The Unlawning Begins
It didn’t take much research through my 15 years of posts here on GardenRant to confirm that my number one topic – dare I say beat? – has been lawns. They just take up SO many square miles in the U.S. and the resource-intense lawn care that’s marketed to Americans is probably the biggest environmental harm that homeowners do in their yards. Changing lawn care practices and seeing people grow less of it could have a huge impact.
So back in 2007 I began “My Quest to be Lawn-Free and Mower-Free,” motivated by not so much by environmental concerns – I was applying nothing to my lawn, and mowing just a few times a season. Selfishly, I was tired of mowing on a downhill, and I thought it would be interesting to blog about. We were seeing anti-lawn messages with increasing frequency, but not many proven ideas for what to grow instead. Ground’s gotta be covered – at least where there’s plenty of rain for weeds – and a just-good-enough lawn is actually less work than most alternatives. I hoped to find a lawn replacement that’s honestly low-maintenance.
“I’m finally killing my lawn! Okay, now what?” reported on progress. Organic Gardening Magazine published my article about the project, with photos by Rob Cardillo.
The Search for Plants to Replace Lawn
For my tiny, flat front yard I experimented with “Stepables as Lawn Replacement” (coincidentally, around the same time that Amy Stewart blasted the company in “Hey Stepables! Here’s how to market to bloggers.”)
I traveled to the Scott Arboretum to see their impressive examples of lawn alternatives. I explored meadows as a lawn replacement and nixed it as an option for small properties in “Do people really want meadows on their quarter-acre lots?”
And in 2012 former GardenRant blogger Evelyn Hadden’s book Beautiful No-Mow Yards was published, with my very own on the cover – what a thrill! I reviewed it in “Beautiful No-Mow Yards is just what American Gardeners Need.”
I went so far as to question whether the revered Frederick Law Olmsted could be called a conservationist, given his love of lawn and huge role in the spread of lawns across the U.S.
Bad and Better Lawn Care
Any reporting on harmful lawn care practices and products begins with the ones promoted and sold by Scotts Miracle-Gro, which I summarized in this post, where I nervously avoided saying anything that might get me sued by the notoriously litigious company.
Espoma, the maker of organic lawn-care products, took no prisoners in their brutal take-down of Scotts Miracle-Gro.
Another blog post praised my (former) town for outlawing lawn pesticides.
I bashed About.com’s lawn care advice as “pro-Scotts” and “pro-Big Box.”
For better lawn-care practices I heralded the work of Cornell and their message of “Do less!”
Paul Tukey’s SafeLawns.org prompted two favorable blog posts -“SafeLawns.org Announces Organic Trials on National Mall” and “Organic Lawn Care Trial in Washington DC.”
And I blogged about the University of Maryland’s sustainable turfgrass test beds.
I reported that in Europe lawns are less pervasive, especially where there are no front yards.
That Time I Advocated for Lawn
Most recently in this post and this post I risked censure by the avid (sometimes rabid) lawn-haters when I advocated returning a perennial and shrub border to lawn. Sometimes lawn IS the right plant/right place, right? And as long as the lawn care follows Cornell’s advice to “Do less!” I’m fine with it.
Lawn-Free in a Town House Garden
One of the great advantages of having a small yard is how much easier it is be lawn-free. It still depends on having a few great groundcovers, though. Mine are groundcover sedum and comfrey, Packera aurea, and ‘Ice Dance’ carex.
Here’s a recent video of my lawn-free garden in Historic Greenbelt, Maryland.
Many congratulations, Susan, for the good fight!
Thank you Susan Harris! I’m new to Garden Rant so have not read your prior posts on the subject. Although I have been gardening at this location for 25 years, I have only recently accepted the fact that growing a traditional, though organic, lawn in some parts of my garden (and on my budget) is impossible. Yet I value the “relief” from the energetic chaos of the flowerbeds that a lawn provides. I will dig in to your posts a.s.a.p. Thanks so much,
I’m hoping to be mower-free in time, replacing lawn with Dichondra repens, soft fruit, flowers… chickens, even!
I’m downsizing my garden, returning much of it to lawn, because I’m past my prime, upkeep was just too much work, there are other things I want to do. A local outfit offers organic lawn treatment, which I am trying on the front yard – it looks much better but I am sad to see the wild strawberry and clover go. After seeing a baby bunny munching on plantain in the side yard, I think I will keep at least some of the lawn untreated in the future because if the bunnies prefer plantain to the nearby ornamentals, that is okay by me!
Why treat it? Keep the mix of plants and just have it mowed and edged. Bunnies happy.
I live on 10 acres in rural SE Michigan and I have a very tiny lawn surrounded by shrubs and planting beds. Huge lawns are practically a religion here in rural Michigan, I am very sorry to say. Lawn as pathway is pretty much what I have. Thanks for your post.
Amen and hallelujah. I have been anti lawn for years for all the reasons you have stated here and more. Lawns are one if the biggest waste of resources. But, given the history of lawns, it is perhaps, easy to see why. Lawns have always been touted as a ” status symbol”. If you had a lawn, you could afford it;therefore, you must be well-off. So even a postage stamp lawn was viewed as better than no lawn.
A friend in Wisconsin was trying to go with native plants in his small front yard. Neighbors complained, and he was fined by the city numerous times for his sins.
Since taking over the outside work for my elderly father. I have stopped the use of chemicals and am going organic. If the dandelions want to grow, they can grow. After all the pollinators love them.
I appreciate that you take a stand about lawns.
I am looking out of my kitchen window at what was a labor intensive garden which I enjoyed with our children over the past 20 years. We just removed everything and replanted the gorgeous boxwood and planted zoyzia. It is a beautiful green space with just enough shrubbery beyond the boxwoods.
I absolutely love it. It makes me happy now and I do not feel like I have to go out and do a lot of work. I love it so much I’ve cultivated a daily practice of earthing in the grass–letting Mother Nature wrap her loving warmth around my whole body.
It’s mowing I object to! My backyard is a ten-foot high hill. I don’t treat and don’t water but somehow it still needs to be mowed every two weeks. It’s horrible. I did try letting it turn to meadow one year but the neighbors objected–they thought I was harboring snakes. Snakes are good! But my neighbors, sadly, weren’t convinced.
I’m working on turning the whole back into actual garden but it’s involved a 90-foot long retaining wall and needs many more small retaining walls still. SO MUCH WORK. Ugh.