Reducing the Lawn in Your Landscape
Listen to my podcast: "Less Lawn."
When we moved into our house here in northern Florida, much of our property had been sodded with St. Augustine (Stenotaphrum secundatum) grass, and some of it wasn't doing very well. We've been reducing the amount of lawn on our property, section by section. We also changed strategies from the previous owner's method of poisoning and fertilizing to: If it's green; it's probably a welcome addition to our yard, Catbriar (Smilax spp.) and Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) notwithstanding.
Roughly 30% of the water used in urban areas in the East goes to irrigate plants, mostly lawns. In these days of water restrictions in many areas of the country, reducing your lawn and modifying its care makes good sense. Lawn reduction saves water, saves money, saves time, and improves the quality of our rivers and streams. In my previous article on native plants, I discussed the importance of increasing diversity in our landscape. Having a huge lawn with a row of bushes planted along the foundation of your house, doesn't offer any diversity and it doesn't provide enough cover or food for birds, butterflies, and other interesting wildlife. Lawn reduction is the first step to enrich and to diversify your landscape. In this article I cover some strategies we've used to start our landscape diversification, and provide some starting points for you to use.
But first some history: How did we come to value lawns anyway?
Lawns became a status symbol in Great Britain where the privileged class created acres of lawn around their estates to demonstrate that they had more land than they needed. Lawns didn't gain popularity in this country until the early 1900's when the American Garden Club set the standard with their annual contests for the best looking yards. By this time, we also had push lawn mowers and garden hoses. Before then, if you wanted a lawn, you'd need grazing animals to keep the grass at a more or less even height. Woodrow Wilson had a herd of sheep keeping the White House lawn trimmed and fertilized.
Now single species lawns are standard fare for well-to-do American neighborhoods. Some communities have even set standards for lawns, which if not met, means fines for the residents! In this region, the St. Johns Water Management District has started a campaign recommending that you water lawns only once or twice a week. One woman said that she'd been fined by her community association because her lawn turned brown when she followed this practice. (Her lawn had probably developed very shallow roots because of frequent, light waterings. A gradual change in her watering regimen would have avoided the shock.) As gardeners, we need to get on those boards of governors to ease up on lawn restrictions to promote water conservation and to improve the environment. (A non-grass roots movement, maybe.) In my opinion, we should leave the fine turf for all those golf courses.
Lawn care strategies
I'm realistic enough to know that most people (including myself) are not going to completely eliminate their lawns, but here's a strategy for making the lawn you have, work better for you and the environment. I wrote an article for an Annapolis magazine about the thirty-year history of my natural lawn in Maryland. Although many things are different here in Florida, most of what I accomplished there will work here in northern Florida.
- Mow less often and set the blade on your mower to four inches to allow the grass enough leaf area to photosynthesize, and to shade the soil.
- Water deeply once a week in the dry seasons, and not at all the rest of the time. This encourages deep roots and preserves our precious water supply.
- Stop the poisons and herbicides. They are not good for you, your kids, your pets, and they damage the environment. (I've listed resources at the end of this article that detail some pretty gruesome effects.)
- If you must fertilize, do it once a year early in the spring (as it's coming out of dormancy), and use compost or a slow release type. You don't want any of your lawn fertilizer to leak into the lakes and rivers, so make it very light. This light amount of fertilizer means that you won't have to mow so often. some people also mix some lime with that fertilizer to reduce the acidity in the soil and that white trail makes it easy to see where you've been.
When you follow this regimen, you'll have a more diverse lawn with more than one species of grass and other plants that take to mowing. When something attacks an area in your lawn, some other plant will grow there for a while. Areas sodded with St. Augustine three years ago, when our house was built, now include several other grasses and fair number of broad-leafed plants, but as you can see in these photos, the lawn is quite presentable. Mother Nature abhors a monoculture and will do what she can to penetrate it with other plants. It's best not to fight Mother Nature, and you'll still have those barefoot areas for outdoor activities. (Update: I learned later when I joined The Lawn Reform Coalition, that what I have is a "Freedom Lawn.")
Creating wild areas
We stopped mowing sections where the grass was not doing well on our 1.5-acre lot. We've de-lawned under trees, at the edge of the pond out front, along the edge of the woods on the way down to the lake, and on top of that large mound out back. (While it may look like a elephant burial ground, it's our septic drain field.) The open, sunnier areas are now entrancing small meadows, alive with wildlife. The areas directly under trees are mulched with leaves and pine needles, and I'm in the process of planting shrubs here to create more interest. I've created mulched paths that meander through our new wild areas. (Note: I'm sure my neighbors think I'm crazy, because I scrape the pine needles from the street gutters and storm drains. But this way, I have a never-ending supply of free mulch and our lake doesn't have to absorb all that extra organic material. I never, ever bag fall leaves for the landfill or (gasp!) burn them to pollute the air. I always use Mother Nature's fall gifts to improve the soil. More on composting in my next column.)
