Beyond the Lawn: Imagine the Options
The wonderful world of horticulture and landscape design offers endless choices for plant species and arrangements. With more than 390,000 different types of vascular plants on earth, which include trees, shrubs, flowering plants, herbs, and grasses, creative possibilities abound. By the way, vascular plants are those with special internal tissues that move fluids throughout the plant’s structure.
Let’s try something for a moment: Close your eyes for 20 seconds and picture a beautiful outdoor scene…… Okay, back to the printed page. I’m sure that everyone reading this article will have imagined something different, and I’m fairly certain that our visualizations were filled with a wide variety of attractive plants representing different sizes, shapes, colors, and textures. For most of us, beauty in the botanical world conjures up a dynamic collection of plant species that complement each other in aesthetically pleasing settings. These scenarios might be formally organized, as in carefully planned ornamental gardens, or they might reflect the informality of untamed wilderness, such as mountain hillsides covered with wildflowers.
Whatever you might have imagined, I doubt it was a suburban lawn. Oddly enough, that monochromatic palette of undisturbed green turf is a recurring theme in suburbs across the United States today. How did that happen? Well, way back in the 17th century, no native turfgrass existed in this country. The English landscape style was quite popular then, so travelers from Great Britain and Europe brought seeds along with them when they migrated to America. At that time, lush green lawns symbolized wealth and social status, and prominent leaders made large grassy areas part of unique landscape designs at their own residences, which captured the public’s eye. Think about George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello as good examples of this approach. However, those lawns were hard to maintain, and upkeep required a significant amount of human labor.
A front yard with turfgrass remained a distant pipe dream for the masses until clever inventors came up with ways to simplify upkeep. The invention of the push mower (1830) and the advent of a sprinkler attached to a watering hose (1871) made lawn maintenance more manageable, but still beyond what most people could afford or be bothered with. Two developments changed that reality: (1) the invention of the power mower in 1919, and (2) the beginning of planned suburban communities in the mid-20th century. Gradually, green lawns became a dominant part of the engineered outdoor landscape for residential dwellings and neighborhoods.
Some of you might ask, “What’s the problem with that trend?” For starters, consider these facts:
- Residential lawns in the U.S. cover ~40 million acres of land (approximately the size of Greece).
- Lawns consume a lot of water (~9 billion gallons per day), more than any other agricultural crop grown in this country. In arid and semi-arid regions where water is a precious commodity, lawn care reduces the available supply from reservoirs and underground aquifers.
- Chemical run-off from lawn applications of fertilizers (75 m tons per year) and pesticides (30,000 tons per year) pollutes watershed areas and harms natural ecosystems. The lawn care industry produces 13 billion pounds of potential chemical pollutants per year.
- Emissions from gas-powered mowers and leaf blowers contribute to air pollution. Hour per hour, a gas-powered mower produces 11 times as much pollution as an automobile.
- The sound from various power tools used for lawn maintenance contribute to unhealthy levels of noise pollution. The average lawn mower produces 90 decibels of noise, and studies show that repeated or prolonged exposure to sound at 85 dB or above can lead to hearing loss.
- Turf grass as a monoculture offers scant natural habitat for wildlife. A grassy lawn fails to provide sufficient food or appropriate shelter for birds, pollinators, beneficial insects, and other living creatures.
- Compacted lawn areas can act like hardscape (e.g., not absorbing rainfall), which adds to the problem of storm water run-off, erosion, and related issues for the surrounding watershed.
- Routine lawn maintenance requires an ongoing investment of human labor, in addition to the cost of tools and appropriate nourishment to keep grass healthy.
- Despite occupying considerable acreage, a lot of residential turfgrass areas are not used for any specific purpose. They simply take up space.
- Lawns produce more carbon dioxide (CO2) than they can absorb. The estimated greenhouse gas resulting from lawn care (fertilizer and pesticide production, watering, mowing, leaf blowing, and turf grass management practices) is four times greater than the amount of carbon that grass can store.
Perhaps those details will prompt you to ponder possibilities beyond the lawn. Maybe a peaceful refuge that supports wildlife would be more meaningful, worthwhile, and environmentally friendly. I wonder if you could plan something for your own yard with greater ecological value than a lawn. What if you decided to get creative with one spot as an experiment? Where would that be located? How could you redesign that small slice of your property? In what ways would that open up new options for the value and use of that space? What might you and your family gain from that transformation?
