Essay: Judith Fetterley’s In Praise of Grass

As summer slowly starts to ebb here in the Northern Plains, periodic showers fortify the infamous “frog days of summer” where the region musters a bare imitation of humidity to give folks something to complain about while in line at the supermarket. The mild temperatures and the rain remind us that we live on a grassland prairie where grasses of various kinds should thrive. This favorable climate evokes mixed feelings as it compels me to mow my lawn, but it also fills me with the kind of pleasant anticipation that only comes at the change of seasons.

In celebration of this conflicted moment, I am happy to share Judith Fetterley’s brilliant essay “In Praise of Grass” which appeared in NDQ 88.3/4. I encourage you to think about, as I do, next time you mow a lawn, walk through the park, or think about summertime grass under your feet. 

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal, or otherwise supporting the arts. I heartily recommend grabbing a copy of the new issue of Hotel Amerika which is celebrating its 20th anniversary by publishing an anthology of some its most creative, provocative, and stimulating work. Grab a copy here.      

In Praise of Grass

“Honey, I shrunk the lawn.” I long to say this to my next-door neighbor as she waves to me on her walk. I have just finished spreading the final load of mulch on my new native-plants-only garden. I have no business making a new garden. I already have too many and I am not getting any younger. Still, I am a convert to the ecologists’ message on grass: get rid of it. It’s a dead zone. Keeping a grass lawn wastes water, mowers spew carbon, and more herbicides and pesticides are used on the suburban lawn than in all of agriculture.

The problem is, I love my lawn. I love the common ordinary grasses that make up a lawn in our part of the world—the tall fescues and the fine fescues, the perennial ryes and the Kentucky bluegrass. I love these grasses separately and I love them collectively. I love the carpet these grasses make, that green “thing” we see every day, forget is a plant, and take for granted. Of course grass covers the ground around our houses. What else would? We cannot imagine our world without grass and so we do not attend to it. We have lost our sense of wonder and along with it our sense of responsibility.

Everyone wants a lawn, but few want to care for it. I weed my lawn and it takes two hours. I live on a suburban lot that covers two-thirds of an acre. The property includes a house and gardens, so how large is just the lawn? Hardly half an acre, I would suppose. I have help, so to be accurate, I should say the weeding takes four hours. Kevin views weeding the lawn askance.

“Judy,” he says, his kind eyes shading into pity, “no one weeds their lawn.”

“My point precisely,” I respond. “Let’s model the right relationship between plant and person for the neighbors.” Moving rapidly towards a soapbox, I say “What is the social, psychological, even spiritual cost of so many people wanting something they are not willing to take care of?”

Yes, I know what you are about to say. I too see the trucks with labels like TruGreen, Bloomin’ Green, and Green Thumb splashed all over their sides in my neighborhood. Every day I hear the engines of their mowers rev and race. In the spring, yellow signs pop up everywhere, more common than daffodils: “Pesticide application. Do not enter.” Surely this constitutes care.

Once, during a difficult time in my life, I contacted a lawn care service. Mr. B. came highly recommended. He was an independent operator, not part of a TruGreen or Bloomin’ Green network. He assured me that he cared about lawns; he assured me that he “cut high, and on demand, only when the lawn needs it, Mrs. F.” Mr. B. had just been stiffed by a contractor who went bankrupt owing him a lot of money for lawns he had installed at the developer’s new homes. Other neighbors had hired him. I hired him. And then I never saw him again.

Instead, I watched as every Monday morning at 10:00 a.m. a surly unshaven youth, for whom the term “horticulture” no doubt conjured up a world far removed from grass and grow, showed up in a truck. He backed an enormous mower down a ramp, put on his ear protectors, revved the engine to roar and set off across my lawn. It mattered not how short the grass nor how wet the ground. “Mulching” formed no part of his vocabulary. He scalped, he bagged, and he took out anything in his way. After two months, I fired the service. I could see that over time this approach would kill my lawn.

I understand Mr. B’s dilemma. He might actually care about grass, unlike the people he hires, but there is no way he could “cut on demand” and stay in business. For him to survive, the lawns must be cut every week, on the day he schedules, no matter the cost to the grass. And since most people want their grass cut short, the mowers are set to three inches or lower. No surly youth will change the setting of the mower for someone who wants their lawn cut high.

