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You Have Too Much Lawn, and It's Driving You Nuts

It sounds almost un-American ... is there such a thing as too much lawn in a culture that glorifies riding lawn mowers and robotic grass trimmers? The overwhelming feeling about lawns seems to be "the more the better". And if they're more uniform than your wall-to-wall carpeting, even better.

Well, Evelyn Hadden, an award-winning gardening author and speak, is on a quest to change that. I came across her Web site, LessLawn.com, a few weeks ago when researching some summer outdoor projects. I was immediately fascinated; it's an approach to outdoor spaces that avoids all the things I hate about lawn care, like mowing, weeding, and pesticides:

"LessLawn is about creating sustainable landscapes. Our techniques tend heavily toward low-maintenance, organic, and wildlife-friendly. Our tastes favor diversity and informal layout, though there is room for more formal and less varied garden elements too. We go out of our way to avoid chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, as well as engine noise, fumes, and strict monocultures."

A mature lawn replacement garden

Think about it: what do you do with 75% of your perfectly-manicured, heavily-pesicided, pain-in-the-ass-to-mow law? Answer: nothing! The truth is, most people don't look at, walk on, smell, or otherwise enjoy most of their lawn. They just spend hours and dollars maintaing it.

If your argument is that you do look at your lawn, 'cause you do think it's pretty, well, sorry. You're wrong. A flat expanse of non-native turf is just not as pretty as a healthy mix of herbs, grasses, flowers and shrubs. When did monoculture, monocolor become our standard for outdoor beauty?

So what's a "LessLawn"? It means doing less and getting more. It means using less water, less energy (mowing) and having less stress. In exchange, you can create outdoor spaces you actually use and enjoy (and don't worry, you don't have to get rid of all your grass).

A "LessLawn" creates a sustainable habitat for birds, insects and small animals. It engages the senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, and even taste if you plant some edibles). And it gives kids something interesting and tactile to interact with in their environment (a perfect lawn is a boring playmate). 

A grassy lawn converted to edible plants

Evelyn took me on a walking tour of some lawns in St. Paul (which, by the way, she says is a great 'LessLawn' city), and we chatted about where a total non-gardener like me could start. 

  • A grassy slope (pain to mow), is a great place to experiment. Start by smothering the grass with mulch or dark fabric. 
  • Rocks are 'little nurses for plants'. They create moist soil spots that help them weather dry periods.
  • Learn to get deals on plants: 'plug trays' or baby plants are cheaper than 1 or 2-year olds from big box stores. Get to know a grower at your local farmer's market.
  • Mix ground cover (creepers, spreaders, etc.) with taller grasses and perennial flowers. You don't have to go all-native ... just do what looks good and works for your climate.
  • "A lawn should be like an area rug, not wall-to-wall carpet".
  • Kids love Less Lawns! Textures, smells, bugs, worms, and visual diversity create fun spaces for children to imagine, hide, and explore. A blank, boring, square green carpet gives them nothing to work with.

A LessLawn

My wife's first concern when I brought up the concept was "won't that mean we'll have more mostquitoes?" (Understand: Minnesotans care about Mosquito levels like day-traders care about stock prices). Evelyn assured me that's not the case: "You might attract more mosquitoes, but you'll also attract more bugs and birds that eat them. In all the lawns I've worked with, I've never had it become a problem."

Start Seeing Less Lawns! Since my walk with Evelyn, I've been noticing them everywhere! Boulevards are an especially popular place for them, since they're really the ugly stepsister of the lawn family. Where I used to think "Huh, those people are kind of letting their lawn go," now I see a diverse garden in some intermediate stage of maturity, full of fun plants to look at.

Another way to think of it is this: less lawn actually means more garden. If you're tired losing your weekend to lawn care, maybe it's time to think about shrinking your grass and growing more garden. Here are some good places to start:

  1. www.lesslawn.com
  2. The Lawn Reform Coalition on Facebook (& www.lawnreform.org)
  3. A great opinion piece from the Orlando Sentinel

Are you sick of maintaining your lawn? Have you gone to a more 'LessLawn-like' approach? Any other good sites or resources? Let me know what you think in the comments! 

 

 

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Lois B on Jun 06, 2011:

I have recently retired and moved to Central FL.  Yeegads!  My soil is pure sand!  Nothing grows in it and grass is no exception.  Since gardening is my favorite thing on earth, I made huge "beds" all around the house and keep piling on the oak leaves.  I dig holes in the sand and put the large nursery pots at ground level.  Of course I fill them with nice soil and now my plants are growing and I have a teeny grass area just off the patio. No weeding, very little mowing, just beautiful leaf caarpets!


betsy on Jun 04, 2011:

We are converting our very large front yard into a "yarden" by combining xeriscaping and vegetables and fruits.  We're using native Michigan Prairie plants for most of our perennials -- save a few hybrids that I couldn't live without --- and it's great so far.  This year we doubled the size of our perennial bed.  Next year we will be down to 24 square feet of "lawn" -- we actually like to spend time on/in our yard with our cats and dog (and kids) and frolic during the three or so nice months of weather here...so we wanted to keep a patch of soft grass for that.  We will have blueberries, pears, cherries and all the other great veggies as well as spring to fall interest with perennials.  A local landscaper helped us with the initial design, however we are doing all the work ourselves... I love it -- and we have a lot more birds already -- even with our front yard kitties strolling about!


betsy


DesigningMom on Jun 03, 2011:

Forgot to mention I love the "riding mower".


DesigningMom on Jun 03, 2011:

Awesome article Bruno. We live on a small acreage and are working toward low maintenance lawn and gardens. We're slowly changing all the actual "lawn" to buffalo grass which is natural to our area of the country. It doesn't green as fast in the spring and is darker than the average grass, but it grows much slower therefore needs less mowing. It's also drought tolerant. We do lots of research before we do any plantings and rarely need to water anything we plant other than when we first plant it. As we get older, we're both in our fifties, I'm sure we'll appreciate the time and thought we put into it.


bruno on Jun 02, 2011:

Also, even though that image of the bicycle lawn mower is meant to be funny, it's also kind of awesome. Jus' wanted to say that.


bruno on Jun 02, 2011:

Ooh, thanks for that word, Becca! "Xeriscaped" (for those who didn't know, like me) means: "landscaping and gardening in ways that reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental water from irrigation. It is promoted in regions that do not have easily accessible, plentiful, or reliable supplies of fresh water, and is gaining acceptance in other areas as climate patterns shift." (from Wikipedia)


 


Becca F. on Jun 02, 2011:

I love this idea. I live in Texas and here we get watering restrictions pretty much every year, yet people still feel the need to have acres of perfectly manicured (and very thirsty) grass. Some people don't even let you walk on their lawns. What's the point? Here in Austin, I see more xeriscaped lawns every year. They are blooming and beautiful to look at even in the summer, when all those green carpets have turned brown. 


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