As you may have discovered from news reports this year, the Covid19 global pandemic and national lockdowns around the world ushered in a new era focused on plant power and home gardening. The International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIHP) put together an enlightening fact sheet that offers empirical evidence to support the “profound health benefits” of being in nature and participating in outdoor gardening activities. Their extensive research shows that:
- “Gardens provide a place for experiencing nature which is proven to benefit mental health, cognitive functioning, and emotional well-being.
- Gardening reduces depression, anxiety, obesity and heart disease, as well as increasing life satisfaction, quality of life, and sense of community.
- Gardens are essential to supporting recovery from illness, and merely looking at gardens can reduce stress, blood pressure, and muscle tension.”
To learn more about the pleasures of gardening and the healing power of nature, you might want to read Sue Stuart-Smith’s insightful book, The Well-Gardened Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2020).
The compelling case for gardening and spending time outdoors in natural environments presents a unique opportunity for today’s homeowners. Why not take steps to reinvent part of your own yard? If enhanced green spaces lead to improved physical, mental, and emotional health and greater human resilience when facing adversity, perhaps reclaiming some of your lawn is worth the investment of time and energy. If you decide to take this leap of faith to create a tranquil haven on your property, what are the alternatives for that redesigned space?
You will need a reasonable plan, but before devising one, be sure you have a clear picture of what you’ve got out there already. Start by making a simple two-dimensional drawing of your home and the surrounding space. Label what’s there and what goes on in these spaces, such as a front walkway to enter the house, swing set for children, field in back for soccer practice, shrubs beside the house for spring color, driveway leading to your garage, etc. Next, determine the orientation of your home site and add a compass rose to indicate north, south, east, and west on your drawing. This will give you a good idea of the sun’s pathway from dawn to dusk. Then, add the trees on and near your lot, so you can readily discern the sunny and shady areas of your property. If there’s a steep slope or sections that are difficult to mow, label those on your drawing as well. With that sketch done, what areas offer potential to become a new place of beauty or peaceful refuge?
Here are some ideas for horticulture additions:
- Flowers along a frequently used walkway
- Flower beds and ground cover around the base of existing trees
- Shrubs near the house or perimeter of your property
- Islands of color in your lawn to highlight special plants
- Raised bed(s) for growing vegetables
Once you have a dedicated space in mind, consider which horticultural options might work well in that location. Remember to start small, so the project will be more manageable. If your vision comes to fruition, take time to experience the revitalized landscape before moving on to dreams of larger lawn makeovers. Gardening is always a grand experiment with lots to discover and learn, step by step.
By the way, if you live in a suburban development, chances are there’s a homeowners’ association (HOA). Don’t forget to look into restrictions that apply to lawns and gardens before proceeding with your plans. You will want to comply with rules pertaining to outdoor spaces and submit any necessary letters of request or forms in advance of making changes. Or, meet with your HOA if you want to add a garden and aren’t sure if that’s permissible.
Now you’re ready to reflect on your individual preferences for types of plants as turfgrass alternatives for certain sections of your yard. What plants do you find attractive? What arrangements or designs appeal to you? If wildlife visits your yard, will you need to protect plants from unwanted nibbles? Every gardener I know has had at least one story to tell about deer or rabbits greedily dining on newly-established garden plots, dashing horticultural hopes for long-term enjoyment. Your new journey is definitely a creative process, but it should be grounded in reality.
These suggestions are good candidates for lawn replacement:
- Native shrubs – Perennial shrubs, preferably native varieties, are relatively care-free and disease resistant. Most shrubs provide food (flowers, berries, seeds) and shelter for wildlife, so they may lure birds and pollinators into your yard. Shrubs can serve as focal points within large expanses of turf or as interesting features adjacent to property boundaries.
- Ground covers – These low-maintenance plants can form a thick lush carpet under trees, almost like mulch. Choose native perennials with attractive leaves, and you may be pleasantly surprised how quickly these naturally-spreading plants take hold. An edge barrier can help contain ground cover within the desired areas.
