Lawn Reform, Real Gardens

In the Washington Post: “Toss the turf.”

IMG_9777 There's a great story by Adrian Higgins in today's Washington Post titled "Lose the Lawn" – and look at it on the cover of their Local Living section!  Here's the introductory story, in which Higgins weighs in with his own conclusion on the subject:  "Toss the turf."  (As if we weren't already fans of his!)

The article is a glorious, photo-rich spread over three pages, revealing four terrific examples of front gardens without lawns (two of which I showed Adrian when he was in my town on a scouting mission).  Plus, he links to the Lawn Reform Coalition and lets me expound briefly on the subject!

Sad to say, the online version botches the story entirely.  The photos are mainly separated from the text that describes them, and readers have to sit through an unusually long commercial before seeing the slide show.  The poor thing's so sliced and diced, the whole visual impact is lost.

So for your benefit I've compiled links to the four garden stories, because they're hard to find online.  First  there's the garden in nearby Silver Spring that you see on the cover above.  Next, a wildlife-friendly garden in D.C. (though they're ALL wildlife-friendly, to be sure).  One of my favorite Takoma Park gardens is by landscape designer Wendy Bell. And the garden I refer to as the best front yard in town is shown below in photos I may have even posted here before. It's the garden of Suzanne Hubbard, designed by Holt Jordan.

August5

LawnlessFall500

What's unique about Higgins's story is the honesty.  These four gardeners were motivated far more by their passion for plants and boredom over lawn than even the obvious eco-benefits of the transformation, or a misguided attempt to save time on maintenance.  Nowhere is it stated or implied that these gardens are less work than lawns – au contraire!  Here's a quote.

Weeding, watering, pruning, plating, mulching, moving plants:  All these aspects of cultivating plants are more work than running a mower over weedy grass, but that's what gardening is about.

Posted by on July 22, 2010 at 9:54 am, in the category Lawn Reform, Real Gardens.
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25 Responses to “In the Washington Post: “Toss the turf.””

  1. Veratrine says:

    Ironically, the lawn started out as a symbol of the elite ( http://www.american-lawns.com/history/history_lawn.html ), and now getting rid of your lawn is the elitist trend.

    Why is it elitist? Not only can lawns be relatively xeric depending which grass you choose, they are low maintenance. You pick a grass, plant it, and it takes minutes a week to maintain (depending on the size of your lawn and how picky you are). You can also hire mow-and-blow guys to take care of it. After that, you never think of it again.

    The lovely garden front yard, by contrast, is a nice idea but it requires skilled care, a lot of thought, and a considerable investment. Consider how the gardens in the story from the Washington Post came to be:

    Lincoln Park Garden: belongs to a professional gardener

    Takoma garden of Wendy Bell: owner is a garden designer who spent 17 years creating her garden

    Takoma garden of Suzanne Hubbart: worked with landscape architect

    Silver Springs garden: owner is member of 3 garden clubs (and coordinator of one); her garden is full of ‘rare perennials’ and ‘choice shrubs’

    In other words, their gardens are not the kind of thing that people who don’t have either time or money can really aspire to. And that, sadly, is most of us–with jobs, kids, mortgages, etc, we settle for a lawn and get on with our lives.

    (I have both garden and lawn myself, and I know how much time it takes. Right now there are dozens of things I could be doing in the flower beds (trimming, deadheading, pulling up crab grass, spraying the powdery mildew, raking up leaves, scattering around specialized fertilizers, etc) but the lawn, which I spent half an hour trimming 2 weeks ago is just fine. Also it’s grama grass–low fertilizer, low water, low mowing.)

  2. tara dillard says:

    Got rid of my lawn over a decade ago.

    Instead: trees, shrubs, groundcovers. Sustainable & all the eco-babble.

    Why? Lazy.

    LESS CARE THAN LAWN.

    And improves property value while reducing HVAC costs.

    With good landscape design, know that tossing the turf does not have to mean more care.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. Val says:

    While I agree with Veratrine (and posted a comment on the chat that accompanied the story with a similar sentiment), I do applaud the Post for doing articles on gardening at all–and especially for doing some for the novice and some for the, well, badass (like these 4).
    And thanks to GR for cleaning up the crappy Post website’s mess with the links!

  4. greg draiss says:

    MOW BABY MOW! I understand someone cutting their lawn back as I have as well. But the venomous attack on lawns these days is a bit overboard.

    The TROLL

  5. Mimi says:

    This is awesome! I would love to get rid of our lawn! Love the ideas.