Unfortunately, these practices do not constitute care. Rather they create lawns that require more and more of the services these companies provide. It’s a vicious cycle, and it goes like this: The so-called lawn care companies mow every Monday whether the grass needs it or not. They start at 8:00 a.m. when the grass is wet, not dry. They mow low, scalping the lawn and leaving the fescues and ryes and bluegrass to fry under the sun. This gives dandelions, crabgrass, and creeping Charlie the conditions they need to flourish. Responding to the homeowner’s frantic calls, the companies then apply herbicides to kill the weeds they have allowed to grow by cutting the grass so short. This compromises the soil, which supports the roots, which support the grasses, and leads to dieback. Fertilizer is then applied to “strengthen” the weakened grass. This provides a quick green flourish but does nothing to nurture the roots. The result of this so-called care is plants in trouble.

My next-door neighbor is on the 8:00 a.m. Thursday schedule. When Tender Lovin’ Lawn Care arrives, I want to stand in the street in front of their house with a large sign that reads “Plant Murder in Progress.” I want to set up a video that shows in excruciating detail what happens to grass when it is cut too short and too wet. I want to hand out a flyer to those passing by that shouts out the mantra of good lawn care: cut high, cut only when needed, water less, keep blades sharp, mulch. I want my neighbors to mow their own lawns. I want my neighbors to weed their own lawns. I want my neighbors to cut the cost that comes from wanting something they aren’t willing to care for.


Actually, I want a lot more than this. I want to change the way my neighbors see the grass. I want my neighbors to realize that what they call a lawn is a ground cover comprised of hundreds of thousands of individual plants. All very common, all very ordinary, all miraculous, all capable of creating a sense of wonder.

Think of it this way: My grass comes back year after year. It gives me green, beautiful living green, for seven months of the year. It covers with this green every part of my property that is not house or garden. My grass lets me walk on it, play croquet on it, lie down in it, run and jump on it, all without much complaining. No other ground cover does so much work so widely and so well. Why shouldn’t I love it? Why shouldn’t I attend to it? Why shouldn’t I praise it? Why shouldn’t it be the place where one who prays earthward finds God?

Walt Whitman liked grass.

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,” says Whitman.

And what, you might ask, does he mean by “journeywork?” The work, of course, of a journeyman. And what is a journeyman? Any worker who does work that is necessary, competent, and routine. For Walt Whitman, the beauty of grass lies in the fact that it is journeywork. And the beauty of God lies in the fact that God is a journeyman—competent, common, ordinary, and thus miraculous. Whitman asks us to celebrate grass as the most common of the common and to celebrate the common as the playground of the soul.

What, you might also ask, does Whitman, writing in 1855, mean by “grass”? Certainly not the turf mixture I adore, because that came into being only in the early twentieth century. Perhaps he meant a swathe of the clover mix recommended for a lawn by A. J. Downing in his influential A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, first published in 1841, a mix he described as composed of “two natural grasses found by almost every roadside.” Common, ordinary. Books on the history of gardening in the United States have little to say about what plants actually composed a lawn at any given time. The authors of these books seem to take grass as much for granted as my neighbors do, for they assume we know what plants they refer to when they use the words “grass” or “lawn.”

But perhaps Whitman was thinking of one of the many grasses grown in fields for the feeding of cattle. Most certainly he meant his own poem, as “leaf” is another word for “page,” and “grass” was a term publishers gave to works they assumed to be of minor value. False humility or a recognition that the common is always considered to be of minor value? Yet no matter the precise plant that was grass to Whitman, as I “lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass,” I too can invite my soul to experience the miracle of the common, the ordinary, the routine.


Don’t worry, I have not breathed a word of this to my neighbors. They already think I am crazy for weeding my lawn and cutting high. Instead, I am preaching the gospel of “shrink the lawn.” People respond to ecology. The photo of a dead bee moves them and the thought of attracting birds attracts them. I have put my new native-plants-only garden in my front yard on purpose. I intend to proselytize by example. If I shrink the lawn enough by making still more new gardens, I can switch to an electric mower and there’s a message there.

Besides, I am no fool. I know my chances of getting my neighbors to shrink their lawn are much higher than my chances of getting them to do the work of caring for their lawns or getting them to find God in a fine fescue. So I will lean and loaf at my ease in a smaller space, contemplating the bees and birds my new garden attracts. And I will cultivate still my own sense of wonder with fescue, rye, and bluegrass spear.


Judith Fetterley lives, writes, and gardens in upstate New York. She owns and manages a garden design business, Perennial Wisdom. She writes about gardening as a way of telling stories about what it means to be human. Her newsletter appears as “Out in the Garden” and can be viewed on her website.

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