Guest Rants, Lawn Reform

Plant Ideas Needed for Biodiverse Lawn

Biodiverse Lawn

Biodiverse Lawn

by Lawn  Reform Coalition Member Tom Christopher

Like other members of the Lawn Reform Coalition, I believe that the contemporary model of lawn has got to go. It does have its virtues, though we critics tend to overlook them. For example, traditional lawn provides a relatively inexpensive and easy way to maintain large expanses of the landscape in a green and domesticated cover – I can think of no other landscape treatment aside from meadow that can cover an acre or two of sunny ground and demand only a couple of hours a week of maintenance, and though I prefer the beauty and biodiversity of a meadow, it is not appropriate for heavily trafficked areas. Lawn also provides a nearly ideal play space for children and a relatively tick-free zone – an important benefit where I live, 30 miles from Old Lyme, Connecticut, the original epicenter of the Lyme Disease epidemic.

What if we could eliminate many of the environmental defects of lawns while preserving its benefits? That was the question I asked myself 5 years ago, and one that I have been exploring ever since. Other types of cultivated landscape used to be environmental disasters but have since been updated. When I began my career as a horticulturist 40 years ago, rose gardens were toxic from the constant application of pesticides, but that has changed with the introduction of disease- and pest-resistant cultivars, and a more environmentally sophisticated style of design and maintenance. Likewise, the average vegetable garden was dependent on constant inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides a generation ago. Could the lawn be similarly updated, I wondered.

My first pursuit was to identify types of grasses that in the Northeast where I live that are less demanding of mowing, fertilization, irrigation, and pesticides. A few emails put me in touch with turf breeders at Rutgers, Cornell, and the University of Connecticut who very generously shared the under-utilized low-maintenance turfs that they had created. A visit to Dr. Stacy Bonos at Rutger’s turf-breeding station was particularly eye-opening.

Bluets in the lawn.

Bluets in the lawn.

I soon came to focus on mixes of different fine fescue cultivars as the most promising alternative for my purposes. Once established on a site, such blends require mowing no more than 2-3 times a year, they are drought-resistant and much less hungry for nitrogen, and, if the cultivars are chosen with care, naturally weed- and insect-resistant. However, I found these blends challenging initially because they are slow-growing (that’s why they require so little mowing) and so slow to establish.

It has taken several years of experimentation, but I have developed a routine that will convert a conventional lawn to fine fescues in just 6 weeks at a price customers can afford, and which, with occasional interventions, produces an mature, mostly weed-free lawn within 6 months.

By “weed-free” I do not mean that such a lawn is a grass monoculture. In fact, the sustainable lawn model I have been seeking demands a more diverse flora. In this case, I am defining “weeds” as plants that make the lawn unsightly, increase the need for mowing, and which will overrun their neighbors. The best way to keep such plants out of the lawn is to fill their niches with other, more turf-compatible plants. My inspiration for this came from first-hand experience, of course, but also readings in guides to lawn maintenance dating back to the pre-chemical-care era – one such book from the 1920’s, for example, included more than two dozen flowers it recommended including in the lawn.

White clover (Trifolium repens) provides an obvious example of the benefits such plants can provide: not only does it enhances soil fertility but it also flourishes where soils are too poor to support vigorous grass growth, and continues to grow in conditions of heat and drought that push most northern lawn grasses into dormancy. And of course clovers are a nectar source for bees.  Strawberry clover (Trifolium fragiferum) also integrates easily with turf grasses, providing similar benefits to those of white clover and pretty flowers.

christopher violets 2

Violets in the lawn.

Our native violets and even Viola tricolor add color and coexist quite comfortably with turf, providing food for a variety of moth and butterfly caterpillars. Houstonia caerulea, bluets, are also compatible and quite pretty and help to feed a variety of native bees.

Other plants that I have identified include Trifolium repens atropurpureum, the bronze Dutch clover (I want to create a turf networked with its colorful foliage), Thymus serpyllum (creeping thyme), Fragaria virginiana (wild strawberry), and Potentilla indica (Indian strawberry). Some of these are native while others are not, but I use the exotic species only where they are already naturalized and non-invasive. I’ve also incorporated early spring flowering, low-growing bulbs into my lawns, including the early crocuses, snowdrops, grape hyacinths, etc. as they have gone dormant by the time the fine fescues need their first mowing.

