Monthly Archives: June 2014

Our Green Wasteland—The Great American Lawn

“Embrace Reel Life”
Image of vintage mowers from CanStockPhoto

(Originally published in The Denver Post, February 22, 2009)

This is an essay I wrote some years back when I had the privilege to be one of the “Colorado Voices” columnists at The Denver Post. I think it’s also one of the most important essays I’ve ever written, especially in light of the honeybee collapses that we now know are caused by the use of insecticides and other toxins.

—Sandra Knauf

* * *

My sister and I ended many summer afternoons in the 1970s green from the knees of our jeans down, sweaty, and reeking of gas and exhaust. As servants of the Great American Lawn, we regularly mowed ours, the elderly Miss Howard’s next door, our grandma’s, and once in a while, our great Aunt Flora’s.

It was work that was necessary and our lawn in particular was well used—the six kids in our family played games of tag, pitch and catch, badminton, and we used the space, as teenagers, for sunbathing. Dad saw physical labor as the best character-builder, so he “volunteered” us to maintain it. We received $5 a lawn, to share.

I didn’t mind the work but Missouri summers were hot and humid, and occasionally at Miss Howard’s I ran over a toad (a horrifying thing).

I learned more about turf at age 20, verifying sales for a lawn-care company in Colorado Springs. I telephoned clients, confirming that they had joined our fertilizer/weed killer program, with insecticide and/or fungicide treatments as needed. With our help, their lawns would be the envy of the neighborhood!

During our one-day training, we learned to instruct clients with pets to remove dog and cat bowls before spraying, as there had been pet deaths from tainted water. We also cautioned them to keep pets and people off the grass until the applications dried. It sickened me to realize that the men who drove the trucks and sprayed these toxins daily would inhale them, get them on their clothing, their skin, and bring these toxins home. I wondered why people would pay good money for lawns you wouldn’t want a baby crawling on.

A decade later, as a college grad, mom, and hobby gardener, I had my own lawn—or, rather, weed/native grass lot. Seduced by the American ideal, we installed sod in our backyard. For a while, it looked gorgeous; but without pampering, chemicals or a sprinkler system, it deteriorated fast. In Colorado, lawns require constant life support.

A few years later when I became a master gardener, I determined to get rid of our lawn. Bit by bit, with a tiny budget and lots of elbow grease, I created a garden instead—with fruit trees, herbs, flowers, native plants, sandstone paths, even a goldfish pond. I kept patches of grass/weeds for our dogs (and the occasional badminton game for the kids) and maintained it with a reel mower, enjoying a good workout in the process. Our established garden requires much less maintenance than a lawn. Except for the vegetable garden, I water once a week, deeply, and I do not water the grass/weeds at all.

I realize that turf is a multibillion-dollar U.S. industry (in Colorado it’s our #1 cash crop!) and many are wedded to the old ways. Lawns, those pretty green carpets, do have an aesthetic charm and they are good for sports. But they don’t support butterflies, honeybees, birds, other wildlife, or much of anything else. Caring for one is the antithesis of green. Five percent of all our nation’s air pollution comes from gas-powered lawn mowers. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one gas-powered mower, used for one hour, emits as much pollution as eight new cars, driven at 55 mph for the same time.

According to the EPA, Americans burn 800 million gallons of fuel each year trimming their lawns. Of this, 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. This is more than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Fertilizer pollution is a huge problem, and lawns require significant water, yet another burden on our limited resources.

In addition, nearly 80 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients are used on U. S. lawns annually. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that “homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.”

It’s past time to see traditional lawns for what they have become: antiquated, wasteful, and harmful. I propose that we return to our roots—cottage gardens. Gardens assist nature on a meaningful scale and they are excellent outdoor classrooms/playgrounds for children and adults. My children had more fun in our backyard than I ever did in the 1970s as they had chickens, and flowers, and a pond—and lots of places to let their imagination run wild. Our home landscapes can also provide us with locally-grown food. You cannot grow luscious plums, pull up sweet carrots, snip chives for your potatoes (and grow potatoes, too), pick wildflower bouquets, or provide bird sanctuary or forage for honeybees with a grass lawn.

As the industrialized world races toward green living, homeowners everywhere can make a difference. It’s easy; take up your shovel and start getting rid of your lawn.

References: People Powered Machines,; Environment and Human Health, Inc.,;


Filed under DIY

Rainbow’s Bride – Love Among the Betta splendens

Betta splendens, image from 123RF

Betta splendens (image from 123RF)


This is something a little different. It’s not about gardening; it is, however, about the mysteries and wonders of nature.

A true story I wrote some years back about love among the fishes . . .

—Sandra Knauf


Rainbow’s Bride

“She’s going to kill him. You need to separate them,” Mom said.

“I don’t know. Maybe I should check around, ask first.”

On her phone, Mom couldn’t see what I did—that the possibility of mortal danger, had passed, at least for now. “What I’ve heard,” she said, in her slightly southern accent, “is that they’ll kill each other.”

“But I don’t want to take care of two bowls.”

She ignored my comment. “When I had that tank in Missouri, that’s what the man at the pet store told us. And he was right. We didn’t even have another Betta for him to fight with, but that didn’t stop him, he started biting off the fins of the other fish!”

I imagined Mom loading the dishwasher (or doing something else, she was always multi-tasking), her blue eyes animated, her expression certain. We looked alike, but that’s where it ended. She was hotness and surety; I, coolness and doubt. “This is different, Mom. I have a male and female. It’s just the two of them.”

“If she’s chewing off his fins,” Mom declared, “she’s going to kill him.”

* * *

“Him” was Rainbow, our second Betta splendens, or Siamese fighting fish. Selected and named by our seven-year-old daughter, Lily, he was last summer’s spontaneous fish buy at a local big box. I approved the purchase for two reasons; one, she’d asked for a fish, instead of a toy, and I was a big fan of real life experiences (hence our five backyard chickens, two dogs, and rescued canary), and two, our previous fighting fish did not live up to his name, at least when it came to survival. I figured Rainbow, handsome as he was with his metallic blue and red coloration, would not be a long-term house guest.

He proved surprisingly hardy. Lily’s chore was to feed him, and I cleaned his gallon-sized, bubble-shaped glass bowl. Every few days Rainbow and I went through the same routine; I’d chase him briefly until I captured him in his original plastic cup. He’d react claustrophobically, fins waving maniacally, darting around like he was looking for the secret passageway out. While he waited in semi-panic, I’d swoosh out his habitat’s fetid water, scrub the bowl, refill it (gauging the water’s temperature by feel), add the magic de-chlorination stuff, and slide him back in.

He always seemed pleasantly surprised at the change in pollution level, delighted with the new air bubbles. It must be boring, I’d think, in that bowl every day, though I’d read that Bettas actually thrived in tight spaces. A book I’d shared with our two young daughters said that they were gathered from the street gutters of Thailand for export. Still, his life seemed lonely, uneventful, sorely lacking.

I tried to make his solitary life more interesting. At summer’s end, I floated a water hyacinth from our small backyard pond in the bowl. Rainbow swam among the tangle of roots until the plant decayed and I had to throw it out. Then I added a bare-root elephant ear plant, but it, too, fouled the water. Since I work at home, sometimes I’d take a minute to tease him with the tip of my finger on the glass, making him follow it in defense of his territory. Approaching the pink, faceless invader, he’d spread his fins wide and flare his gill covers. Through the magnified glass his head became huge, in a theatrical fish-Kabuki way, and quite menacing. I thought about getting him a mirror so he’d have someone to challenge daily, but changed my mind. Being on the defense is not the same as companionship.

We’d had him for almost a year when my husband, Andy, brought home a trio of bamboo cuttings he happened to find in the markdown area of the grocery store. I added them to the bowl, thanking Andy for the Far East plants, a clever addition.

“That bamboo should only be in an inch or so of water,” my mom pointed out on her next visit.

By summer vacation, our daughters had another strategy—we’d search for a real companion for Rainbow, a girl Betta, a mate. On the big day, Zora, eleven, had her turn; she would choose Rainbow’s bride. She selected a small peachy-white fish with short blood-red fins and gill slits. Though not as peacock dramatic as the long-finned males of the species, she had two unusual markings—a small black spot on her back, near her tail, and an opalescent blue patch just under her dorsal fin. The girls named this charming female Cloud. I secretly hoped she’d be as hardy as her bowl mate.

I tidied the bowl for their big date, and we gently delivered her into the clear water. Immediately, Rainbow flared his gills and fins and went after her, all fiery red-cobalt blue fury. Cloud fled to the drab pebble covered bottom and stayed there, still, as if she were hoping to camouflage herself or fly the white flag, while Rainbow hovered above her, brooding, majestic, his draping fins floating beneath him like a silk kimono. Each day we checked to see if she was moving around freely. Rainbow would not let her. The male Betta, a merciless bully, chased her anytime she dared to stir, his gills flared, fins flashing, seemingly furious.

“Oh, he’s horrible!” squealed the girls. “Get her away from him, he’s so much bigger than her.”

“Let’s wait,” I said. Though I didn’t voice it, I thought he probably wasn’t that much bigger, though his fins made him appear thrice her size.

Once Cloud stayed so long at the bottom I thought her dead, but she was only, once again, playing fish-possum, the opalescent patch on her back gleaming. She seemed to have no injuries but my conscience prickled. Had I sent her to an evil fate? I imagined an Asian romance. Cloud, a young geisha, thrown into the fortress of a handsome, yet aging and cranky samurai, forced to wed. How she must despise him, I thought.

Several days later, about a week after Cloud came to the bowl, the weather changed. My daughter Zora was the first to notice Rainbow’s long fins. They looked shredded. Soon I witnessed Cloud in action. She chased him, nipping his long, lovely fins mercilessly with her tiny, down-turned mouth. When she made contact, he’d jolt, as if shot through with electricity. A part of me cheered for her, for Rainbow’s bride-turned-bride of Frankenstein, but for the most part the display horrified me. I sprinkled in more dried bloodworms, their preferred food, wondering if hunger could be the provocation. No, she had a hunger, but not for food. She chased him relentlessly, rarely giving him a rest. Over a few days’ time, his fins became more and more ragged, now like silk kites tattered by a treacherous wind. I wondered if he bled. If he felt pain.

“You should separate them,” the girls cried. Now they were on the other side, witnessing the havoc one small damsel could wreck.

“Maybe I will,” I said.

* * *

While my mother often gave great advice, she wasn’t always right (though she often thought she was.) After our “she’s going to kill him” conversation, I decided to seek an expert opinion.

The girls and I visited a nearby pet store, another chain store, and I cornered a clerk near the aquaria.

“Um, I’m not really sure how they get along, the males and the females,” said the pasty-complexioned teenager. He wielded a fish net, scooping out goldfish for another customer, who had a turtle to feed. Zora and Lily were a little upset to learn the goldfish wouldn’t be the turtle’s friends, but his meals. “The only thing I can tell you is that I know a lady who collects Bettas, has a whole row of them on her fireplace mantle in their little bowls. She says she moves them around if they don’t get along, and lots of times they don’t.”

Okaaaay, I thought, that tells me nothing. The fish-catcher smiled politely, hoping I’d be satisfied. I pressed him for more. There wasn’t any. The book I had at home gave no insight either. While it may sound macabre, I had a secret scheme. I wanted to see how the water opera would play out. Would Cloud go as far to try to kill Rainbow? Would I be able to rescue him in time if she did? Sick or not, I wanted to find out. I held my breath and kept watch.

Over the next days, Rainbow’s fins grew shorter and shorter, until they matched Cloud’s in size. Just as I expected, he wasn’t much larger. Then one afternoon he seemed sluggish. A guilty queasiness washed through me. This is it, I thought, he’s mortally wounded and I’m responsible. I have caused this. All that afternoon I was miserable. I knew, without a doubt, that the ASPCA or PETA would be justified in hauling me off to animal cruelty jail.

Then, the next morning, the barometer changed again. Rainbow seemed fine. My gloom lifted as I watched them swim to the top together, side by side, for their feeding. Practically chummy.

“I think the fish are getting along,” I told Andy, as I peered into the fishbowl after breakfast, “now that his fins are short.”

“Now that she’s castrated him, you mean,” replied my mate, who up to this point had been mute on the whole unfolding drama. I watched him sitting at the head of the table, drinking coffee, reading the paper. He took a sip from his mug and grinned naughtily at me.

“Ha, ha,” I said. “Yes, it probably doesn’t have anything to do with equality.” Our twenty-year marriage had taught me volumes about the male-female power struggle. At times I would feel almost sympathetic toward Andy, in his own fishbowl with a trio of regularly dramatic females (and a mother-in-law). Then, I’d come to my senses.

As I watched the Bettas, optimism filled me. Sure, the honeymoon was a little rocky, but it seemed like they may have settled into married life. I noticed something else. Cloud seemed to bulge a bit around the middle. It’s probably my imagination, I thought, and didn’t mention it.

Several hours later, on the phone with Mom again, discussing the pros and cons of letting elementary-aged children watch PG-13 rated films, I happened to glance at the bowl. Rainbow was draped over Cloud, his body curved as if in rigor mortis.

“Oh, no,” I said, jumping up from my chair in an uncharacteristic panic, “something’s going on with the fish.”

“Is he dead?” Mom’s voice echoed my alarm, with only the slightest tinge of I-told-you-so anticipation.

“I’ll call you back.” I hung up and raced to the bowl. Rainbow’s body was indeed curved, arching over Cloud’s, and, upon closer observation, I saw that she was turned upside down, her body curved as well. Together they made a skewed yin-yang, round eyes embracing the essence of one another. They seemed motionless, except for the tiny quivering of Rainbow’s tail fin. Soon they separated and Cloud, now lying sideways, motionless, curved, as if in a state of paralysis, began to drop whitish tiny eggs from her vent.

As they drifted down, Rainbow, now completely animated, swam below her and caught them in his mouth. One, two, three, four . . . he gathered them, then headed upwards, where he gently blew them out on the top of the water. There they nestled in a line of translucent bubbles that had not been there that morning. Again the fish came together in their yin-yang embrace, again the eggs were dropped, gathered, and gently placed in their bubble nest.

During the mating, I called the girls in to see.

“Mom, this is gross,” Zora said.

“Oh, it’s sorta interesting,” said Lily.

“It’s beautiful.” I sighed, caught in the wonder of it all.

The egg laying went on for a couple of hours, until scores of tiny roe encircled the bowl.

All along we had been witnessing not an underwater prelude to murder but an intense courtship. I knew now that I had sensed something strangely familiar in the love dance, one of seeming aggression, one that brings a male and female together for their ultimate purpose—the creation of new life.

I stood at the bowl and smiled, pleased that I followed my instincts, and honored to be a witness in this marriage among the fishes.

Betta splendens, spawning. From Wikimedia Commons.

Betta splendens, spawning. From Wikimedia Commons.


Epilogue: After this event I researched raising Betta splendens and learned that it was tricky to hatch these eggs in captivity, even with the proper environment. We only had the bowl set up and they really needed to be in a aquarium with a cleaning filter and a bubble wand, and a clean environment was a must (bacteria is a danger to the eggs and fry). So, the outcome wasn’t good. I didn’t have the time or the money to attempt to save this surprise clutch of eggs and the nest disappeared on its own after a few days. (Yes, it was sad.)

Rainbow and Cloud’s relationship didn’t last, either. She became aggressive again and for his safety they had to be separated.

It was an intense but brief romance.

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Filed under Garden Writers We Love

Artists in my Garden

Garage and Canadian Explorer Rose Painting by Laura Reilly

Garage and Canadian Explorer Rose Painting by Laura Reilly

This week something very interesting and unexpected happened in my garden. A group of talented painters came over, set up easels, took out canvasses, sketch pads and paints, and set to work doing something that I never imagined would happen in my garden—they memorialized it in fine art.

I knew I couldn’t turn down this opportunity when Karen Storm wrote me in late April. She said my name had come up during a meeting in her group of plein air artists, “Garden Artists.” You can visit their Facebook Page here. They paint in gardens and a variety of other landscapes throughout our region twice a week. During the meeting someone mentioned the “Greenwoman” who was in the paper last year. Apparently my cottage garden sounded intriguing and they decided to give me a call. Karen said that she knew me from the neighborhood community garden and volunteered to contact me. Another friend in the group knew me too, Pat Nolan, whose haiku (and painting) has appeared in Greenwoman Magazine. (It’s a small art world where I live.)

