As water becomes scarcer – and it will continue so long as our population continues to grow whether there is a rainfall shortage or not – it’s time to reevaluate the habit of one old landscape tradition; the lawn. Realizing that, until the turn of the last century, the lawn was virtually unknown in American gardens, it’s interesting how closed-minded we’ve become about our lawns. The lawn became a stylized competition with England in the beginning of the 1900’s and made perfect sense in areas like the East Coast where rainfall was plentiful, homes built on large lots of land that needed spans of open ground cover, and populations small enough to make no harmful ecological footprints on the land. But things have changed across the country. And lawns have moved into climates that have never been home to abundant green growth or heavy human populations – until now. It’s time to think about landscaping with no-mow, easy care lawns or lawn substitutes.
So, rather than battling nature, water restrictions and escalating water costs, here are some suggestions that might make your landscape into something that works better. By replacing much — or even all — of your lawn, you can get an even more attractive, low maintenance and money-saving garden that happens to be better for the ecology.
You might want to turn your space into something more colorful by planting a water-wise garden. You can go all native or mix in some impressively showy plants from all across the country, the Mediterranean, South Africa, the American West, Australia and other areas. Gardens can be more interesting than flat lawns and can make better use of space, too. Design your garden to have paths that meander throughout your space so you can enjoy a fascinating walk and watch your flowers grow or the birds and butterflies enjoying your garden. Consider placing a hammock or seating area inside the garden as a private spot to read, meditate or just relax and watch nature.
Another great way to substitute that lawn is to turn it into something productive. You can grow a vegetable garden that will feed your family with healthy, fresh food. Your home-grown vegetables don’t have to have pesticides or ever be recalled for contamination. And not only will food be more nutritious when fresh picked, but it will taste remarkably better. Plus you can create fun growing projects that seniors and children can all participate in producing. A vegetable garden will use more water and will require soil amendments. It will also not be all that low maintenance. But it will pay back double everything you put into it! …Not so true about a lawn.
You can also cover wider areas with other choices than lawn. There are colorful ground-cover plants that won’t need mowing and can even offer tinted foliage or cheerful flowers. Some ground-covers are considered to be ‘steppables’ which means they can take some light foot traffic. Or if you prefer, you can design an artistic steppingstone pathway to meander around your planted area.
Another possibility to cover wider areas efficiently is to use non-living materials like permeable paving. You can find stones and gravel in many sizes, shapes and an amazing array of colors. Even decomposed granite is being quarried in a rainbow of colors. Use these non-living materials to fill spaces, draw pictures and designs or outline shapes. You can get as artistic as you’d like and make a whole conversation piece out of filling in an area of your garden.
One more idea, if you really like grass, is to build yourself an ornamental grass garden. There is a wealth of different colors, sizes and textures in the grass family. You can find soft, mounding, low-growing clumps in blues, reds, oranges, grays, yellows and more in Festuca and Carix. Or you can go for the graceful wild oats or swaying Miscanthus family with members that offer colored design patterns in every leaf. Or create a focal point with a giant grass like the Pampas grass (preferably a sterile variety), the tall Arundo (some can be invasive) or the Vetiver. Mix in a lot of drought-tolerant grasses and you will have little upkeep and a garden filled with interesting shapes and forms that dance gracefully in the wind.
You don’t have to give up on lawn altogether. Lawns can be very useful for play, sports and picnics. Keep a lawn where it earns its ‘keep’. But if you are going to have to fuss, feed and pour a lot of water into it – all for the honor of mowing and edging it – you might just as well get value back for all your effort. We don’t need to be constrained by out-dated styles. Not too many people feel wearing a bustle or a top hat is appropriate today. Perhaps we should look at our attitude toward lawns and lawn substitutes, too. It’s been a hundred years of mindlessly filling in with lawn grass and we can choose better now. Or at least be a little more discerning.