In my relentless quest to keep readers up to date on lower-maintenance, more nature-friendly gardening, we return to the exciting topic of lawns. They've fallen out of favor because of the vast amounts of herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers people dump on them (so much of which ends up in our Bay), plus all the water that's used 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. Ironically, 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 caring for them. My message to Torojockeys across America: Get over it!
- The Veggie Garden. Watch for news about Edible Estates, a national nonprofit that's creating regional prototypes in 9 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 useful information about the "fine art of radical gardening," see www.EdibleEstates.org.
- The Meadow. Frequently recommended for sunny spots, they usually contain drought-tolerant grasses and flowers that are either native to this area or well-adapted to the site. Butterfly-attracting plants can be included, as well as an underplanting of 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. Careful plant choice and good soil preparation are necessary, as well as frequent watering and weeding in the first season or two, at least. Once established, proponents claim they need mowing only once a year, in the fall, and that eventually watering can be eliminated completely.
- Woodland Garden. If lower maintenance is your goal, a shade garden may be your best bet, since shade reduces both weeds and the need to water. If your yard is sunny, start with a mix of trees to create shade, then add shrubs and woodland plants that are native or drought-tolerant, like ferns, hostas, liriope, mosses or sedges, plus spring-blooming bulbs. Suggestions about species selection and design are available on www.LessLawn.com.
- Hardscape. Seating, paving, gravel and mulch can all replace lawn, especially over landscape fabric or another weed-reducing layer. While low-maintenance, this option is missing the plants we need to clean our air and water and just to look at, smell and enjoy. And clearly it wouldn't be the first choice of the local birds and bees.
- Astroturf? 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, like protecting the trees from the ravages of your mower and keeping them away from any lime you may be adding to your lawn.
- You might cut out your lawn's corners for planting areas, using the curved lines that make mowing easier.
- The lawn-reducing technique I recommend most often is to create curved beds around the perimeter of the yard and fill them 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, meaning it makes everything around it look better. It also absorbs water well, thus preventing erosion. Admittedly there are reasonable people who disagree with this assertion but as a long-time gardener on a hillside, I'm here to tell you it works. Another almost counter-intuitive assertion comes from Ron Barnett of American Plant Food, who told me that turf produces more oxygen per square foot than "anything else" and replacing it with a patio or a single tree would be a net loss to air quality. Judy Tiger of Garden Resources of Washington also reminds us that research has shown that humans prefer open areas surrounded by larger plants because we're "savannah animals." Makes sense to me.
Keeping some lawn but going natural
As Sylvia Wright wrote in Washington Gardener Magazine, "The problem is not the lawn space itself but the overdose of everything from fertilizer and pesticides to water." And though the Chesapeake Club in their terrific Baysafe Program cites our "improper and excessive fertilizing of lawns" as the biggest cause of nutrient runoff into the Bay, they still recommend an organic feeding in the fall because thick, healthy lawns hold more water than thin ones. So DO stop using chemicals like synthetic, fast-acting fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. (For more details about "Earth-Friendly Lawn Care Throughout the Year" see my April 2006 article at www.voice.com.)
To go even more natural, plant some cover and do less weeding. Some weeds actually look good, with a little attitude adjustment. Horticulturist Mitch Baker at American Plant Food flies in the face of the American lawn-care addiction when he brags that his own lawn is more than half weeds.
What I Do
If you're hoping to reduce maintenance requirements, think twice about removing your lawn because the notion that lawns are more work than their alternatives is largely a myth. Just ask the owners of the many beautiful lawnless front yards in our community and they'll laugh at the notion that it takes less work. What does work for me and most of my clients is to use the lawn reduction technique mentioned above - borders. Then, to fill them up, I choose plants that can do all these things in their new location:
- Look healthy and beautiful.
- Resist disease and other pests.
- Require little or no supplemental watering, even in droughts.
- Require no staking.