Lawns, hmmmm. There isn’t an issue in the landscaping world that’s more charged with dogma and drama than lawns. It may be due to our inability to separate the lawn from its historical symbolism of wealth and status. Having a lawn meant that you didn’t need that space to grow crops to feed your family, and that you had the leisure time to use a lawn for strolling and lawn games. In the post-war era the creation of suburbia included a small lawn for every family as a status equalizer. Today most families can afford such small luxuries as lawns, and their existence in the landscape is assumed mandatory. What’s changing (slowly but surely) is our definition of the lawn, its size, shape and role in the landscape. Let’s look at these four trends:
Lawns are going Organic – The “natural lawn” movement is rooted in an increased appreciation of the environmental costs of traditional lawn care practices (phosphorous, pesticide and herbicide runoff, carbon emissions, lack of biodiversity, etc.). Thanks to the work of many organizations including SafeLawns.org, and the like-minded NOFA Organic Land Care practitioners that followed, many lawns have been transitioned to an organic maintenance system. In Vermont we also have some great programs helping to keep Phosphorous out of Lake Champlain, including the collaborative Lawn-to-Lake program.
Personally, we’ve never had irrigation or applied anything to our lawn here in Addison and after 13 years I think it’s still beautiful. It’s green all season long partly because there’s nice wet clay underneath and partly because we let the clover grow (a wonderful nitrogen fixer and drought tolerant), and the dandelions do their thing (amazing deep rooted aerators). I’m sure a Victorian gardener would roll over in her grave, but it works for us.
Lawns are going Native – at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center ecologist Mark Simmons has been leading research on a mixture of drought-adapted native grasses that cut down on mowing, watering, weeding and feeding. These fine-leafed species grown together form a dense lush lawn that takes less effort to maintain a lawn of mixed native turf grasses than a non-native lawn. It’s called HABITURF®, and the seed mix outperforms Bermudagrass in terms of rates of establishment, thickness of the turf, mowing rates and weed resistance. Of course it was designed to combat the drought conditions of Texas, and we usually have the opposite problem (fungus) when it comes to turf, but climate change makes it hard to predict. There’s also the slow growing grass blends such as Pearl’s Premium, which are a mix of native and exotic grass species. The State of Maine is growing ten different mixes, including one that is 2/3 native, in a research project called the Great Grass Experiment. Out of curiosity we will trial some of these seed mixes up here in Vermont and see if we get good results compared to the typical VT Conservation mix we normally use.
Lawns are being replaced with low native groundcovers or transitioned to meadows. Many large public institutions, including our own local Middlebury College, are transitioning large areas of previously manicured lawn into meadows that are brush-hogged twice annually, which is all that is necessary to maintain the open space (prevent reforestation) and reduce the tick population. In rural areas I usually advise clients to let 90% of their burdensome multiple acres of mowed turf go – just mow paths for walking, brush hog the rest a few times a year if open views need to be maintained, and enjoy how the grasses transition over the season. When lawns transition to meadow you see movement and song come back into the landscape – breezes sway the seedheads and birds arrive in droves. For smaller suburban front yards I take lawns out of the design altogether – if the goal is curb appeal there are so many better choices for that space that require so much less maintenance and have a lot more “Wow” power. In shady areas sedges are the winner – the photo above is of Carex pensylvanica, which is a clump-forming Northeast native that only grows 6-9″ high and can handle dry shade. We plant it spaced fairly tight and it grows into a lawn-like planting that you don’t have to mow more than once a year or fertilize, and it looks soft and inviting. Now that’s drama I can live with.