Thinking outside the lawn

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; VA08

When the suburb was invented in the 19th century, a pattern of landscaping was established that remains dominant, if not bullying.

Here's the deal: Place the house back from the street, hide its ankles with foundation shrubs, and give the intervening space over to lawn and perhaps a tree. It's easy, it's passive and it fits a long-held notion that one front yard should flow into the next in an unspoken gesture of neighborliness, even patriotism.

But isn't it at the core of American values to express ourselves freely? So let's toss the turf.

Fortunately, you don't have to look too far these days to find homeowners who have rejected the model and have turned their former lawns into ornamental gardens. They have built a space that is more interesting, more welcoming to wildlife and, contrary to expectations, brings neighbors closer together.

For many converts, a major aim of going turfless is to reduce the damage their lawn would otherwise do to the environment by avoiding pesticides and chemical fertilizers as well as by trapping storm water that can pollute waterways.

"The most harm we are doing in our gardens is related to lawn care, and awareness of that is growing," said Susan Harris, a garden blogger ( and activist in Takoma Park who last year helped form a nationwide group called the Lawn Reform Coalition. Harris put a low fence around her front yard after removing the lawn and planting a decorative garden of herbs and low-growing ground covers.

For many gardeners who have replaced their lawns, the shift is as much or more about finding additional real estate to play with plants as it is about going green. Wouldn't you rather look out your window to, say, drifts of lavender in June, or black-eyed Susans now, or asters in September and October, than to see a thinning and weedy lawn?

We visited four properties where the lawn is a memory, and the front yard a place of dynamic beauty.

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