I would like to expand this list of lawn-compatible forbs, and I am asking for your suggestions. Ideally, any such plants should be easy to start by direct seeding, as this will help to keep my sustainable-lawn model affordable. In addition, they must be sufficiently low-growing that they do not increase the need for mowing, and they should be either perennial or reliable self-seeders.

I am aware that many members of the Lawn Reform Coalition will object to continuing lawns in any form. I myself was of that position for many years, but what I found was that friends and customers often did not have the time, resources or commitment required to transform their landscapes so fundamentally. According to a NASA study, lawn is, like it or not, the largest irrigated crop in the United States, covering an area equal to that of the states of Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and ¼ of Vermont combined. If we can make an immediate impact on this, reducing its resource-use and turning it into a carbon-sink rather than a CO2 generator, wouldn’t that be worth doing?

Tom Christopher’s pioneering sustainable lawn company is aptly named Smart Lawn.  Tom’s the author of Water-Wise Gardening, a guide to new styles of gardening, editor of the wonderful New American Landscape, and more.   Tom also writes for HuffingtonPost and contributes to a blog about sustainable gardening, Green Perspectives. It’s a product of the New York Botanical Garden, where Tom earned his degree in professional horticulture.

Posted by on May 13, 2013 at 12:09 pm, in the category Guest Rants, Lawn Reform.
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34 Responses to “Plant Ideas Needed for Biodiverse Lawn”

  1. Daniel Casey says:

    Thanks for providing plant names. Our of frustration at the amount of time and water needed to maintain a lawn ( I will wouldn’t use herbacides ) , years back I went to the local co-op and bought a small amount ( a few pounds ) of some clover seed and tossed it all over the yard.

    I would prefer this type of planting or sowing ‘crops’ for my lawn. If it would be possible via co-op or mail-order to get a mixed variety of USDA zone appropriate plants, that would be ideal.

    I don’t know if it was mine or not, but near the front of my house, I have some dense low growing clover that looks great mowed or cut.

  2. Tibs says:

    Thank you for a refreshing dose of lawn reality. What about spring beauties as part of the mix? Creeping Charlie?

    • Spring beauties would work beautifully (in both senses) — thanks for that suggestion. Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea) is a really aggressive spreader, and an exotic invasive, which is likely to crowd out almost anything else growing in the lawn (including grass) — I don’t think it is a good idea.

  3. Stella B says:

    This won’t do for your area, but in coastal Southern California we have planted Dymondia to replace most of our lawn. A near neighbor has a big Dymondia lawn too. It’s an amazingly resilient plant and our household water usage has dropped by 40%. We have three big dogs who do to the Dymondia what dogs do and it doesn’t show even the slightest sign of burning. On top of that, no mowing ever, even the flowers are flat against the ground. I’m planning on planting the strip next to the driveway with Santa Barbara daisies, blue eyed grass and the smallest, earliest daffodils that I can find. I have several grasses and sedges planted around the edges of the Dymondia and of those the Berkeley sedge is by far the strongest grower.

    • If I ever move to southern California, I will definitely consult with you — sounds like you are doing for the lawns of your area just what I hope to do for those in mine.

      Tom

  4. Ray Eckhart says:

    Creeping Charlie, or Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea, is perennial, exotic, and considered invasive in some circles, so be careful with that one: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/terrestrialplants/herbaceous/creepingcharlie.html

    For early spring, I like Siberian Squill, or Scilla siberica.

    http://franklincountymgs.blogspot.com/2012/03/early-spring-2012-siberian-squill.html

    And the self seeding winter annuals in the Veronica (speedwell) genus (little blue flowers) seem very tolerable to me in my “lawn.”

  5. Buffalograss is the key here in Kansas, Tom. Makes a thick, self-sustaining, drought-resistant lawn that fills in bare spots without reseeding and benefits from being burnt off in early Spring. And it would also require mowing only a few times a year if I could get Mrs. ProfessorRoush to accept the seed heads as beautiful.

