Alternatives to the American “Lawn” Part IV: Just Do It!

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Hotline, Fall 2002

by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director

Previous Hotline articles have focused on the unsustainable, resource-intensive and even unhealthy nature of the manicured American lawn, an almost universal choice as a home landscape. By this time you might be saying, “Well okay, if I believe the GASP analysis that I’ve been going in all the wrong directions with this lawn landscape, what are my other options?”

Here is an overview of other landscapes with a few answers to the question of “How do I do it?” Choose the landscape best suited to your needs, then visit your local library or bookstore and browse the internet to investigate that option in a variety of books, web sites and brochures. If possible, talk to other folks who have tried that type of landscape. There’s a lot to learn, but the process can be exciting and the end result rewarding. Most of all, you will be keeping your piece of the planet healthy. Several good books are available to get you started in your further investigation (see sidebar).

Your new approach is to achieve at least some harmony with what nature intended, so a starting point is to look at what the natural landscape would be like had human intervention not occurred. In the Allegheny County area, the native ecology would be that of an eastern woodland. If you already have this landscape, you need do nothing except disturb it as little as possible. Constructing mulched pathways through the area will open up the yard more easily to walking. You might also leave this walking area in a natural state including weeds. This will require some mowing but no watering or pesticide use. Planting a variety of bulbs and native plants in the wooded area will add interest. Remember that spring flowers require considerable sun in a deciduous forest. You might want to remove some of the underbrush, especially if invasive shrubs or vines exist. To allow for more light, trim back some of the lower branches on the trees.

If your landscape is already dotted with trees but not a woodland, you could move in that direction by adding trees and shrubs.

What if I have grass, a few trees, a fence, a garden, etc.?
Take the time to map out the varying conditions affecting your yard, noting the differing conditions such as light and temperature in different seasons, wind speed, soil and water conditions. Decide what you want from the landscape: some or all open areas (perhaps with groundcover), some areas in shade (perhaps moving to a woodland yard), some areas especially natural, some to attract birds, butterflies or other wildlife, some for intensive gardening, a moss garden, pathways, water features, a restful spot for seating and so on. How much energy do you want to expend? If the goal is as little as possible, the end result will be quite different from a landscape where many of the above features have been developed. Still, even where a variety of features are desired, good upfront work with hardy appropriate plants will in time provide for a relatively easy-to-care-for landscape.

What should I do to get rid of the lawn and start a new landscape like a meadow?
A meadow is a mixture of grasses and other plants, many that have flowers or other attractive features. The grasses offer support to the flowers and fill in the ground between the wildflowers, preventing unwanted non-native grasses or weeds from taking hold. The grasses will also provide a variety of warm shades from reddish seed heads to yellow straw stalks in winter.

First of all, you might want to start with a smaller area to experiment and learn. In the meantime, keep the lawn mown at least on the perimeter and around the house to waylay concerns from neighbors. Also, discuss your plan with your neighbors so they understand the healthy benefits of this landscape.

One method, although not a highly recommended one, to eliminate an established lawn (and change it to a meadow) is to cut the grass very low and then use a grain drill or slit seeder to plant right into it. The disadvantage is that the bunch grasses and flowers you will want to grow will find it tough going against the rhizomatous weeds and sod forming northern grasses. Bunch grasses are desirable so that flowers and other selected plants can find a place to grow without being crowded out. Employing this method, you will have to identify all the grasses and other plants both native and non-native on your property, especially as the desirable plants are getting started. Remove the noxious or invasive weeds such as thistle, multiflora rose and honeysuckle.

Another method is to rent a sod-cutter and lift the turf. The uplifted sod can be used as the base for a mounding effect to give the yard a contour or screen. Cover the sod with dirt and mulch until ready to plant or simply cover with black plastic to recycle to compost in about one year. Loosen exposed yard soil with shallow tilling (if the lawn had been relatively weed free), no more than 1-2 inches. Remove weeds that may appear, then you are ready to plant a meadow mixture of grasses and flowers.

You could also smother the lawn, especially if it has weeds. This can be done using black plastic or heavy newspaper covered with mulch. Repeated cultivation every several weeks until no new weeds are sprouting will also set the stage for the desired planting. Sowing the seeds or plugs of grass and flowers in early spring is recommended. These could be combined with an annual companion crop such as oats to help keep out the weeds. Water regularly and pull weeds as they may appear. The desirable grasses and flowers will put most of their energy into root growth the first year and will appear as small ground hugging plants. Mowing at a height of 6 to 8 inches every few weeks is desirable in the first year, and undesirable weeds should be pulled or dug out. In the years after establishment of the meadow, a once-per-year mowing is enough to keep down the unwanted pioneer trees that will start the process of moving the property into a woodland.

As to the choice of grasses, flower seed or young established plants, many books can make suggestions of species, timing, ratios of grass to flowers and what to expect over the first few years as the meadow is established.

What about planting groundcover instead of grass?
Planting groundcover plants as plugs, not starting from seed, gets you to a full and dense covering fairly quickly. You might want to apply mulch between plugs to stifle weeds for the first year. Some suggestions might be Ajuga, Liriope, Periwinkle and white Achillea. Pulling the occasional weed and watering in the first year should produce a relatively dense stand in the upcoming years.

As mentioned, these are just some of the options. There are also water features, such as a dry streambed to slow down runoff water and get it back into the ground, ponds for wildlife, and moss and fern gardens for really shady or forested spots.

Recommended Books

Noah’s Garden, Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin 1993). (Available in the library at Phipps Garden Center.)

Wild Lawn Handbook: Alternatives to the Traditional Front Lawn by Stevie Daniels (New York, New York: Macmillan, 1995).

The Wildflower Meadow Book, A Gardener’s Guide by Laura C. Martin (East Woods Press, 1986).

Easy Care Native Plants by Patricia Taylor (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1996).

The Natural Garden: A Holistic Approach to Gardening by Peter Harper with Chris Madsen and Jeremy Light (New York, Simon and Schuster 1994).