- Vegetables – An excellent choice, if you have the time and inclination, is to create a vegetable garden. Building or purchasing a small raised bed, for example, is a great way to get started. Cultivating crops for consumption offers calm, quiet moments for observing nature’s magic (e.g., seeds popping up, bees buzzing around blossoms, produce taking shape). Best of all, your efforts will be richly rewarded with delicious, nutritious food.
- Perennial flower beds or borders – Nothing surpasses vibrant, colorful flowers for visual interest, and if sited appropriately, you’ll have frequent views of these delicate beauties. Depending on the spot, you can select from abundant choices of sun-lovers or shade-loving perennials. Be sure to think about the color scheme, varying heights for a “layered look,” and bloom times for best results. Garden centers are generally happy to assist with plans for flower beds. You might want to take a look at “Getting Started in Ornamental Gardening, I and II, The Garden Shed July 2015 and The Garden Shed Aug.2015.
- Ornamental grasses – There are many varieties to choose from, but most are quite hardy and tolerant of heat and dry conditions. Stalk heights range from a few inches to 12 feet, and grasses may be solid green, variegated, bluish-grey, or reddish. Before you choose, you’ll want to read Ornamental Grasses: Easy, Beautiful, and Invasive? The Garden Shed Nov.2017.
- Trees – You probably have some mature trees on your property, but there may be room for more. Think about smaller native trees, such as dogwoods, that add appealing shapes to the landscape. Trees are a valuable source of food and habitat for many animal species, and their roots help to anchor soil in the ground. Keep in mind where shade might be welcome when considering trees for certain areas of your yard.
- Xeriscape – This type of landscape needs little or no water and may include rocks or other nonliving material among drought-tolerant plants as part of the design.
- Places to relax – Don’t forget the importance of comfortable spots for humans outdoors. You may want to add a bench, chairs, or other comfy furniture where you can catch a breath of fresh air while savoring the natural beauty of your repurposed outdoor space.
One more important recommendation before putting your plans into action is to arrange for a soil test. It’s essential to know how healthy your soil is, including the pH level. This informative article in an earlier issue of The Garden Shed shares the why and how, and this publication from Virginia Cooperative Extension tells how to interpret soil test reports. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn about what’s under your feet.
Are you getting excited about the possibilities? I hope so! If everyone out there with a lawn made a commitment to convert just part of that turfgrass to some other horticultural option, we’d save lots of clean water, cut down on chemical run-off, reduce air pollution, sustain wildlife, and create more appealing landscapes for all to appreciate. This small step can make a difference in the overall health of the natural world, while contributing to better human health. Imagine what might happen if we used the $16 billion per year that is currently spent on lawn care in the United States to invest in other initiatives and projects dedicated to biodiversity and a cleaner planet.
These resources provide guidance for replacing turf grass and redesigning residential landscapes.
https://www.lawngonenative.com/ (Rich resource with design templates, background, plant lists, and more; an honors thesis by a Penn.State student)
https://mgnv.org/turf-grass-alternatives-2020-video/ (Webinar about turfgrass alternatives)
Tower Hill Botanic Garden/video-webinar-alternatives-turf-grass-lawns/ (Webinar on how to replace your lawn)
https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/lawn-alternatives (Well-researched article with photos, good links, plant lists, and more)
https://content.yardmap.org/learn/removing-lawn-to-make-way-for-more-habitat/ (Reader-friendly article with step-by-step instructions for replacing turfgrass)
www.plantnovanatives.org/”Lawn Care for Earth Renewal” (Explanatory article with good visuals to help you navigate revitalizing your green space)
U.S.Fish&Wildlife Service/Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat & Conservation Landscaping (Descriptions of native plants for various settings to support wildlife habitat)
https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/nativeplants (Native plants for conservation, restoration, and landscaping)
https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/got-dry-shade-weve-got-solutions/ (Plants for dry shade)
Getting Native Plants into Your Garden/The Garden Shed (Where to purchase native plants in the local area, plus online sources)
Darke, Rick and Tallamy, Doug. (2014). The Living Landscape. Portland: Timber Press.
Jenkins, Virginia. (1994). The Lawn. A History of an American Obsession. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books.