The Great American Delawning Movement
In pursuit of my practically nonstop mission to turn people on to lower-maintenance, more nature-friendly gardening, let’s look again at an American tradition — the lawn. Seems they’ve fallen out of favor because of the large quantities of herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers people dump on them (so much of which ends up in our rivers and bays), plus all the water that’s needed to keep them green and the super-polluting mowers needed to keep them under control. And they’re SO boring to look at.
Need more reasons? On slopes they’re dangerous to mow and in the shade they’re ratty-looking, at best. And unfortunately, this symbol of upper class leisure also requires intense labor on the part of the homeowner. Men in particular are often swept up in the spirit of competitive lawn care and devote insane hours to their care, so my message to you Torojockeys out there is: Get over it!
The Veggie Garden
Watch for news about Edible Estates, a national nonprofit that’s creating regional prototypes in nine cities, including Baltimore. These front yard gardens, though sometimes a jolt to neighborhood aesthetics, harken back to earlier times when even front yards were put to good use. For information about the “fine art of radical gardening,” check out their website.
A popular recommendation for sunny spots, meadows usually contain drought-tolerant grasses and both annual and perennial flowers that are either locally native or well-adapted to the site. Butterfly-attracting plants can be included, as well as spring-blooming bulbs. Just don’t assume that meadows are easy or cheap, or waste your money on those “meadow-in-a-bag” products supposedly suitable for anywhere. (Although the Washington Post has recommended Prairie Nursery and Vermont Wildflower Farm as reputable sources.) Good soil preparation is required, as well as frequent watering and weeding in the first season or two, at least, because without mowing, meadows on the East Coast turn into scrubland and finally, forest. Once established, proponents claim that meadows need mowing only once a year and that eventually watering can be eliminated completely.
If lower maintenance is your goal, a shade garden may be your best bet, since shade reduces both weeds and the need to water. For already-shady spots, just add shrubs and woodland plants that are drought-tolerant, like ferns, hostas, liriope, sedges, plus spring-blooming bulbs. In sunny spots, think long-term and start adding trees next fall. Suggestions about species selection and design are available at the LessLawn website.
Lawn can be replaced with paving, gravel or a long-lasting mulch, especially over landscape fabric or another weed-reducing layer. While low-maintenance, this option is missing the plants we need to not only clean our air and water, but also to smell and enjoy. And clearly it wouldn’t be the first choice of the local birds and bees.
Don’t you dare. Even the NFL players demanded it be declared hazardous.
Ways to Reduce Lawn
- If you remove some turf in order to create beds around your existing trees, there are ancillary benefits to the trees, like protection them from the nicks and cuts inflicted by your mowers and distance from the lime you may be adding to your lawn.
- You could just replacing awkward corners in your lawn with curved planting areas, which make mowing easier.
- The lawn-reducing technique I recommend most often is to create a curved border around the perimeter of the yard and fill it with small trees, shrubs, and spring-blooming bulbs. Homeowners who enjoy caring for plants might also include perennials, annuals and groundcovers. And be sure to keep any bare soil well mulched.
Why Keep a Lawn at All?
Because nothing beats lawn for family recreation and just plain walking across. Designers point out that it rests the eye, which means it makes everything around it look better. It also absorbs water well, thus preventing erosion. Although reasonable people sometimes disagree with this assertion, I can report that turf has done a great job holding the soil on my hillside garden over the decades.
Another provocative assertion comes from a source at a local mainly-organic nursery, who told me that turf produces more oxygen per square foot than “anything else” and that replacing it with a patio or a single tree would be a net loss to air quality.
And there’s evidence that humans prefer open areas near their homes because we’re savannah animals. I discovered that recently myself when I tried replacing my own back yard with a meadow — read all about it here — including some terrific comments from gardeners and professionals around the country.