Toss the turf

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Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Gardening Columnist
Thursday, July 22, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins was online Thursday, July 22, at Noon ET to talk about tossing the turf and exchanging it for a more creative landscape.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Adrian,

We have taken a "lawn-free" approach in our backyard as a result of excessive shade and drainage problems (now fixed). We have tons of hostas, coral bells, an itea, and a few nandinas under/around a very large oak tree. But we'd really like more color, especially in spring/early summer. Can you suggest some plants that we could add that will bring some colorful blooms?

Adrian Higgins: Hi, everyone, thanks for joining the chat. It was lot of fun seeing how different gardeners had rejected the idea that the front yard has to be dull lawn, and can be a place of decorative interest. The thread running through the four gardens was that all the homeowners were avid gardeners. They were having fun with the space, with their plants, and that's what they like to do. I would make the point that if someone wants a front yard done for them, they might be better off keeping the lawn, which is passive and lower maintenance. But in answer to this question, I would add phlox to this space, both Phlox stolonifera and divaricata. There are several fine varieties out there, and they will provide lovely color in April.

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Crownsville, Md.: I like the idea of reducing my lawn but I currently have 20,000 square feet of turf. Very little turf in back, average size front yard, huge side yard. What would you suggest?

Adrian Higgins: This is half an acre of grass. I would seek to reduce it, not eliminate. I think I would go for a meadow effect in the side, with lots of ornamental grasses and long flowering perennials such as black-eyed susans, goldenrods, asters and joe pye weed. I have seen mountain mint used very effectively in large sweeps, though it does spread.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Adrian, Are you noticing that pests/disease inflicting vegetable gardens are worse than normal this year? My community garden has been devastated. Pretty much everything except for my chard and herbs are inflicted with something -- be it tomato blight, harlequin bugs, bacterial wilt, some sort of bean virus, etc. I thought I got a disease-resistant cucumber variety after losing plants to wilt last year but this year it has been even worse. I had to yank the plants before I got a single cucumber! Argh. I'm ready to throw in the towel and plant a cover crop.

Adrian Higgins: We have had a lot of problems with pests and diseases this year, and the cause, I think, is a hot and dry growing season that is really stressing plants. I think the only you can do is to keep picking off diseased leaves and fruit, going after bugs, and mulching and watering.

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Washington, D.C.: We would love to tear out the grass in our front yard. We have a typical brick colonial, with a straight-ahead walkway. I am just itching to pull that out and put in a meandering walkway before we start a garden. Your thoughts?

Adrian Higgins: Yes, a wandering path is more interesting. I like straight paths that are offset, run into a landing or terrace, and then continue on their way. You could get two long garden hoses and lay out your new path with them to get the proportions right. I would make it at least four feet wide. Most garden paths are too narrow.

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Microstegium: We have a problem with Japanese silt grass. I have tried to control it in the lawn area and planting beds by manual removal, which is fairly simple. However if I don't stay on top of it every week, it spreads like wildfire, especially in the lawn areas. As of today it has taken about a third of the turf and is very dense in most spots. Kills the grass and dies off early leaving bare soil. Every fall and spring I reseed, but every year the situation gets worse no matter how much of the weed I pull out. I've tried several selective herbicides but nothing seems to work. Any suggestions on how we can at least control this weed from ruining our yard? (And we do want some yard for the dogs and kids.)

