The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.
Let’s talk about lawns. According to the National Audubon Society turf grass covers over 40 million acres of land across the U.S. We use 80 million pounds of pesticides and 800 million gallons of gas yearly to cut and care for our lawns. Millions of dollars are spent annually on the upkeep and maintenance of what is essentially a boring strip of grass. Why do people put so much work into something so bland? When did a perfect lawn of non-native turf grass become the symbol of a prosperous American family? The lawn is a European concept that somehow migrated from a status symbol of the ruling elite to the stereotypical hallmark of the American nuclear family. It could be argued that there are many reasons to keep your mildly appealing green turf. What will your neighbors say, what would you plant instead, and wouldn’t other plants take up even more of your valuable free time and resources? These are all valid concerns, but we have come to a place and time where our priority needs to be providing natural habitats for native insects and wildlife, not the pearl-clutching opinions of neighbors and visitors. Their lack of a habitat is directly our fault, and steps need to be taken immediately to begin to rectify our mistakes. Reducing the consumption of water, chemicals, and fossil fuels could not be more relevant to the future of our planet.
Now that we’ve firmly established the issues with the stereotypical American lawn, let’s talk about creative alternatives to it. Choosing plants is a personal way to express yourself, like a painter choosing a paint. Just like there are hundreds of paint types and colors, there are a myriad of plants out there to suit your own personal preferences. I’m not suggesting that you run right out and rip out your entire yard (even after my previous tangent about lawns, I have to admit that some turf grass is terribly useful especially for sports related activities) but perhaps you could start small. My advice is to start small, maybe designate a specific area to experiment with and learn what colors and plants you favor.
My front garden is on a slope leading into the road and was always difficult to mow or play in. I saw this as an great opportunity to dig it up. I replaced the turf grass with several varieties of plants, both native and non-native. I have several varieties of hostas, ferns, creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), Carex, Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), to name a few.
My backyard still has a lawn – the only one left in my garden. When we first moved here, it provided an excellent place for my daughters to run and play. Now, with both girls grown and having flown the coop, I am considering putting in a meadow of tall grasses and wildflowers. In my vision, I would leave only enough turf grass for paths through the meadow, and maybe a spot to put up a hammock.
I like a lot of variety in my planting beds but don’t feel pressured to cover your entire yard in hundreds of different plants. It’s still your yard, and if you feel overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of options, it’s perfectly okay to just replace a patch of lawn with a low-maintenance ground cover species. A native species would be a simple replacement for turf grass, but could make a world of difference for beneficial local wildlife.
If you’re looking for shade plants, a good idea would be to create a border with Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica), which provides 36 different species with valuable food. If your tastes run towards the dramatic, you could interplant a bed of Carex with Mayapples (Podophyllum), which bloom in early spring and attract all number of woodland species. If you’d like more of an easygoing feel to your bed, wavy hair grass (Deschampsia flexuosa) might be just the ticket. It’s elegant, tough, and works well in dry shaded areas.
Blonde Ambition, Purple love grass, Pennsylvania Sedge
An idea for a sunny spot is wild native strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), which forms a semi-evergreen mat. Wild strawberry provides a tasty treat for insects, wildlife, and humans, and are highly recommended by Garden in the Woods, a botanical garden in Framingham, Massachusetts. There are also many native ornamental grasses that can be used as a more attractive alternative to turf grass. Some examples include purple love grass(Eragrostis spectabilis), blonde ambition (Bouteloua gracilis), or little false blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium) to name but a few. Even the names sound exciting, especially compared to turf grass. Other ideas include creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), and pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia).
There are so many fun and creative ways you can express yourself while providing food and shelter for native species and cutting down on the use of pesticides and gasoline. If you’re still concerned about the comments from nosy neighbors, you can start in your backyard, or just disregard them and start out front and center. A little slice of backyard garden has benefits for everyone – a win/win. Go ahead, start dreaming, and plant something fun!
Virginia Bluebells, Native Bleeding Heart, Blue-eyed grass