentioned that you welcome somebody to come spend their own time and money doing so, however, a few posts ago you also mentioned how you are rich. So you are in a position where you could pay a company to come make your yard a paradise for native wildlife. Not a criticism! Everyone should be allowed to have their yard as they envision it. And everyone should spend their money as they see fit. I just found your take on this interesting given the values I have seen you speak to countless times.

  15. Here in Arkansas I live on a single acre, and even that is enough to have improved my mental state a bunch. (I used to live on a quarter-acre, which is the general lot size for my town.)

    I don’t have a garden now, because the squirrels ate everything I grew, so mine is mostly monoculture too, though I don’t do anything to deal with weeds, so I have a lot of wildflowers. Also a lot of trees. The spiderwort is my favorite.

    You can go here for a photo:

  16. dmac – that sure is a hell of a lot of strawmanning and criticism for “Not a criticism”…

  17. Lovely post, I appreciate the contemplative aspect of the lawn and the spaciousness of the view. I can relate.

  18. @Not the Reddit Chris S.
    Sorry if you read it that way, was not my intention. I struggled to find a way to ask it that was not going to sound like a jerk. I failed. But I feel it is still a fair question.

  19. On rewilding, you can always start small, even real small, like get a packet of native wildflower seeds and plant them in a corner of the property.

  20. I recently purchased a 52V, 42” battery-powered ZTR (zero turn radius) mower to replace my gas-powered Toro ZTR and I couldn’t be more pleased. Since I live in a neighborhood and have a little over a half acre yard I can get two mowings from a single charge.

    I realize battery-powered mower technology has a way to go before it becomes a viable option for commercial mowing companies and it’s certainly not suited for your 5 acre lawn (unless you want to mow a third of it at a time with battery charges in between, or spend additional thousands of dollars for extra batteries), but it’s coming!

  21. That looks like a great lawn for hosting a music festival. Just gotta round up the gang from all the JoCo cruises!

  22. Thank you for answering my question! I’ve always had this dream of moving further out from the city, and was like, “What will I do with so much land?” Your paragraph about it being nice just to sit outside and look at it sounds lovely.

    (Also, I’m now earwormed with Yellow Submarine!)

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