Shrinking the Lawn
April 12th, 2007
If you’re fed up already with mowing the lawn, maybe it’s time to rethink your strategy.
Do you really want that much grass?
Or did you just default to grass because you never thought about doing anything differently?
More than a few mow-weary homeowners are reducing their lawn space these days and replacing it with other plantings that in most cases are less work and better looking.
Environmental concerns are driving at least some of it. Consider…
* Keeping lawns in tip-top, green-carpet shape takes a lot of fertilizer, herbicides, crabgrass preventers, grub-killers and assorted other concoctions – some of which end up in our well water and waterways.
* If you’re one who likes it thick and green even in droughty summers, lawns suck up a lot of precious water.
* Then there’s the constant mowing, usually with power mowers that burn petroleum, pollute the air with exhaust and keep the night-shift neighbor awake.
A desire to simply cut down on all the time and work a lawn demands also is becoming a factor. After all, what other plant do we prune 25 times a year?
Nancy Beaubaire is one gardener who has made the switch away from lawn domination, and she’s not looking back.
A former editor for Organic Gardening magazine and one-time communications director at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, Beaubaire a few years ago decided to shrink the lawn at her third-of-an-acre corner lot in suburban Warminster.
Rather than turn it into a meadow or go with the all-concrete look, she pared down the lawn to the role of curving green pathways that wind through island and border beds of mostly native shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses and groundcovers.
“It’s definitely designed and has edges and has lawn running between the beds,” Beaubaire says. “The plants are the same ones you’d find in a meadow, but it looks more controlled when you plant in a designed, managed way. So even though it still has that natural feel, it doesn’t look like it’s run amok.”
Beaubaire also added a brick patio, some outdoor furniture and other hardscaping so the landscape looks more familiar, more “gardeny” and basically, more neighbor-friendly.
She admits to fearing that she overdid it at first.
“At one point early on I had a moment of panic where I thought, ‘What have I done!’” she says. “But once I started planting, that changed to, ‘I need more room.’”
Even for a gardener, tearing up big chunks of familiar green grass can seem like a radical thing.
After all, the Great American Lawn is deeply ingrained – particularly in suburbia.
“A tidy front yard with a well trimmed lawn has come to symbolize what it means to be a good neighbor,” says Beaubaire. “It’s a very strong aesthetic.”
Lawns also are the fastest and least expensive way to deal with the bare soil left behind by new construction. So for most homeowners, grass IS the yard unless they take the initiative (and checkbook) to reclaim it for something else.
For Beaubaire, a bigger concern than mowing and the environment was what her lawn wasn’t doing for wildlife.
“Lawns offer no habitat at all for butterflies, birds and most other wildlife,” she says.
Soon after she replaced grass with sweeps of penstemon, coreopsis, coneflowers, asters and the like, birds and butterflies seemed to magically appear.
“It’s true that if you build it, they will come,” she says.
Beaubaire’s mixed island beds aren’t the only alternative.
Another approach is trading grass for other mass-planted, low-growing groundcovers. We’re most familiar with vinca (periwinkle), pachysandra and ivy, but there are many other choices – including some mat-formers that you can even walk on.
That’s the basis behind the Oregon-based Under a Foot Plant Co., which has hit a trendy nerve with its new and growing line of “Stepables” (www.stepables.com). This plant line – available at several area garden centers – currently boasts 137 species of groundcovers, ranging from more familiar choices such as ajuga, creeping sedum and rockcress to such lesser known species as pussytoes (Antennaria), fleabane (Erigeron) and brass buttons (Leptinella).
Company founder Frances Hopkins calls Stepables her “little heroes” because they’re so versatile and so durable with so little care.
“Plus they bloom,” she says.
Hopkins did away with her lawn altogether and doesn’t even own a lawn mower anymore. She says her landscape not only takes much less work, it’s much more colorful and looks good even when weather is beating down others’ lawns.
“When all my neighbors’ lawns look like crud, my yard looks as good as it did three months ago,” Hopkins says.
Stepables’ web site and garden-center signage indicates which groundcovers can take foot traffic several times a day, which can withstand occasional foot traffic, and which ones are best to just look at.
The web site also lets gardeners zero in on the best choices by selecting variables such as light requirements, bloom color, height and growth rate.
Some of Hopkins’ favorites are blue star creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis), which gets dainty star-shaped light-blue flowers in spring summer; creeping mazus (Mazus reptans), which is nearly covered by white or purple flowers in mid-spring, and creeping thyme ‘Elfin’ (Thymus serphyllum), a particularly tough and drought-tolerant mat-former with a nice scent.
Hopkins says her main yard jobs now are raking leaves off the groundcover beds once in fall and a “general weeding in spring. You have to get the new (weed) seedlings out. That’s the biggest job, because if you let them go to seed, then you’ll have 10 times that amount.”
As groundcover beds spread and thicken, weeds become less and less of a problem, she adds.