Moving through the seasons for last 18 months has produced a fascinating display as a wide array of plants, insects, and animals have made their appearances. The meadow areas in particular have provided a wonderful show. The plants have included Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes praecox), Lawn Orchids (Zeuxine strateumatica), Meadow Beauty (Rhexia mariana), Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum), Beggars Ticks (Bidens alba), Goldenrod (Solidago odora), Dog Fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium), and many more. I have been taking pictures, of course, but there are too many to include in this column, so I've created a webpage with a more detailed look at each of the wild areas, and long list of plants that have grown without any aid from us, as well as some that we've planted. meadow page
Here's a July adventure: In one of our new meadows, a newly emerged, four-inch female moth climbed up and hung onto a small Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) for a few days while she waited for her wings to dry. Her wings never did smooth out, that we could see, but she must have attracted a male with her pheromone-laden siren-song, because we found her eggs on a blade of grass. This entertaining scenario could not have played out if the area had been mowed.
We are fortunate to have wooded lots and trees around our house, so seeds in the ground are abundant: it's our seed bank. Plus rhizomes, runners, and other invading plant parts were just waiting for the mowing to stop. If you live in a newer development where the soil may be more sterile or where the grass is thicker, just letting the grass grow may not produce the diversity that we experienced.
Start with a plan
Start with a plan for removing lawn from edges of your lot, under trees, in wet or low spots, along slopes, and in ditches. Look for areas where the grass is not doing well and merge these areas with adjacent beds or meadows. For example, this photo shows some poor grass growth. The next time I go around this area with my low-tech edger, aka my shovel, I'll dig it up and mulch it. In this shaded area, I'll probably plant some ferns next to the Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens).
Plan for pathways, benches, and water features that people will use and enjoy while viewing the diversity you'll have created. Then plan for dense shrubbery areas for wildlife cover, for privacy screening, and for sound barriers. It won't happen all at once and rearranging is allowed. The path I established in the front meadow had to be rerouted, because the original location retains water for a long time after a hard rain. This is a little-at-a-time type of project, especially if you remove the grass with a shovel.
Fall is the perfect time for layered gardening
Layered gardening uses layers of organic material to cover and kill existing vegetation. In this case, the layers of leaves, wood chips, or other organic materials. This allows you to de-lawn a larger area with less strain on your back, less invasion of the soil; and the dead plants under the layers creates another layer of mulch. This is not the same as using a weed barrier in areas where you don't want plants to grow.
For the mulched areas under trees and around shrubs, mark out the area: remembering to add some gentle curves to the border for interest, flatten the weeds, and cover the area with cardboard or at least eight layers of newspaper. Dampen the paper, cover it with leaves and/or mulch, and dampen again. This will kill most plants under the layers in a couple of weeks. If you are planting shrubs or trees in your new, wild area at this time, you will need to remove all the grass and weeds at each planting site. Surround your new plantings with this layered mulch.
For the meadows, if you wish to give your wildflowers a better chance, you may also use the layered approach to kill the grass and weeds. You may want to add a layer of topsoil and tamp it all down. There are a number of wildflowers that are sown in the fall and another group that are sown in the spring. Go for a native mix that will provide flowers through the seasons for you to enjoy, and will provide continuous sources of pollen or nectar for the insects and hummingbirds. Pay attention to the plants' need for sun or shade for this project.
For our meadows, we did not kill the existing plants: we just stopped mowing. This is a riskier method because we had no idea what we'd end up with, but then, we don't have neighborhood regulations to deal with. It's been an interesting adventure.
Resources for further information:
- This site is a mouthpiece for lawn service companies, but its lawn and
lawnmower histories are widely quoted:
- National Wildlife Federation's take on reducing the size of your lawn: www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat/cutlawn.cfm.
- An essay by Michael Pollan on his lawn shrinkage: www.history.vt.edu/Barrow/Hist3144/readings/pollan.html.
- National Coalition for Pesticide-free lawns. If you want to read some scary material on the effects of pesticides, click here: www.beyondpesticides.org/pesticidefreelawns/resources/index.htm.
Ginny Stibolt moved to northeastern Florida in 2004 and even though she's a botanist and lifelong gardener, Florida gardening was a shock. She started writing The Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener columns for the Times Union newspaper in Jacksonville. This is one of those columns archived here on Floridata.com for your enjoyment. Now she's written three Florida garden books published by University Press of Florida: Sustainable Gardening for Florida, 2009; Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida with Melissa Contreras, 2013, and The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape, 2015. Check out her blog for the latest news and articles: www.GreenGardeningMatters.com