The American Lawn – Be the Envy of the Neighborhood

Once a symbol of affluence, the turfgrass lawn has become ubiquitous, commonplace. Let’s make our yards the envy of the neighborhood and be green.

Front Yard Turf Grass to Vegetable Garden Conversion in Idaho (start of growing season) - Photo: Author's Sister-in-Law Katja
Front Yard Turfgrass to Vegetable Garden Conversion in Idaho (start of growing season)

If you’ve been following The American Lawn post series, you learned about the origins of our obsession with turfgrass lawns and how our year-round quest to keep them green, weedless, and pest free, in any climate, negatively impacts people and the planet.

This post will explore ideas for converting our turfgrass lawns into yards appropriate for the 21st century—beautiful and environmentally friendly.

Native and Adaptive Plants

Have you ever noticed how some yards stick out in their neighborhoods, but not in a good way? Like a turfgrass lawn surrounded by water-loving tropical plants and flowers sweltering in 100° heat.

I propose the American yard of the 21st century have a sense of place, of belonging; fitting the flora, fauna, and climate of the home’s region.

Yard with Drought Tolerant Grasses and Plants in Phoenix, AZ - Photo: Thomas J. Story, SunsetNative and adaptive grasses, plants, shrubs, flowers, and trees are essential. First, they are local and help us achieve a sense of place in our yard. Second, native and adaptive plants have already invested a lot of time and energy evolving to flourish in our particular area’s soil and climate, rainfall or lack thereof, and have built-in pest resistance, thus they do not require undo amounts of water or a lot of human and chemical intervention.

Turfgrass Alternatives

Fortunately, there are many alternatives to turfgrass lawns. One is sure to meet just about everyone’s climate conditions, individual taste, yard care abilities, and wallet. There is no point in removing a turfgrass lawn only to install a another water hungry landscape that requires just as many chemicals, so choose native and adaptive plants that meet your aesthetic and design criteria.

Let’s look at some options and imagine how we can transform our ordinary turfgrass lawn into an environmentally friendly yard we will enjoy and our neighbors will envy.

Greensward of Creeping Red Fescue - Photo: Stephanie CurtisFor lawn lovers, a greensward of grasses, sedges, or grass like plants that can withstand some foot traffic provides an attractive and environmentally friendly option to turfgrass. Some greensward plants can be mowed to provide a turfgrass like appearance and others are tufted or more informal looking.

Rock Garden with Succulent Plants - Photo: John Evarts, Cachuma Press

rock garden is a good choice for those wanting to make a visual statement and be water wise. Intricate or seemingly random designs can be achieved with various sizes of boulders, rocks, stones, pebbles, and sand, interspersed with interesting plants. Succulents with their bold symmetrical shapes are popular rock garden plants.

Tapestry Garden in Seattle, WA - Photo: Jim McCausland, Sunset

tapestry garden mixes sweeps of low growing ground covers with annuals and perennials in an interpretation of the English cottage garden that many Americans seem to admire. A carpet garden is a variation of a tapestry garden and contains broad areas of one or a few types of plants that provide a uniform look.

Meadow in Santa Fe, NM - Photo: Norm Plate, Sunset

When we think of a meadow, we often picture grasses swaying in the breeze dotted with colorful wildflowers. Meadows are grasslands and prairies and can include a wide range of grasses, sedges, shrubs, wildflowers, and bulbs. Meadows are intended to have an effortless informal look that varies throughout the year as different plants bloom and wane.

Grow Your Own Greens - Photo: Rob D. Brodman, Sunset

Do you love to cook? Are you a fan of locally grown organic ingredients? If so, converting a boring turfgrass lawn into your very own farmer’s market garden may be just the thing. Imagine being able to harvest salad makings, pick bell peppers, or snip fresh herbs just steps from your own doorstep. Plant a fruit tree or two and enjoy pears, peaches, lemons, or avocados picked from your own yard. You just might start a new trend in your neighborhood

Transforming Your Yard

Removing a turfgrass lawn and replacing it with an environmentally friendly yard full of native and adaptive plants is not an easy undertaking, but well worth the effort (check the resource section for help and ideas). Visualize your beautiful transformed yard that requires minimal or no water, fertilizers, insecticides, or herbicides. Enjoy sleeping in and not waking up your neighbors with noisy polluting gas-powered lawn equipment (make a few bucks and sell it on Craigslist). This is the green part of making your yard the envy of the neighborhood.

If you are not ready to part with your turfgrass lawn completely, consider reducing the size of your lawn and trying out an alternative on a small scale. That way you can keep your lawn and reduce its environmental impact. You never know, you may find your test rock garden or meadow growing and your turfgrass lawn shrinking.

