The Lawn Goodbye?

I just finished reading Lawn Gone! by Pam Penick, something I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while. Pam has written a number of books, along with the excellent blog Digging.

DSC_0577 front garden summer
Our front garden – better than a lawn.

It would be great if someone would give Lawn Gone! to every new homeowner. It’s a clear and well-written primer for those who are tired of trying to make the property around their homes look like a golf course. Pam covers a variety of alternatives to the excessive mowing, watering, and chemical warfare that the “ideal” lawn requires. These substitutes include groundcovers, hardscapes, “no mow” lawns, and even – gasp – perennial beds.

Myself, I need no persuading. For me the primary issue is that lawns are boring and pointless and at the same time a lot of work (unless you pay someone to do the work for you). Grassy paths between beds are the only lawn left in my front garden.

lawngone

I do wonder in particular about the point of a front yard lawn. In all the many hours that I have spent driving through various residential neighborhoods, it is exceedingly rare that I have ever seen anyone actually using the lawn in front of their house (except for mowing it, etc.). It seems to me that the front lawn is essentially a big welcome mat, but one that is rarely stepped on.

We have more lawn in our back garden, which is useful for socializing. I still try to slice off a bit of turf and convert it into flower beds when I get the opportunity, but at this point I sometimes run into resistance from the natives.

The lawn we do have is what the science writer Hannah Holmes calls “freedom lawn”. Anything that is green, comfortable to walk on, and not excessively aggressive (I’m looking at you, Creeping Charlie) is welcome. Weeds? Weeds are in the eye of the beholder.

In addition to personal aesthetics, there are more objective reasons why the vast acreage of American lawn is a problem. For starters, it sucks up more water than we can afford to give. It contributes to water quality problems through fertilizer and pesticide runoff. It encourages pesticide use that is toxic to pollinators and other insects, not to mention birds and mammals. And speaking of pollinators – from their point of view, a lawn is essentially a desert.

penick
Pam Penick

Having said all that, I have to ask the question: are we making progress? Outside of the arid or drought-afflicted western states, perhaps, positive change seems exceedingly slow. Of course, lawn reformers have to overcome an entire industry built around the most destructive lawn care practices.

I suppose we should just carry on with our own gardens and hope for a breakthrough.

Do you think there is hope for lawn reform? Or perhaps you think there is no need for such a thing?

78 Comments on “The Lawn Goodbye?

  1. Sunny & cool (40F) today in Chicago. Our bungalow’s previous owners converted the 15’x25′ postage stamp lawn to a sort of flower bed (hostas mostly) when we bought the place 17 years ago. The parkway (between sidewalk and street) is still a dandelion and grass patch. One neighbor tries to tend it, another litters and tramples it – oh well! There have been a few lawn to garden conversions in our neighborhood – it sometimes looks more than a little “wild” toward the end of summer. Good for the birds and butterflies I suppose.

    • It’s tough when one neighbor has a very different idea of what the landscape should be – or doesn’t care at all. It does take work and planning to keep a garden from looking wild at the end of the season. But you’re right, the birds and butterflies benefit.

  2. I’m no fan of law, but I still feel part of a small minority, even in the City of Portland where people grow veggies anywhere there’s sun. I’ve successfully eliminated lawn grass in our back garden, but the front is a knottier problem, with three large, water-sucking trees and their tangle of roots making it hard to grow much else. I make slow progress annexing bits of it for garden beds. And thank you for the term “freedom lawn” – it’s perfect to describe the out-of-control mashup of moss, weeds, grass nubbins and exposed roots in our remaining front “lawn”.

  3. Interesting. I am a fan of a pretty lawn but one that does not require much in the way of maintenance and one that attracts birds and butterflies.