    • I planted Buffalograss in part of my garden, and although it was beautiful the first year, it soon became overrun by some weedy grass (or grassy weed). What’s the secret to preventing this from happening? (St. Louis area)

      • Burn baby burn….early in Spring while the buffalograss is dormant and the grassy weed is green. Of course, your municipality may not like the fire idea. Another possiblity, less “green” is that you can spray Roundoup in early spring again before the buffalograss greens up but after the weedy grass does.

    • What I saw people doing with buffalograss in the West even 20 years ago was one of the things that inspired me to look for something with a similar resilience and low demand for mowing for the Northeast. Unfortunately, buffalograss doesn’t like our climate.

  6. cristine storey says:

    Years ago, I took a permaculture course in southern chile with Peter Bane and Jerome Ostentowski from Boulder, Colorado, which was great.

    Among the information I was given there is a great article about The Edible Lawn which I never forgot and always tried to replicate wherever I´ve lived.

    I found some of the plants on the internet:

    http://www.pfaf.org/user/cmspage.aspx?pageid=72

    I hope this is useful to you!
    Cheers
    Cris

  7. Linnea Borealis says:

    What a great idea! I can get behind this!

    My ‘lawn’ is so mixed with ‘weeds’ that it barely counts as lawn anyway, and I don’t know what they are called, but there is a pretty purple flower, sort of like a cat mint, that seems to adapt to being mowed. Also second the violets, though the leaves get rather large later in the season and the wild strawberry – they are all over my yard and I just consider them ‘free ground covers’. How about scilla – seen lots of lawns with mixed in blue and white scillas and it’s just beautiful.

    • Scillas are very compatible with this sort of lawn. I suspect that the “catmint” you mention is actually ground ivy or “creeping charlie”, which as I mentioned above can develop into a real problem, especially on soils that aren’t well drained.

  8. Geoff Lewis says:

    Good topic. Christopher Lloyd described his ornamental pasture management in his wonderfully droll 1974 book ‘The Well-Tempered Garden’. Pages 171-179 : Wild Gardening in Grass. Swath thrice annually and remove the swath to compost, mulch, whatever. Plant bulbs, orchids.
    I’ve been both a tree-planter and a perennials salesman. I’d like to see the two combined. Plant competitive low-growing, flowering ground covers as plugs from 50-cell flats straight into an established lawn with a spade, like the high-class weeds they are, selecting based on soil depth, shade, moisture etc. Mower set to high and bag. Mow as little as needed. Mow around things in flower, or not. Plants? Ajugas, Veronicas, Bellis, Antennaria, Cerastium, Primula, moss phlox, Sedums, whatever you like. Plant patterns, islands, swirls or go all Jackson Pollock.
    I got to visit the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx once, on a Perennial Plant Association tour. It offers Bachelor’s degrees?

    • The New York Botanical Garden doesn’t offer bachelor’s degrees in horticulture, but there is a two-year, full-time training program for those seeking a career in horticulture.

      The problem I have found with planting plugs of perennial groundcovers as a replacement or addition to turf is that it quickly becomes very expensive if you have a sizeable area to convert. And unless you first kill off the existing turf somehow, you’ll still have to mow frequently until (or if) the groundcovers crowd out the grasses. That’s why I’d prefer plants that can be direct seeded (like clovers) so that I can add them to the fine fescue mix at planting time or add them to the established fine fescue lawn with a slit seeder.

  9. Deirdre in Seattle says:

    I have a question about the cutting of meadows two or three times a year. My mower sure as hell won’t work on plants that long. They just lay down. The city would scream if I tried burning. What are people using to scythe their meadows?

    • I don’t know about other people, but I use a rough mower that can attach to my little two-wheeled BCS tractor. You can find similar mowers like the DR Field mower at some tool rental places. If your meadow is small, of course, you can do the job with a heavy duty string trimmer. I’ll bet some calls to local tool rental places would turn up some workable solutions.

    • Batsheva says:

      I use a scythe to scythe my meadow. Check out the scythes in Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog, http://www.lehmans.com. After you’ve ordered one, read the passage about Levin scything the crops in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

  10. Mac says:

    My yard is uneven and difficult to mow, so I’m always on the lookout for types of grass that need very little mowing. If they’re native to the area and can survive the strange weather, even better. Thanks for giving some suggestions.