Adrian Higgins: Once it gets established in the lawn, it is difficult to control because grass herbicides, obviously, will also kill off the turf. This grass is an annual, so the key is to stop it from seeding in the early fall by keeping the lawn mowed (but not scalped). I wonder if corn gluten in the early spring would prevent seed germination. Worth a try.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Adrian, Is it possible turf grass lawns became popular not because of historic attitudes arbitrarily handed down, but because there is no vegetation which establishes as much root and top growth as quickly as grass does? So homebuilders and everyone else who disturbs the soil use grass because there is no better tool to prevent soil erosion. There is no native ground cover, for example, which grows as quickly and needs as little input to establish than grass. And, by virtue of slowing down the movement of water across a lawn into a slow or barely moving sheet flow, more water infiltrates into the soil bringing nutrients down into the soil where soil organisms can consume and immobilize them, preventing them from reaching the local waterway and the Bay. The best water gardens work in conjunction with turf grass "upstream" to maximize infiltration and storage, and minimize runoff. Turf grass has another virtue. It cools the surroundings by breaking up solar radiation because of its surface of blades pointed every direction, which in conjunction with shade trees, of course, lowers the temperature of the air around and coming into homes. Furthermore, one can have a lawn of decent health which provides these tangible benefits while having some weeds and bare spots and not being of golf course quality. I get my 8,000 sq. ft. lawn mowed, (I set my blades high and mow once a month as of June), on 5 gallons of gas per 14 months. I hope people will consider the benefits of turf grass as well as the shortcomings. More power to those who want to increase the ornamental plantings in their front yards. But those who don't or can't spend the time to plant and maintain plantings properly can have grass lawns which also fulfill valid and positive functions. Turf grass should be part of the total landscaping picture here in our local Mid-Atlantic region.

Adrian Higgins: I totally agree. Turf has its place, and it does have a role in filtering water and preventing erosion. There is concern that the nutrients folks spread on their lawns will end up in the Bay, which as we know is in dire shape with de-oxygenated zones.

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Springfield, Va.: Hi Adrian, What a lovely surprise to open the paper this morning and see that I'm not the only one rejecting grass. As you say, it is truly a labor of love and indeed a wonderful way to meet one's neighbors. I started about ten years ago, and the sight of the flowers, birds and, yes -- foxes -- brings a smile every morning. But the best part of all is when I'm asked for pass-alongs.

Adrian Higgins: Thanks so much. Garden beds anywhere can be so enriching and pretty, so why deny the front of the house that benefit? Yes, I'd say they are more work than lawns, and certainly more expensive, but the gardeners featured built them over several years and were willing to replace plantings that failed.

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Alexandria, Va.: We, too, would really like to get rid of our lawn -- at least in the front yard. The backyard lawn is still nice for the kids. However, the lawn-free yards I have seen are all managed by gardeners with considerable skill and require a big time investment. It is hard to deny that a lawn is easily the most maintenance-free option for a yard. We currently practice "freedom lawn" without watering, feeding, or pesticides. How could we plan an easy-to-manage, slow transition?

Adrian Higgins: I think the approach is to do is slowly, perhaps each September enlarge a border edging the lawn from, say, two feet wide to six feet, but work out beforehand what perennials, bulbs and shrubs you might want to assemble there. September and October are perfect months for this sort of localized makeover.

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Arlington, Va.: I love to see interesting front yards, and I have no particular love for grass (mine is full of clover and creeping charlie among other weeds). However, this is something only to be undertaken by people who Know What They Are Doing. The only thing I have learned from gardening since I bought a house a year ago is that gardening is hard work! The digging, the tending, the watering (especially this season), and the initial planning itself are difficult. Many of us are better off with grass over failed experiments. I know I am for now, but as I build my garden bit by bit I am sure to have less and less lawn.

Adrian Higgins: I can't argue with you. Any new plant bed needs to be thought out, the soil amended and the plants installed. That takes work. A front garden, especially, needs to be planned and tended because it's so public. It's just that the results can be fantastic.

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Sterling, Va.: I think this is lovely and a great idea in an ideal environment. Unfortunately, I live in a neighborhood where I can guarantee you that this would not be allowed. Older neighborhoods that don't have association regulations have a better opportunity to pursue this course.

Adrian Higgins: This is one of a number of questions about the limits imposed by homeowner associations. HOAs have legitimate concerns about untidy neighbors but I think often they don't distinguish between those who are neglectful and have weeds and real gardeners who want to employ natural looking decorative plants. If you want to get past that lawn dictate, I think you have to couch the argument in environmental terms.

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Steel City, Pa.: Have a steep slope, poor drainage and water pouring into a basement. What would be good for absorbing excess rainwater after lawn is gone? The French drain isn't working well enough and the basement is like a wet well. