Susan Harris
All about gardening the eco-friendly way, by Susan Harris and 22 other garden writers and experts.

The most gorgeous mixed-species “lawn” I’ve ever seen

January 25, 2010 · 9 comments

Garden writer Julie Shapiro, whose 1/4-acre garden is in Hull, MA along the Boston Harbor, sent me these photos of her "eco-lawn", and the story behind it. That interesting tale includes far more than lawn, though.  Her 1885 house has a colorful history that includes lobster boats being stored alongside it, so Julie's first job on the site was to get rid of some asphalt and lots of soil filled with metal lobster trap shards, glass and other sharp dangerous things. But because her land is in a A1 flood plain – meaning an area of special flood hazard – "care had to be given to the plant material and lawn, if there was to be any."

That official status meant that Julie had to go before the town's Conservation Committee with copious amounts of documentation from all sorts of agencies about her plans for the yard, including exactly how many times her new peastones had been washed.  New surfaces needed to be permeable.  Even her new 200-square-foot lawn-type area had to be spec'ed and approved – and that's where we pick up the story of her eco-lawn.

My research on what to do with the "lawn" brought me to the developing of an ecolawn or biolawn, an ecologicaly-based area (consisting of plants suitable for the region we live in, and are both drought and shade tolerant, don’t thatch, as grass does, and is attractive to look at, doing away with constant “mowing, spraying , fertilizing and watering, thereby conserving water and energy, protecting the soils surface, and  having a lovely and safe alternative to “a patch of green”.

This is what we proposed to the Conservation Committee, and after receiving our positive declaration proceeded to hand sow a mix of Colonial Bentgrass (Agrostis tenuis), Strawberry clover (Trifolium fragiferum) and Dutch White Clover (T. repens), Wild English Daisies (Bellis perennis), Roman Chamomile (Anthemus nobilis), Yarrow (Achillea millifolium), and Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii), low-growing thyme, and small spring ephemeral bulbs.

These photos are of our lawn. We are proud of it, have to mow it with our reel mower very rarely, and it blooms, feeds itself, and has become a comfort for our feet and a comfort to us.  We did this right and we are happy with all the work and effort we put in to doing it right.

At the 11-year mark, the annual clover, leaving bare patches, has me on the move to decide what to reseed in its place. I do reseed with clover and chamomile every other year, but I would like more thyme. It seems the thyme grows well and lives happily in these reclaimed spots, as a hermit crab would in retaking another's space.

That is our story and we're sticking to it.

Thanks, Julie!


1 JP January 25, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I like it! Very pretty. We have a wet clay lawn that needs to be aerated badly. I was recommended to plant daikon, which like the clover will deeply penetrate clay if you plant the right variety (I think daikon wants sand.) I haven't seen it planted and wonder how it would look as a big swath.

2 how it grows January 26, 2010 at 10:25 am

Your lawn looks great and the photo and list of species is very helpful.

3 Kate Kruesi January 26, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Regarding the wet clay lawn comment above. Daikon variety (Minowase recommended), makes a good annual cover crop/clay soil rejuvenator in the first (and second!) year, but is not a lawn option. I've tried it (a recommendation) and it survived and thrived in wet clay subsoil where I'm now installing a slow soil-improving planting of Baptisias, Dalea, asters, Echinaceas, and Andropogon and Sorghastrum grasses (a long term "mulch source"). I'm needing a privacy screen, not more lawn. The lawn path surrounding/setting it off, is all volunteer fescues and other onsite/blown in species that tolerate the conditions.
Another option is to add mulch materials with a light hand over the problem lawn area to slowly increase soil organic matter/lighten the clay soil structure and encourage the species already growing.
And kudos to Julie Shapiro's lawn species creativity. The challenge is to discover and use as many regional natives to accomplish the same goal. Our fields and lawns are filled with species we have brought with us from all over the world and that continue to spread. Can we come up with "local options"?

4 Gail January 26, 2010 at 7:34 pm

This is the type of  lawn I am aiming toward!  I've tried over seeding it with the white yarrow, clover and Western Daisy.  So far the clover and Western Daisy have made the strongest showing.  Thanks, Susan for posting this!  gail

5 Julie January 27, 2010 at 1:30 pm

It's beautiful! I have to add some flair to my purely utilitarian vegetable garden and this gave me some inspiration. By the way, what do you use to keep pests off your plants and flowers? I've been using the organic Safer Brand insect killer since I don't want nasty chemicals sprayed on my food. Here's the link for those organic buffs like me:
Anyone use another organic pesticide?

6 rama nayeri January 27, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I had to be honest that I don't really consider lawns to be sustainable.  Why waste that space and use valuable real estate.   

7 Susan Tomlinson January 28, 2010 at 8:47 am

Oh, that is very, very cool. Most excellent.

8 Susan Tomlinson January 28, 2010 at 8:58 am

Linking this to my sustainability page.

9 kaarina February 11, 2010 at 1:52 am

Great post here!  I am sending this to my whole family who all live on the east coast near the water in Boston area (Mattapoisett) and really want to replace their existing lawn with something more sustainable.  That mixture sounds perfect for that region with its conservation needs.  Just awesome to have this information to pass along!… how does it do with the deer in that area?  I know they are cute, but very hungry!
Thank you Julie!! Thank you Susan. 

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