If You Don’t Need a Moat, You Don’t Need a Lawn

Today no suburban landscape seems complete without lush green lawn. If you’ve ever wondered why, stop questioning and get back in line with the sheep. Literally. The lawn originated as a space for sheep to graze, but also as a way for medieval French and English castle dwellers to see approaching visitors.

The lawn eventually evolved into manicured pastures and recreational fields for Europeans wealthy enough to own land for purposes other than growing food, and wealthy enough to pay someone to keep turf cut low. Not to be outdone, Americans got in on the act just after the industrial revolution. Rotary mowers and garden hoses made it possible to maintain lawns without paying someone to cut grass or haul water buckets. Turf grasses which thrived in the rainy English climate struggled in the more extreme American climates.

As development has expanded over the last half-century and resources became more scarce, large lawns have become more difficult to justify. No longer serving the functions of previous centuries, the lawn has become mostly aesthetic. The problem is the lawn’s aesthetic value hardly provides adequate return on financial and ecological investment.

Columbia’s Earth Institute State of the Planet blog claims American homeowners allot 30-40 million acres of land to lawns, apply 10x the amount of pesticides and fertilizers per acre as farmers apply to their crops, and use 30-60% of urban fresh water for irrigation. Lawnmowers account for around 5% of the nation’s air pollution.

Lawns aren’t even near the top of the most attractive options for your landscape! Using native plants, drought tolerant plants, stone, and sculpture can be a much more appealing alternative to massive turf plantings. It just requires thinking a bit outside the box.

Alternatives

  • Expand the planting bedsaround the house. This was step #1 for me when we moved into our house. We had quite a bit of lawn on our property, but I’ve cut into it significantly by making the front beds much larger, and creating a new bed on the side of the house. Architecturally, the depth of your foundational planting beds should be 1/2 the height of the house, a scale many homeowners fall short of.

    Left: Jay Sifford's garden bench (via gardendesign.com) Rt: Foundation plantings (via modernhouston.net)

  • Substitute turf-grasswith groundcovers like thyme, verbena, dianthus, juniper, and clover. You’ll trade a cookie-cutter landscape for unique textures, flowers, and fragrances.

    Xeriscaped front yard

  • Plant more trees. Plant large shade trees, then plant understory trees beneath. Make sure to plant a variety of trees in odd numbers for a natural look. For a more formal, symmetrical design, plant similar trees in even numbers.
  • Connect existing trees in your current landscape with large planting beds. Cover the space with mulch and fill in with beautiful perennials, shrubs, stone, sculpture, and understory trees.
  • Create outdoor living areas. Use decking, flagstone, pavers, or gravel to create usable outdoor space to relax or entertain.

    Andrea Cochran's fireplace, pool, and labyrinth

  • Buy a house near a park. This one may not apply to everyone, but if you’re in the market for a new home, and you need recreational space, consider this option. No maintenance for you, less resources drained per capita. A park will most likely better suit your needs anyway.
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