Photo Credits (top to bottom, click on the photo to open link):

  • Front Yard Turf Grass to Vegetable Garden Conversion in Idaho (start of growing season) – Photo: Katja Casson
  • Yard with Drought Tolerant Grasses and Plants in Phoenix, AZ – Photo: Thomas J. Story, Sunset
  • Greensward of Creeping Red Fescue – Photo: Stephanie Curtis, Joan S. Bolton Santa Barbara Garden Design
  • Rock Garden with Succulent Plants – Photo: John Evarts, Cachuma Press
  • Tapestry Garden in Seattle, WA – Photo: Jim McCausland, Sunset
  • Meadow in Santa Fe, NM – Photo: Norm Plate, Sunset
  • Grow You Own Greens – Photo: Rob D. Brodman, Sunset

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Resources

Weed Whacking – Do It Yourself

Until we moved to the California Central Coast about 6 years ago, I knew what a weed whacker was but had never used one. Since then I have gone from a novice to an expert or at least a skilled amateur.

Weed Whacking in Our Yard

Our property is a little more than ¾ of an acre, on a hill, in a Monterey pine forest. We have no turf grass and very few irrigated plants.

During the short wet season, a multitude of wild grasses spring up and often grow to 4 feet tall or more. Many people would call the plants that appear weeds and some actually are. Due to a previous owner, daffodils and the occasional iris pop up in seemingly random locations.

In our county, homeowners and lot owners are required to clear their property of dried grass and brush each year.

Author's Yard Partially Weed Whacked (Right Side)Weed whacking in our yard entails trekking up and down through dry vegetation that is anywhere from 2 to 6 feet tall, avoiding vole and other critter holes, trying not to trip over dead tree limbs or the extension cord, all while wielding a machine that weighs over 6 pounds with a very fast spinning cutting device on the end of it.

I am more of a finesse weed whacker than a fast one. When I see a tree or native plant sprout, I stop, hand weed around it, and then continue. Weed whacking sessions usually last a few hours and are spread out over several weeks.

Weed Whacking Equipment

The odds of achieving good results are improved by selecting the right equipment for the job that fits the user. It is a good idea to read and follow the instructions on how to safely operate the equipment and maintain it good working order.

  • Author's Weed Whacking Equipment (weed whackers, extra line, extension cords, boots, gloves, sunglasses, dust mask, ear plugs, plastic tub, tongs, shovel)Electric Weed Whacker – for my first weed whacker, I chose a Black & Decker GH1000 Grass Hog electric model. It is light enough for me to carry and maneuver and powerful enough to cut through the tall and thick grass and runs on renewable energy via our rooftop solar panels.
  • Extension Cords – two 100’ extension cords plugged together reach every place that needs to be weed whacked in our yard.
  • Shovel – for digging out thistles and other invasive plants.
  • Plastic Tub – a large party beverage tub with handles and a sturdy pair of kitchen tongs work well for picking up branches, pine cones, and other items you would not want to hit with a weed whacker.
  • Cordless Weed Whacker – a couple years ago, I added a cordless Black & Decker NST2118 Grass Hog with an adjustable handle to my equipment. It makes small jobs fast and easy, like clearing a path to our compost bins or bird bath.

Weed Whacking Clothing and Protective Gear

Wearing proper clothing and protective gear is important for comfort and safety while weed whacking. I always wear sunscreen.

  • Long Pants and Long-Sleeved Shirt – heavy duty materials provide protection from flying debris and prickly plants.
  • Socks – thick socks that wick away moisture keep feet cool, I like Thorlos.
  • Boots – a few years ago I bought a pair of Kamik Heidi rain boots to wear during the wet season and found they are good for weed whacking too. They are bulletproof.
  • Hat – keeps debris out of my hair and provides shade.
  • Protective Eyewear – I wear my prescription sunglasses.
  • Ear Protection – reusable foam earplugs reduce noise.
  • Dust Mask – a 3M dust mask with a valved respirator works well and can be reused.
  • Gloves – West Country Gloves rose pruning gauntlets that come up to the elbow make great gloves for weed whacking through tall grass and prickly plants.

Do It Yourself

Author's Yard After Weed Whacking (note the small trees and hilly terrain)I like weed whacking. It is great exercise and I enjoy the sense of accomplishment I feel when I look at our yard and know I did the work myself. I have learned new skills, like how to rewind the spool using bulk line and how to wind up an extension cord so it does not take 20 minutes to unravel it next time.

Reader Note: When I mention a specific product in a post, it is because I think you and other readers may find the information useful. I do not accept product review solicitations and I do not receive compensation of any kind for mentioning a product in a post.

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