Losing the Turf Battle? Surrender the Lawn

Edie April and her dog, Maddy, enjoy the front yard, no longer a lawn.
Edie April and her dog, Maddy, enjoy the front yard, no longer a lawn. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pulling and pushing a dethatching rake through the remnant of your summer lawn is probably as good a time as any to face this cold fact: The lawn as icon remains long after the lawn as turf grass has receded.

So each September we are out there, trying to reattach the face of respectability to our properties and our lives by patching, overseeding or completely redoing the ever-failing lawn. Seeking, in sum, to sustain the unsustainable.

Some daring gardeners have found another path: Ripping up the turf and planting decorative plants in its stead. This is a bold step, one of hard work and expense. But it also holds the potential to liberate you from the constant demands of the grass and to introduce some new, attractive and interesting ground covers, shrubs and grasses to your world.

Edie April, who lives in Tenleytown, is among the advocates of lawn alternatives, though she is quick to concede that the lawn has its place. It is useful for moving through your yard, of course, but it is also essential to the picturesque beauty of a landscape. This comes at a price: It is a feature that requires watering, feeding, weeding and mowing. Even with this attention, it can look depressingly bad in August, especially in Washington, where cool-season grasses struggle with heat and humidity.

So April ripped out her front lawn (it was of warm-season zoysia grass, which spreads like kudzu and turns a hard-to-love brown in the cooler months) and replaced it with a medley of ground covers bisected by a straight brick path that leads from the sidewalk to the front porch, a distance of about 25 feet. The garden is framed -- and the house veiled -- by evergreens that won't outgrow their rather confined space, namely a dwarf hemlock, two Hinoki false cypresses, a pair of Foster's hollies and plantings of semi-dwarf nandinas.

If your lawn alternative must function as pavement, the choices are somewhat limited. The creeping thyme varieties that April has used will take some foot traffic but not a lot. Moss and chamomile, similarly, will take limited traffic.

At the U.S. Botanic Garden, Robert Pritchard has been experimenting with low-growing native grasses and reports success with buffalo grass, a warm-season species that has made it happily through recent winters at the edge of Bartholdi Park at Independence and Washington avenues SW. He recommends a variety named Legacy, which grows to 4 1/2 inches and takes foot traffic. As a turf substitute, he also is growing blue gama grass, which is a short prairie grass but gets a little high for his taste.

If you don't have to walk on your lawn alternative -- or can put steppingstones through it -- the plant choices become far broader and more interesting. To keep the feel of the lawn's openness, you want to plant ground covers, but they come in different forms and heights, everything from the ground-hugging thyme variety Minus to higher-mounding perennials such as barrenworts or cranesbills.

April, plant buyer for Johnson's Florist and Garden Center in Northwest Washington, recommends abiding by two principles in the design: Use ground covers of different height to add scale and contrast, but keep the planting restrained to avoid a visual mush.

"I had a lot of trouble" deciding on a planting plan, she said, so she thought about it for a long time. "One day, it all came together."

Both sides of her front garden are not so much symmetric as balanced, with echoes of plants left and right: a purple-leafed cherry in each corner, a pair of Spirea Anthony Waterer at the front walk, and repeated groupings of the nandina and a grasslike sedge, which produced clumps about nine inches high. Against the purple leaves of the cherry and a mass of dwarf barberry, she has planted lime-green spireas named Mellow Yellow. On the alley side of the garden, she has planted the feathery green perennial Amsonia hubrechtii , which turns a golden yellow in the fall.

Besides relative restraint, April was looking for something else in her plantings: low maintenance. She chose tough plants that, once established, could get through the type of hot, humid and dry summers we just had without excessive watering, and certainly without the usual props for the lawn: fertilizing, liming, herbicides and pesticides.

She says she has seen more birds, butterflies and other wildlife since doing this 11 years ago. "I have screech owls back here," she said. "If you grow the plants, they'll come."

In particularly hot and dry sites, one option is a gravel garden. Plants are chosen for their drought tolerance and planted through a generous layer of attractive stones or pea gravel. The gravel becomes a place to walk, and as plants peak and wane through the season, their top growth can be removed without creating noticeable gaps in the landscape.

Other plant groupings can be tailored to excessively wet areas, or heavily shaded locations, conditions that cause lawns to suffer.

In neighborhoods controlled by homeowner associations, rules can impede the extent of lawn replacements. Adria Bordas, horticultural extension agent for Fairfax County, noted that in the established community where she lives, residents must have at least one-third of their front yard as lawn. "This can be difficult for some people who have a lot of shade," she said, or have poorly drained areas.

Areas of the lot that are more private may be the places to start, however. Several environmental groups encourage lawn replacement as a way of reducing the threat of pollution to local waterways that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. Nutrients, pesticides and sediment are all degrading the bay, said Rebecca Wertime of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and lawn alternatives can reduce the amount of chemicals used, hold back rainwater and control erosion. A heavily vegetated garden "slows the flow, it filters the water, and it provides an opportunity for the water to go back into the ground," she said.

Wertime likes the idea of converting the front yard to a planted garden, as a public advertisement for the practice. A sign can help because "we don't want people to think it's not managed," she said.

April said her neighbors "loved it. People walked by and asked the names of plants." For her part, she feels as though a burden has been lifted. "I don't know what it is like to mow a lawn," she said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company