  4. Living here in the Buffalo area, hundreds and hundreds of homeowners have fully planted front, side and rear gardens, including gardens in the Hell strip. You don’t see much turf lawn in that city. They have been doing it over twenty years now with Garden Walk Buffalo making it a national phenomenon and creating a movement with “Buffalo Style Gardening”. I have lived in WNY since 1985 and cannot remember anything different than gardens filled to the brim. What has transitioned over those 30+ years is a swing to more native plantings to encourage wildlife. In fact, Buffalo area has allowed people petitioning to raise chickens in the city due-consideration in areas through history that were dedicated to farm land long ago. Coming from PA, I was very accustomed to “heavily” landscaped properties and large properties having natural spaces set aside. In fact, if a homeowner leaves a property in a natural state surrounding their home, they get a rather large and generous tax break each year for promising the land never to change (native plantings allowed), parceled or be built upon. It can’t even change hands without this contract with the state remaining enforced, or suffer paying back taxes. As far as grass being time consuming? I really disagree when you leave it as a freedom lawn. Mowing is good exercise and takes far less time (in our cold climate area especially) than tending perennials throughout the year. I know first-hand having a fully planted property myself. Ironically, it is the native plants most aggressive, through self-seeding, running roots, and the need for every three-year dividing. Since we have had drought most summers lately, I have only had to mow the tiny bit of grass two or three times a season. No water… it won’t grow tall enough to mow. Since I live in a place where this type of gardening is commonplace, seeing it spread nationwide is not a surprise, especially as the weather warms and drought is the norm.

    • Some day I’ll have to get to the Buffalo garden walk. I’d be happy if more cities followed Buffalo’s lead, but I think it may be an outlier. I’d be happy to be wrong, though. I find mowing to be boring but to each his own. The great majority of homeowners use gas powered mowers, and I really dislike the noise they make.

  5. There is absolutely hope for Lawn Reform. Here in drought affected Southern California, since July 1 of last year, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has paid just over $34 million in turf removal rebates. It has given the go-ahead to an additional $120 million in turf removal applications. The agency offers a rebate of $2 per square foot, which many cities have supplemented with their own rebate programs. Although progress will doubtless be slower in areas not affected by drought, I have every confidence that homeowners across the country will change their landscaping plans over time.

    Thank you so much for the recommendation of Ms. Penic;s book. It sounds great!

    • It seems that on the West Coast the movement away from traditional lawns has been stronger than in the rest of the country, in part out of necessity. Here in the Midwest we are lagging behind you, though there is still some progress.

  6. In SW IN where I live hardly anyone does away with their lawns. My place has the freedom lawn front and back. The front lawn is Zoysia which takes care of itself. It goes dormant during the drought time of year. I mow a labyrinth path in it. In back I have wide paths that is full of freedom. All the mowing of our garden is Don in a very few minutes. The only things watered are newly plants.

  7. Even if I wanted to, I can’t convert my garden and do away with a lawn. We have rules and covenants…all agreed to at purchase time…and an HOA, the members of which do not seem to be open to changes like this. Alas! Property values. I doubt if I am alone in such a situation.

  8. Jason, thanks so much for your green-thumb’s-up review of Lawn Gone! I love seeing the front garden you’ve made and couldn’t agree more that lawn seems especially a waste of effort/resources in the front yard, where no one uses it. I think people can be intimidated by the idea of gardening out front, where everyone can see any mistakes. But to my mind, that just adds tons of personality to a neighborhood, one I’d much rather walk through than a ‘hood filled with boring lawn.

    • I never thought of gardening in the front yard as intimidating. It’s actually one of the things I really enjoy. Of course it allows me indulge my show-off tendencies.

  9. I know that some residential areas have restrictions as to what you can do with the front of your property, but I am all for more wildlife-friendly planting. We still have a lot of ‘lawn’ but it is mostly weeds (some that flower too) and there are plenty of worms in it for the blackbirds and ants for the woodpeckers!

  10. Having rid myself of lawn years ago, I can’t even imagine having the maintenance of turf to deal with–who has the time for that? Planting for wildlife and utilizing natives and well-adapted, non-invasive perennials and annuals is more interesting and has significantly less negative environmental impact than the average American lawn. Here in Austin, we’re now in the throws of the mowing and edging season and I’m already tired of the noise and smell of gas that permeates the weekend. Other than some minor pruning and occasional weeding, my work is done for the year. And during our long, hot summers? I’ll water once/3 weeks or so, while the turf-lovers will need to water once/week or more often (if they can get away with it). The one thing positive aspect I’ll say about a lawn is that it is a negative space that allows the eye to rest and an expanse of green is restful. However, that can be achieved with lawn alternatives and there are plenty available in most regions.