"Old Garage" by Pam Holnback

“Old Garage” by Pam Holnback

I said yes right away. Exciting! I thought. Then I thought, Oh, shit, I’ve got so much work to do!!! And I did. I had just finished our tax season bookkeeping work (my second job) and had done no gardening yet. In fact, none had been done since fall, when we hauled in that topsoil and a truckload of antibiotic/hormone free/grass fed cow manure for my new raised vegetable beds that were built and filled (mostly) but were still not planted.

Our garden space, front and back, two lots, is maintained by a crew of me, and my daughters Lily and Zora, when they’re around. Unfortunately, they haven’t been around a lot since they started college. That’s it. So, I got to work and every week it took many hours just to hope to get it presentable by June. I was fortunate enough one day to get my nephews out for most of one day to pull weeds, (thank you, Cory and Cody), and Zora and her friend on another (thank you, Boomer) but that was the only outside help. Our family did the rest, with me doing the majority. Planting, weeding, mowing (with a push mower as most of our grass has been replaced with water-wise plants), tending to vegetable beds, flower beds, new beds, pots, tiny greenhouse, small pond, the list goes on forever it seems (if you’re a gardener and don’t have hired help, you know what I mean).

Needless to say I immediately got a little stressed, but I also had that satisfied premonition of “NOW I’m going to get some things done around here, because I have to!” Then a few insecurities rose up, because our sweet 1920s bungalow home is modest and very low budget. I’m the type of gal who recycles old bathtubs and clay roof tiles for planters and whose main palette of plants are hardy and promiscuous seeders and spreaders. Russian sage, blue mist spirea, mints, comfrey, wild roses, clary sage, borage, native “weeds” such as mullein and sunflower, and many more that others would find too pedestrian are welcomed here.

In comparison, I knew these artists were probably more used to the gardens of multi-millionaires. I have visited many one-percenter gardens myself. I even worked in some during a summer one year, just to see what it was like. (Beautiful, but not my cup of tea.) These gardens are usually lovely and often have amenities like sprinkler systems and unlimited water use, amenities I can only dream of! But don’t get me wrong, I’m not jealous. I actually like mine better. Because I’m really the gardener. Honestly, when you have a landscape designer, head gardener with weekly work crews, and an enormous budget . . . well, to me, that’s not really being a gardener. Not my kind of gardener anyway. To me, a gardener gets bruised and scratched and walks around in a stupor sometimes, tired because she’s been planting all day, and not knowing where to put the little plant she’s delicately holding in her hand. She intimately knows the birds and insects that call her garden home. They know her, too, because they see her so often. They stay out of each other’s way, unless she needs to rescue a honeybee from the lily pond or a web, or move a spider to a spot where it makes her feel more comfortable. She makes a lot of gardening “mistakes” (kills a lot of plants) and that teaches her more than any class could. There’s never a perfect canvas to start with or a perfect design or enough money in the budget.

And all is a work in progress.

Garden Artist Bridget O'Hara

Garden Artist Bridget O’Hara

My type of gardener does the best she can with what she has, and she loves her garden because it represents and nurtures her life. It’s not a showplace, it’s a part of her personality and soul. Failures and successes, hopes and dreams, passalong plants from friends, memories of every shrub planted and where it came from and how long it’s taken to get from twig to proper size are known. If she has children her garden is especially precious as it holds memories of a joyous playground (sometimes with fairies and exotic chickens).

Although my love is great, I couldn’t help but feel a little insecure about this visit. Luckily, I don’t let my insecurities stop me. My daughter Lily and I worked hard nearly every day, cleaning, hauling, planting, pruning. During the time we had two hailstorms to contend with and recover from and we hauled two truckloads of mulch and pink sandstone gravel to replenish areas that needed it most. And then the day arrived. The ladies came and nothing was perfect. (I could tell you how naughty our two little dogs were, but I won’t, I’m still too embarrassed. Let’s just say they pulled every ill-mannered dog act they could think of.) But then again, on second thought, it actually was perfect. I got to see a few old friends and meet a few new ones. I found out we were all deep and true lovers of the garden.


