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.
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.
Native 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.
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.
For 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.
A 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.
A 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.
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.
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
- Keeping up with the Joneses – Let’s Not
- The American Lawn – Environmental Impact of Turf Grass
- The American Lawn – Our Obsession with Turf Grass
- American Society of Landscape Architects
- Beautiful No-Mow Yards, by Evelyn J. Hadden
- GreenPoint Rated – Gardening and Landscaping
- Lawn Reform Coalition
- LEED for Homes – Landscaping
- Reimagining the California Lawn, by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, Bart O’Brien
- NPR – L.A. Residents Get Paid to Cut Lawns – Permanently
- The Ohio State University, College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences – Homeowners Use Lawn Chemicals Mostly Because Neighbors Do It
- U.S. EPA – Landscaping with Native Plants – Weed Laws – The John Marshall Law Review Volume 26, Summer 1993, Number 4, by Brett Rappaport
- U.S. EPA – Lawn and Garden
- Wild Ones