  11. I have a small house on a large lot, and quite frankly, mowing is easier than mulching, weeding, pruning, dead-heading, transplanting, thinning, harvesting, etc. Most of the lawn is in the front, so my property blends in with the neighborhood (it’s called ‘cloaking’); I would like more trees there, as my grass seems to do better with some shade. The lawn in the backyard is giving way to shrubs, fruit trees, berry bushes, flowers, etc. Front or back, I mow high and don’t water the grass. One of this year’s experiments is the addition of miniclover, which I hope will reduce the need to mow. I will check out Lawn Gone, though – I’m always interested in alternatives.

    • Perennial beds are one of the more labor-intensive alternatives to lawn. Ornamental grasses, shrubs, and small trees are a lot less work. I think eventually I will move in that direction.

  12. Your front garden is stunning! I think this is the first time I’ve seen a wide shot of it. I am not a fan of turf. We have more than I would like but we continue to expand our flower beds and get rid of lawn. Our front garden is getting a make over this year with three new flowers beds, which translates to less lawn. However, considering how much property we have (10 acres), just 3/4 acre of lawn. It is used mostly by the kids and dogs. However, truth be told they much prefer playing in the woods. In suburban Georgia heavily lawned properties are the mainstay. I think it is boring. In Atlanta, where properties are smaller, they are filled with plants and almost no lawn.

  13. I went to a workshop a few weeks back about our romance with the English garden which basically started with a big, sloping square of beautiful green lawn. I think we’ve been working on this challenge a long time. I love my garden beds but as one gets older it is easier to mow the lawn than manage the care of perennials so maybe it’s a cycle depending upon age? We don’t fertilize or water so if the lawn grows great, if not, oh well. 🙂

    • Perennial beds can certainly be a lot of work. I think over time I will try to move to more ornamental grasses, compact shrubs, and small trees. They require less effort.

  14. What an interesting book! We have a lot of lawn, mainly for the dogs to run on but each year I too carve off a little more. When we moved in the entire third of an acre was simply lawn, horrible hedging with enormous trees. A mighty strange garden.xxx

  15. Our HOA mandates that every home have a well maintained lawn. Sigh…. You are exactly right in saying that it is nothing more than a welcome mat. But I also have a lawn in my back that is used by my 4 dogs. It’s also a restful spot for the eye in contrast to the flower beds. But if I lived in more arid, droughty environment I’d rip it all up and put in something else.

  16. Your front garden is an inspiration. Here, in Central Kentucky, we are awash in front lawns, far too many of them treated with herbicides and pesticides and whatever. The council of local garden clubs has sponsored a biennial “in bloom” contest since 1992. The aim is to recognize those homeowners, businesses, etc., who enhance our lives by beautifying their front gardens, or those visible to the public from the street. It is not widely publicized and there are no monetary rewards, just a certificate and a reception for those who have made an effort. But every little helps!

    • Thanks. I agree that every little bit helps. In our suburban town the overwhelming majority of yards are lawns, and many are over-fertilized etc. by landscape companies. It does seem that gradually the use of alternatives is spreading, though.

  17. Your front garden looks lovely, and we are planting in the same way. I agree that lawn is good for socialising purposes .. in the back garden.(and also can give a nice cool look on a hot day) Canberra had a severe drought some years ago, and now hardly anyone has lawn in their front gardens. People have become much more creative too about what they put into the front garden, now it is interesting going for a walk and looking at the diversity in the neighbourhood.

  18. We have more miss than lawn because of so many trees and that’s fine with us. We’re we to move we’d have no interest in a lawn. Very much agree they require too much water and are boring.

  19. I removed most of my lawn incrementally starting 15 years ago–the only lawn left is grass paths through the native plant gardens. I live in a Sears bungalow on a small lot and neighbors are slowly getting rid of heir lawns and planting more and more gardens, but not to the extent that I have, I keep hoping.

