Part 2: Lawn Alternatives

Have you ever been curious about how we ever came to covet grass lawns? If so, Krystal D’Costa’s 2017 blog The American Obsession with Lawns for Scientific American will get you up to speed.

I know there are home associations with strict rules about what can and can’t be done with your lawn. These rules have more to do with socio-economic status: we have money and therefore can spend any amount to maintain a green, weed-free lawn. Whether we want to or not.

If you’d rather not, start asking your neighbours how they feel; you may just find some kindred spirits and together start pushing for changes to these regulations. There are many good reasons to reduce or eliminate lawns: cancer-causing chemicals; water usage; environmental degradation of water, flora and fauna; mower accidents, injuries and deaths. (See Part 1: Lawns, Bah Humbug!)

If you start in the backyard, however, you’ll have physical evidence to present to the association to show what you’d like to continue in the front. If there’s still resistance, perhaps starting or enlarging garden sections and adding pathways to break up the amount of lawn is a good place to start. Interesting play with height, size and contrast will give neighbours something to look at and admire. And want. Planting non-cultivated perennials provides maximum opportunities for birds, pollinators and wildlife to feed. (Check back for the final installment in this series which talks about the differences between cultivars and native plants.)

 

I’ve been converting our backyard grass to native groundcovers for about five years now. The process would be faster if I weren’t in a tug of war with my partner who’d prefer a slower schedule.

To be fair, he doesn’t like hunting for dog poop when some plants get too high because I want the blooms to go to seed. But I think a fair comprise this year will be to put short wire fences (from the dollar store) around the ones that are about to go to seed. Win-win.

Weeds or, as I prefer to call them, wildflowers, will behave if you teach them a good lesson with the lawnmower in spring; they quickly learn to stay under its radar. Clover is especially clever this way. And just as we’d all like to strive for in our gardens, my goal, if possible, is to have something in the lawn blooming throughout summer.

I’ve got a good variety so far: lots of red and white clover because I went to a vacant lot and gathered bags of flower heads full of mature seeds, which I broadcast across the lawn. It seems to be the fastest spreader too.

I also have this deep purple plant called selfheal that needs no lesson from the lawnmover. I like it so much, I bought a gazillion seeds this spring.

Selfheal, courtesty Blåkoll CC 2.0

Birds-foot trefoil offers a profusion of bright yellow flowers for weeks. It can get about 3″ when in full bloom if left alone; lower when not in bloom. You can order seeds for this plant, too.

Close-up birds-foot trefoil, courtesy Ted CC-BY-SA2.0

There are native groundcovers that naturally stay low. I have one in my front yard I’m planning to introduce to the back yard. It has small dark-green geranium-like scalloped leaves. It’s nice to look at, hugs the ground and absolutely no mowing required. Does anyone know the plant I’m referring to?

All these groundcovers are soft enough to walk on with bare feet.

If you have areas of grass that are never walked on, there are taller specimens that offer more variety, such as periwinkle, which we have under a grouping of cedars in a shady corner of the yard. For those of us with dogs the lower the plants the better. A nice bonus to natural groundcovers is that weeds tolerate pet urine much better than grass. Another bonus is that come summer’s peak temperatures when grass naturally goes dormant – and brown – weeds stay green.

 

Our back neighbour’s cedar fence provides a challenge to plants on our side. Anything planted along the fence and beneath the overhang of branches competed for water and sun. The poor things would go practically horizontal stretching for the sun just out of reach. Now, however, that long span is home to native flowers. They have no complaints.

One side of the house is where the nursery is, for weeds that just popped-up and I’m curious to see what they turn into. This space can get overgrown at times, but a good yank on the wayward ones keeps things in check.

Thanks to a 40 year old maple tree smack dab in the middle of our front yard, shading most of it, the only spot of afternoon sun we get is near the street. We have a defined space there for native plants.  Wanting to showcase to the neighbours that going native is beautiful, we have more substantial plants purchased at places such as the Evergreen Garden Market in Toronto where the plants are true natives and herbicide free.  

Looking for what else to plant this year and with shade a definite factor to consider, I came across hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). It’s a fantastic source of pollen and nectar. If this plant interests you, check out Plants for a Future for details on it.

Hemp agrimony, courtesty Peter O’Connor CC-BY-SA 2.0

 

 

If you’re ready to ditch some lawn, check out Mark Richardson’s 2017 article Our Lawns Are Killing Us. It’s Time to Kick the Habit. He suggests you spend some time thinking about where you could remove some lawn without missing it, where you would like some ground cover other than turf grass, and where some lawn would be needed.

Once you know how much or little lawn you need, think about what you would like in its place and how much space to devote to flower beds, shrubs, trees, groundcover or even food.

If trees or large shrubs are of interest, pay attention to how their mature height and width will impact whatever else you’ve planned. And allow space for that future size. Plant annuals to fill the space until mature or smaller perennials that can be easily transplanted elsewhere when required.

If hiring a landscape designer isn’t in your snack bracket or you’re simply up for the task, the local library and online assistance will get you to where you want to be. Nurseries can offer lots of guidance, but please read Neonicotinoids & Garden Centres first.

This Backyard Makeover pdf from the Maryland government has lots of practical information and easy steps to make your gardens more environmentally friendly. The University of Maryland has a page on lawn alternatives with lots of links, including a no-till method for removing turf. It also has a great resource page on How to Make a Meadow.

Start small. Tackle only what you believe you can realistically take on in one season. You’ll learn things you might not have considered that will make future projects easier.

Let me know how you’re doing. Has anyone made headway with their homeowner association regarding lawn bylaws?

Cheers,
– Tess

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