What are the attractive and practical alternatives to lawn?
By Michael Leach
Finally there’s a voice of reason in the clamor over lawns. While I’m hardly a proponent of bluegrass from sea to shining sea, I grow weary of strident idealists calling for an end to lawn.
From what I’ve seen, their politically correct lawn replacements resemble vacant lots, not landscapes. Theirs is a green version of what many well-intentioned water savers palm off as xeriscape.
Sorry, not so fast, that’s zero-scape. To me a mass of tangled native plants or gravel bed punctuated with scraggly desert vegetation seems more a lazy bones approach to landscape design and maintenance than a desirable lawn alternative.
Which brings me to the voice of reason, Sabrena Schweyer, a principal of Salsbury-Schweyer of Akron, OH. She presented “Sustainable Lawn Alternatives” at the recent Ohio State University Short Course offered in conjunction with the Central Environmental Nursery Trade Show in Columbus.
Her vision and calm rationale were as welcome and illuminating as sunshine on a dreary Midwest winter day.
Not surprisingly for a landscape designer, she suggests looking at the lawn as a component of the overall plan, not the dominant theme. Obviously children and pets love playing on a lawn and few plants caress bare feet as gently as grass.
But other needs, such as entertaining or vegetable gardening, may also be on your priority list. Obviously all lawn won’t do.
Think of lawn as the area rugs of the landscape, she suggests. One of her clients wanted a large deck with adjacent water garden to fill much of the back yard. His wife argued against the plan because they never went outside and wouldn’t use.
Who would with only a blank green slate and the boring backsides of neighbors houses to gaze at? Sadly, too many homeowners feel like the wife, thanks to the lawn-centric tradition surrounding the typical American domicile.
She suggests that homeowners, who like the looks of lawn but resent the labor, should look into maintenance minimalist grass varieties and grasslike plants that mimic the open space of lawn without the drudgery. In some situations, moss or thyme might work as ground cover — but weeding is a must with these. (Warning, the casual looks won’t please fussbudgets.)
Even if you opt to replace the lawn with a mini meadow or prairie, it may be wise to surround it with a framework of mown grass, pavement or fence.This shows the neighbors — and skeptical government inspectors — that you are intentional, not merely growing a higgledy-piggledy array of plants.
If this seems too constraining, imagine — if you can — a frothy English perennial garden without a stately brick wall, clipped verdant hedge or precisely edged gravel walk as components. The contrast of order and abandon makes for an intriguing scene.
In the Midwest, we have to keep up appearances in winter. Grass usually turns to a straw mat, making it a neutral foil for other landscape features. But a wildflower meadow becomes a sinister, frosted-blackened place more an Edgar Allan Poe setting than a yard-of-the-year candidate. Plants with winter visual interest, plus structures and other hardscape, will keep the scene lively every day.
The idealists are on the right track. But theirs is a challenge of creating visually appealing — and easy to maintain — alternatives to lawns. Sabrena is pointing the way.