  6. rainymountain says:

    If you love gardens and plants, then it doesn’t matter if you start as a professional, semi-professional or an amateur, you learn, experiment, enjoy and become more expert. If you don’t enjoy gardening, then you get on with all your other interests and have a lawn. Gardeners find the time to garden despite jobs and kids (how come morgages are so time consuming?) because that is what they like to do. Nor is money a factor – plants, trees and shrubs can be picked up for incredibly low prices and packets of seeds are hardly going to break the bank, it’s just a matter of patience waiting for a small sprig to grow into a good sized bush. Like one of the interviewees, I too find lawns visually boring.

  7. Chris M. says:

    While this is not strictly a new idea it is still good to get good reporting when gardeners successfully renovate their front yard to make them gardens instead of wall to wall lawn, which is just plain boring. As Master Gardeners here in Orange County, NY we’ve been talking about it for years but it is still a rare sight to see a garden up front; it is that hard to change the convention.
    The photographs here are inspiring, which we can all appreciate.
    As for the idea expressed above that you need to have a professional designer this is absurd: you need the courage to change your mind. After that you can make the kind of garden you want. Yes, it takes time but it doesn’t take much money. You can divide plants to have more; grow ornamental grasses, whatever you would do in the back yard.
    I’m still trying to make a meadow-like front yard where I can leave some of i ‘wild’ with self sewn butterfly weed and tall grass. I can always cut down what I don’t like.
    Take heart everyone, and remember, It’s Your Garden!

  8. Veratrine says:

    Rainymountain – ‘how come mortgages are so timeconsuming’ ??? I don’t know about you, but my mortgage is a HUGE expense. Maybe I could buy expensive stuff, hire a landscape architect, do major work on the yard like installing hardscape, fountains, etc if I didn’t have one. As it is, the mortgage comes first. Before the yard or any dreams I may have for it. The mortgage sucks up so much that the lawn in front is really all I can afford.

    Chris & rainymountain – gardens like the ones pictured are not just the product of some packets of seeds and some time. I have a tiny advantage – I was a rural kid, and both my parents have degrees in botany, so I grew up knowing something about plants. But I’m no professional, and when I walk around my neighborhood, I see what people produce on their own. It sounds harsh, but there are TWO beautiful gardens that I have encountered within a mile radius of my own, and for all I know they were designed by a professional, not the owners. (Garden design is tricky which is why people go to school to learn it.) This is not to say that there are not many attractive, decent and acceptable yards in my general vicinity–and many of them involve large amounts of lawn, as you might expect.

  9. Deirdre says:

    Mozart said that the rests between the notes were as important as the notes themselves. Anyone familiar with Asian literati art knows that the areas left unpainted are as important as the painted areas. To me, that is how lawn functions in a well designed landscape. Wall to wall lawn is not only dull, but it takes up space I’d rather devote to more interesting plants, but I doubt I’ll ever be entirely without a little (unfertilized) lawn. Expanses of water, gravel, paving, or moss can do the same in an appropriate landscape, but I don’t happen to live in one of those.

  10. susan harris says:

    A note about whether designers are needed or not – I sure needed one. I fiddled and fiddled with redesigning my tiny front yard and just kept producing results I didn’t like, so I shelled out all of about $200 and got a great design by an actual landscape architect. He created the perfect oval for my lawn surrounded by borders, and designed a brick walkway to replace ugly cement. I’m still using his design, with creeping perennials in that perfect oval, but no matter which plants I use nowadays, I’m really happy with his plan. The designer is Holt Jordan, quoted in the WaPo story and written about here on the Rant: http://www.gardenrant.com/my_weblog/2006/10/the_plan_that_s.html

  11. Tibs says:

    Veratrine has it right. The nonlawn part is way more care than my non chemically treated or fertilized grass/other green stuff lawn.

    But since I LIKE to garden, this is no problem. If I am ever unable to do it, I know it will go back to lawn

  12. Lisa, Ontario says:

    There are a few quite beautiful gardens in my town that are no maintenance now that the ground covers have filled in. They don’t mow, rake, water, (I don’t know if they fertilize). They are simply some really well placed healthy shrubs, and groundcovers. Some bulbs show through in the spring. But simple and really lovely, and owned by non gardeners ( I assume that because gardeners would have far more kinds of specimens involved).

  13. Cindy P says:

    I’ve posted on this before, but would love to see an article on resale of homes with these types of gardens. I have an extensive garden in my back yard, but my front is still rather conventional, definitely more shrubs and perennials then the neighbors, but not so much that it doesn’t blend into the neighborhood.
    I have two gardening friends that were unable to sell their homes with the existing gardens. Both of them had completely eliminated all of their lawns and had beautiful garden beds. In each case they had no bids on their homes for over a month and their realtors told them the comments they were getting from the open houses was that there was too much garden. Both of these women had to dig up 75% or more of their gardens and replant grass to sell their homes. Actually one of them is still on the market and she just sent out e mail asking if anyone would like to come and take any more plants.
    Has anyone else had this type of problem or is my community just backward when it comes to gardens?