    Stump Grinding Newington, CT

    • Some of the fine fescues are native to North America; others are not but have been widely naturalized in the northeastern U.S. for hundreds of years, so planting them won’t inflict a new invasive species on the landscape.

  11. commonweeder says:

    My lawn, otherwise known as a flowery mead, has violets, clover, creeping charlie, ground ivy, common thyme which is great in the dry areas of the lawn, ajuga, hawkweed, and around the roadside edge, barren strawberry and tiarella. I still have way too much lawn but I am working on it. I will have to investigate the fescues. Thanks for an informative post.

  12. Frank Hyman says:

    For those who’ve ever wondered….That is what a Horticulturist can do.

    Thanks for the excellent post.

  13. filippine says:

    Anybody mentioned germander speedwell yet? ( I am afraid looking up if this is an invasive since I enjoy it so much)
    And what about campanula muralis and blue eyed grass? And for shady areas you can add lamium.
    Walk around in meadows and look for the lower growing plants. Surely nobody will object if you take some seed heads. Good Luck

  14. Gail says:

    You might need to research the fine fescues a bit as with the drought weather we had in Wisconsin last summer the UW is not recommending fine fescues for drought tolerance. I have sandy soil and lost several large areas in my yard which quackgrass quickly moved in. I am not turf obsessed but now have to look for alternatives in those areas. I believe the WI DNR had some publications as well addressing turf conditions.

    • Fine fescues are certainly not drought-proof, but they perform better without summertime irrigation than most other cool season turf grasses (turf-type tall fescues are more drought resistant, but require frequent mowing and more fertilization). I know that Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin sells a “no-mow lawn seed mix” that is a blend of fine fescues, and has used it quite successfully in his own yard. In areas that regularly experience prolonged drought, the sustainable turf enthusiast would probably do better with some warm season grass such as buffalo grass. My own experience with lawns is in the Northeastern states, and here, fine fescues are a good choice for an un-irrigated lawn.

  15. Deb says:

    For the past 10 years I lived in the suburbs of Denver’s south metro area. Over the years I started removing more and more lawn and building in wildflower beds and beginning to add vegetables and fruit trees. That area is very dry and droughts are common (and illegally using rain water to water the gardens!). I just recently moved back to the Mid-Atlantic and have a 2-3/4 acre property in the Eastern Panhandle of WV. I do not want to buy a lawn tractor, that seems to be the unofficial state 4-wheel vehicle here. So I will be putting in areas of native plants and allowing some grasses to grow tall, while maintaining a buffer of somewhat mowed areas. Also to allow bees to build their nests and to have lots of plants to pollinate. It seems a daunting task and challenge and it isn’t what I see being done around here so far. Glad I found your blog site!

  16. C says:

    I see many stories in print and on the web about this issue and wonder why no one ever mentions that most of the choices for lawn replacement flower profusely ( thyme, clover, ) for someone with a bee allergy ( a sad thing for a gardener indeed) it makes the relative safety of my lawn a death zone instead. Also anyone with small children etc may find it a bit scary to have stinging pollinators covering the ground. I use thyme extensively on the edges of my side gardens and it is a dangerous area for me to work in or even walk through when certain types of bees/wasps are visiting. Just sayin….

    • You make a good point — before sowing flowering plants such as clover into a lawn, I make a point of asking the client if anyone in the household is allergic to bee stings.

  17. How about the wonderful evergreen creeping native, fogfruit (Phyla nodiflora), it’s native to the whole southern 2/3 of the US from Pennsylvania west to Oregon and southward. http://plants.usda.gov/java/stateSearch?searchType=Sciname&searchTxt=Phyla+nodiflora

    It’s also the host plant for several butterflies including the white peacock. for more description see the entry in the Florida Native Plant Society database http://fnps.org/plants/plant/phyla-nodiflora

  18. Batsheva says:

    Mint.

  19. Riva says:

    Clover in my lawn is fine with me. But, wow, those violets get out of control and they don’t make a great play surface.

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