“I rarely fertilize my plants, and they do fine,” Hopkins says.
Her advice is to do what most Stepables customers do: start with two or three types, plant a patch of each, then see how it goes.
Most people find it works so well that they either expand their plantings or branch out into even more species, Hopkins says.
Beaubaire also suggests it’s a good idea to start small.
“You don’t have to take up the whole lawn and be faced with a big patch of bare ground,” she says.
Replacing lawn with gardens is going to take some expense and extra work on the front end. But in the long run, it’ll become less work while a lawn demands the same work year in and year out.
“The first year that I put in my plantings was a dry year,” says Beaubaire, “and I had to make sure the new plants were getting an inch of water per week. I also had to keep it weeded. But after that, the perennials began to fill the space. Now the main ongoing maintenance is to mulch once a year and occasionally divide some of the things. I don’t use any supplemental fertilizer, and I have one cutback a year instead of mowing every week.
“It really doesn’t take much work, although it looks like it must because it looks so pretty. If you really sat down and figured out how much work this takes compared to a lawn, this takes less. And that’s without even considering the environmental benefits. This way saves time and money, and it’s a lot more beautiful and interesting than a lawn.”
To convert a lawn to a meadow, garden or groundcover planting, first eliminate the grass.
This can be done by:
1.) Stripping it off with a shovel or rented sod-cutter.
2.) Smothering the grass for at least two to three months and tilling in the dead material. (Black plastic, plywood or sections of newspaper topped with mulch all are good “smotherers.”)
3.) Or, kill the grass with a non-selective herbicide spray such as glyphosate (i.e. Roundup) and till in the dead material after it’s browned.
Next, lightly till or dig the bare ground, then work in 2 to 3 inches of compost, mushroom soil or similar organic matter – especially if you’re planting a lot that was heavily graded.
Rake the bed smooth and plant. If you’re using transplants instead of seed, mulch the bed with 2 to 3 inches of bark mulch to hold down weeds and retain moisture. Keep the bed consistently damp through the first season until the plants have established.
In meadows, mow or weed-whack all herbaceous plants every six weeks for the first season to a height of four to six inches – primarily to keep annual weeds from going to seed. Expect to see a lot of weeds the first year because you’ve stirred buried weed seeds to the surface by tilling, but realize that the annual weeds will die off at season’s end.
Pull or spot-spray weeds the second and ensuing years to clear space for your perennials and grasses to fill in. Cut or carefully burn (if allowed) meadow plants to the ground once a year at the end of winter or early spring before new growth begins.
In mixed gardens and groundcover beds, mulch bare spots between the plants and pull or spot-spray weeds as they appear – definitely before they go to seed. Since you won’t be tilling this bed after the initial planting, weed problems will lessen as the plants fill in.
* Some low-growing, perennial lawn alternatives for sunny areas:
Alpine speedwell (Veronica allionii)
Blue star creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis)
Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)
Catmint ‘Walker’s Low’ (Nepeta x fassenii)
Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera)
Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox)
Fleabane (Erigeron scopulinus)
Hardy geranium (Geranium maculatum)
Hardy ice plant (Delosperma cooperi)
Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina)
Leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides)
Mountain rock cress (Arabis sturrii)
Periwinkle (Vinca minor)
Pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus)
Pussytoes (Antennaria carpatica)
Rock rose (Helianthemum nummularium)
Thrift (Armeria maritima)
Thyme ‘Elfin’ (Thymus serphyllum)
* Some low-growing, perennial lawn alternatives for shadier areas:
Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)
Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Brass buttons (Leptinella squalida)
Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
Carpathian bellflowers (Campanula carpatica)
Chinese astilbe ‘Pumila’ (Astilbe chinensis)
Christmas fern (Polystichum achrostichoides)
Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)
Creeping mazus (Mazus reptans)
Crested iris (Iris cristata)
Evergreen shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis)
False Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum)
Foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia)
Fringe-leaf bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia)
Goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum)
Japanese forestgrass (Hakonechloa macra)
Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis)
Lamium (Lamium maculatum)
Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis)
Lilyturf (Liriope muscari)
Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum)
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)
Mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)
Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanicum)
Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia)
Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum)
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
Variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’)
Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)
* Some good perennial choices for a sunny meadow or meadow garden:
Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi)
Black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta or R. fulgida)
Blanket flower (Gaillardia)
Blazing star (Liatris spicata)
Blue anise hyssop (Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’)
Bluestar (Amsonia montana or A. hubrichtii)
Boltonia (Boltonia asteroides)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Calico aster (Aster lateriflorus)
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Hardy geranium (Geranium maculatum)
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum)
Meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens)
New England aster (Aster novae-angliae)
Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
Oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea)
Prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
Queen-of-the-prairie (Filipendula rubra)
Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)
Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
Tickseed (Coreopsis verticillata)
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Wild indigo (Baptisia)