  14. Bob says:

    My constructed woodland is less work than my lawn (or WOULD be…if I put any effort into my remaining lawn:).

    What’s really nice is walking through the dark green “woods” past Solomon’s Seal, Ginger, and Bloodroot even on 95 degree days like today. It’s not cool, but it IS comfortable.

    …and just out of the shade, my prairie gardens wave blossoms of lavender, pink, and yellow in the breeze, as a half dozen species of butterflies (and Hummers!) float about…

    …while the neighbor’s neatly mowed (and lifeless) lawn FRIES under the Sun!

    And while I’m the “oddball” around here (no other yard looks like mine), we (well…the local park district) have just planted ACRES of tall grass prairie just across the street…

    …and that will fit in JUST fine!:)

  15. Gloria says:

    I watched a house on this block take two years to sell. All traditional lawn front and back. Why? Price,they did so much work on the house it was out of the area’s price range. Eventually they had to lower price to sell.

    On the other hand many people didn’t like the existing garden size on our last home but the place sold quickly. The new owners promptly removed much of the back garden. Strangely they left the front garden, removing only the evergreen tree but leaving the two trees in the parkway and the shrubs and groundcover in the small front area.

    I don’t want to eliminate lawns but I would like to see a change in the ability of those advocating lawns to enforce their choices on others.

    Look at the troll, he and others like him seem scared that peer pressure and fear of code violations or resale price will be reversed and used against the very same people using such tactics now (no offense intended).
    The pendulum swings.
    BTW, I find many non professionally designed gardens quite charming.

    The sustainable issues so often addressed by Susan Harris should not be a dividing issue

  16. Drew says:

    Does someone know which streets these gardens are on, or anything more specific than just “Silver Spring” or “Takoma Park”? I would like to get a closer look at them if I’m passing in the neighborhood.

  17. Veratrine says:

    Drew, you can try owner and city through the white pages:

    http://www.whitepages.com/?site_id=10583

    I looked up one and double checked it in google maps without too much difficulty.

  18. I wanted to take my time with this one since the comments are just as loaded as the idea of eliminating turf.

    Here’s a couple of random yet related thoughts…

    –I applaud the fact that the article was even written by a major East Coast newspaper. It wouldn’t be news on the west coast. We need to think outside the English landscape tradition.
    –Until we offer some other way for those who depend on mow and blow and chemical applications to make a living lawns aren’t going to go away.
    –Using the services of a designer (I am one) can help you focus your ideas into a cohesive whole that is based on your level of commitment–lawn or no–so don’t discount the service if you’ve never used one. We’re not scary and we can save you money in the long run.
    –Lastly–bare feet, sports and lying on your back on the lawn to watch the clouds or stargaze are three good reasons to keep some.

  19. Boredwithlawns says:

    OK, so you need a 6′x6′ patch of lawn to stargaze etc., or maybe a sun lounger would do instead? If you are going to have a lawn leave it alone, no fertilizing, no pesticides, no constant mowing within an inch of its life done by a horribly intrusive landscaping firm with one of those ginormous machines that they use on golf courses, and least of all no watering. I live in the midwest and never watered my lawn it went brown in the summer and green again in the fall. Plant bulbs in it to make it more attractive or let the grass grow long and call it a meadow. Stop wasting time, money and your life obssessing over it and you too can be green along with your lawn.

  20. Boredwithlawns says:

    Interesting what Cindy P has to say. I regretably had to sell my house last year and was told by my real estate agent that my 75′cottage style garden with a gravel path should be dug up and relawned in order to sell. I absolutely refused and told her to sell it as an “English cottage garden” as that is where I am from, and it sold within four months even though the housing market where I lived was terrible. Don’t give up people hang on to your non-traditional gardens there are people out there who appreciated them. My buyer actually purchased our house because she loved the garden!! Real estate agents aren’t always right.

  21. Elisa Beck says:

    Great article from the Washington Post that I read in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette today. Our lawn has been a permaculture landscape for over 15 years, the only one like it on our block since then! Apple trees, perennial natives, asparagus…We’ve greatly reduced the size of the lawn, let anything grow that is green, no monoculture here! We see bees and butterflies. We’ve even spoken to the neighbors recently about considering an organic lawn care service so they stop leaching their pesticides to our organic veggie garden. And so it goes…

  22. There is no need for lawns anywhere at any time unless is cut by goats or a push mower if you get my drift.

    Particularly if one worries about C02 and such. With so many alternatives to substitute lawns/turf the time is now.

    Golf should be eliminated or controlled also.

    The waste of water, fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and fungicide all over the world is astounding.

  23. Drew – I know 3 of the 4 gardens portrayed in the story and you can contact me directly to get their info to ask permission to visit their gardens.

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