  20. Your front garden looks stunning. I totally agree with you. I much prefer flowerbeds instead of lawn. I still have a big lawn, but plan new beds every year. Lawns are boring, no bees or butterflies, and you have to fertilize it, water it, to make it look nice. We never use any kind of insecticide, or pesticide in our garden. I love our wildlife too much, and we also have our own well and water supply.

  21. I can never see the point of a front lawn. The first thing I did when I moved here was to dig up the front lawn. We have an ever- diminishing lawn in the back, which is full of weeds, but who cares. Whenever I see a manicured, weed- free lawn, I always imagine there lives a man, (rarely a woman) with obsessive compulsive disorder

    • I feel the same way. We used to have neighbors who would go around picking up all the little sticks that fell onto their lawn. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought that was odd.

  22. I think there is some progress even if it is slow. A few decades ago, most people, including serious gardeners, had a lawn. Now most people still have a lawn but most gardeners don’t. With attrition …

  23. Great post Jason, front lawns are miserable, public and require machinery. That said birds do like to forage for grubs and worms on a lawn. Like you I cut bigger borders each year, the natives have left home so I do what I please. How much nicer than struggling with a temperamental lawnmower than to be tending a lovely front garden like yours.

    • Birds do like to forage on lawns, especially after the rain. Not so good for them, of course, if they are full of pesticides.

  24. I have a lot of thoughts about lawns. One simply cannot paint all lawns with the same brushstroke of criticism. I definitely am against large expanses of artificially supported grass, which is much too common. But the main issue is harmful pesticides and fertilizers, not the grass. We use only organic products on our lawns, and I enjoy the way the open expanse of green sets off the gardens that wrap around it.

    We have three separate lawn areas in front of the house and none behind it. Privacy has never been an issue for us, and our front lawns have served as soccer and croquet fields; tag, dodge ball and water balloon fight arenas; fireworks launchpads; as well as hosting many other activities over the years. Squirrels, birds, and rabbits love it, and we enjoy watching them. So lawns definitely have a place. As for maintenance, it is part of the garden and not overly burdensome. We allow our zoysia to grow fairly high, so this smothers out weeds and decreases need for water. We are fortunate to get plenty of rain here, so we don’t have to be tied to a watering routine. Lou uses a push mower and counts it as exercise.

    Grass lawns are not appropriate everywhere; they certainly don’t belong in a desert environment. And if I had a small yard, no doubt I would have minimal grass so that I could grow more flowering shrubs and perennials. Your own landscape is outstanding, and I love how you have paths running through your front garden to separate the flower beds.

    • Sounds like you make great use of your lawn areas. It’s certainly true that not all lawns are equal, there are crucial differences in how people use and manage them. Unfortunately the negative practices are still widespread.

  25. There is hope for change but only if the lawn really wants it. I’m encouraging violets, which a company called Chemlawn (recently changed) offered to eradicate for me several years ago, clover, and a few other weeds to take over the little lawn we have left.

    • The first step is for the lawn to acknowledge that there’s a problem. Violets and clover are favorites of mine. A pox on Chemlawn and all their ilk.

  26. You’re right Jason, a lawn needs a lot of efforts to keep it in good condition. But despite of them my lawn is far from ideal one. I’ll think about ‘lawn gone’.

  27. There are still many subdivisions with front lawn restrictions and lawn police who pay a visit to offending homeowners whose lawns aren’t up to well-groomed snuff. I fear that changing that mindset will be a slow process.
    I like a bit of lawn for the open feel and croquet, badminton, and dogs. But we have long been practicing the freedom lawn approach. We just didn’t have a word for it.

    • Yes, many neighborhoods will be under the yoke of the lawn police for years to come. Dogs and croquet are certainly good uses for a freedom lawn.

  28. Like pagedogs, I had never heard of the term “freedom lawn,” but that’s exactly what we have. If it’s green, it’s good, and our front yard has lots and lots of moss, which I think is pretty. Love your front yard. So very lovely, Jason.