Garden Artist Marianne Flenniken

The paintings tell it all. It was a beautiful experience.

"Waterlily in Sandra's Garden" by Karen Storm

“Waterlily in Sandra’s Garden” by Karen Storm

Thank you for a very memorable June day, Garden Artists! I hope one day you’ll come back when I have it a little more together, or the dahlias are in bloom, or the tomatoes or coming on . . . or, heck, just come back anyway . . .

—Sandra Knauf


Filed under DIY

Fracking Ads – Wolves in Farmers’ Clothing

Little Red Riding Hood by Arthur Rackham, via Wikimedia Commons

Little Red Riding Hood by Arthur Rackham, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve had this blog for a while now. It’s important to me as a writer to get my work out into the world and I like to post about gardening, art, the environment, my writing projects, and sometimes my family. I like to share those things I find important in life (or fascinating, or fun) as connected to my passions and I hope others will share their lives with me. A very few times I have posted about “causes” that I felt were crucial, including my feelings about fracking—when fracking companies began making a determined attempt to begin operations in our beautiful county.

It’s a horrible industry that causes a lot of damage to wildlife, to property, to ourselves (See the film Gasland and scores of other sources). It’s not “safe,” it’s not “clean.” Maybe the worst aspect is that fracking requires vast amounts of our most limited natural resource, water, and contaminates it. There are better ways to harness energy and we must take that harder road. The fracking companies want to force us down the road that is paved, by them, and which profits them. Everything they do says one thing clearly: they don’t give a damn about the future.

Last Saturday I was incensed to learn that there was a fracking ad, right here, on my WordPress blog. Without my consent or knowledge, and without me even knowing about it! Others could see it, I couldn’t. A friend wrote me asking, “Did you know that below that [latest] post on your website is an ad for fracking?”

I wrote WordPress a complaint and asked how I could see what ads were being posted on my site. They sent me a link with a lot of explaining about different browsers showing different ads and outside companies placing ads and how you can avoid unwanted ads by purchasing a Premium site. Also something about taking a screenshot of an ad if it appears on your site after you have purchased their Premium package and contacting them again. How can I take a screenshot if I can’t see it? 

I’m not naïve and I knew that as long as I was enjoying a “free” blog site that it would be possible for others to buy ad space on it. I have nothing against advertising on blogs (aren’t we all kind of numb to ads everywhere?) and I thought that it would be fine if the ad was something I’m not opposed to—which would be most things.

So. The time had come. I ponied up $79 additional dollars a year to make sure no outside ads were posted on my site. 

Here’s the ad that legally trespassed on my “land.”

From “Anne Kern, cast here as an everyday rancher whose neighbors were ‘surprised’ when she allowed fracking on her land, is perhaps the least surprising frackster you can imagine: Annie Brewster Kern, a staff member for Republican Senator Wayne Allard from 2002-2009.”

Read more here.

A case of a wolf in fake farmer’s clothing?

What gets me is not the expense of having to counter those who would contradict my work and my beliefs (though $79 is significant to me these days). What gets me is the calculated deceit of the fracking company. These companies desperately want to appear “green” (the opposite of what they really are) and they are trying to trick people into accepting this deceit through numerous methods. One is (obviously) looking up pro-environment blogs that are not “protected” with “no ad” protection money and plastering their lies there. I have also seen their fake “cause” come up on One day I signed a petition and immediately another petition popped up about supporting cheap energy. I’m all for that so I looked a little closer. It was a pro-fracking petition!

I just thought I’d warn you. Keep your eyes open for the big bad lying-through-his-teeth wolf. And if for some reason you see an ad here on Flora’s Forum that looks wrong I do hope you’ll let me know.

She knows it aint' grandma . . . so do you.

She knows it’s not her sweet grandma . . . and so do you. 

(Illustration by Gustave Doré via Wikimedia Commons.)


—Sandra Knauf


June 7, 2014 · 9:53 pm