      • It seems that our very shady, acidic front lawn is just perfect for moss. But not much else 😉

  29. In Pennsylvania (where I grew up), people seemed more interested in landscaping of all sorts. Not all of it was native landscaping – there was plenty of vinca and ivy – but there did not seem to be the same sort of love affair with vast lawns that I see in Tennessee.

    I’m not sure why that’s the case, but there certainly seem to be regional differences in terms of landscaping preferences.

    I think beds of perennials, shrubs and trees are less work to maintain than grass in the long run, but first you have to know what to plant and how to maintain it (or find someone who knows how to maintain it). For people who may not have much interest in being outside, I think it’s just easier for them to pay someone to roll a giant compacting mower over the lawn.

    Sad, but true. Not sure how to change it. Start teaching gardening in all the public schools alongside reading, writing and arithmetic to get the next generation interested, aware and comfortable playing in the dirt?

    Quick question for you regarding your grassy paths — How do you keep the grass in those paths from invading the perennial beds. In my garden, grass is one of the biggest ‘weeds’ that keeps trying to invade my garden beds.

    • Yes, grass can be a terrible invader of the flower beds. My main technique is to maintain a shallow trench between the beds and the lawn. It mostly works, but I also have to try to pull grass out of the beds occasionally. Once it’s in there, you can’t get rid of it. You can just try to contain it. Or that’s just me, because I don’t have the patience to dig out all my perennials and tweeze the grass roots from the perennial roots.

  30. i fully intend to have no lawn at my next house except for whatever smallish area happens to be directly above the front-yard cesspool/septic because of needed access for any needed maintenance or repair work (no sewers here.) Hopefully it won’t need to be more than about 8 or 10 ft square or in diameter. But as for the rest of the property, I plan to have a combination of gravel or small river rock pathways or some walkable groundcovers.The neighbors will think I am eccentric at best, or weird at worst, but I won’t care LOL. Luckily, HOAs and their ilk, with their neverending restrictions on appearance, never really caught on in this part of the country.

  31. I’ve been watching lawns slowly disappear in Southern California over the last couple of years. Unfortunately, some of the people put down a layer of obnoxious white stones where their lawn used to be and most people who plant succulents or cacti seem to go with the grid approach. Still, some people are making the change more creatively and I want to celebrate them. You don’t have to have a desert to have a low water usage yard.

    • I hate those shiny white rocks. There was a bed full of them where we lived two houses ago. Figuring out how to dispose of them was a major challenge.

  32. Granted I didn’t have much to give up, but I have been lawn-free for years. Mainly because I was running out of room to garden, and I find them so boring. Passersby often comment that my garden must take a lot of work, to which I say not as much as a lawn.

  33. Here in this old Pennsylvania coal miner town change comes slowly, and the lawns around here are the result of decades of freedom lawns… possibly seeded back in the day but over the years weeds and wildflowers have moved in. The lawn was just something to cut, not anything to fertilize or weed or water and as a result you go from violets to dandelions to daisies to whatever else could survive living below three inches tall. I love it when a lawn around here sprouts a coating of yellow hawksweed in June and livens up the place.

  34. I do think we are making progress. Over a long life, I have seen progressively fewer lawns. Portland is a pretty garden-centric town, so that may skew my perspective. The problem now is that infill buildings are eating into potential gardening space. Always something.

  35. While WNY may not have lots of lawns elsewhere in the state the lawns are everywhere and absolutely necessary for resale and a must for most towns and villages. I removed our lawn at our old house…it was hard to sell the gardens to potential homeowners. And once someone bought the house they ripped out all the gardens and hardscape and planted a lawn.

    Until we allow more people to take out their lawn in communities and even give them an incentive, we will have many lawns still being planted. Here we do see our kids playing on the front and back lawns…but as you say, is it really all that necessary. No I think not so much especially in the front.

  36. The UK is unnaturally obsessed with lawns. I hate to think of the amount of money that can be spent on them and the sheer range of products available for their care, no other plant can boast receiving the same level of attention. Unless it’s in my garden, in which case the “lawn” is simply a means to separate border, to go from one border to another or to sit and enjoy the borders from.

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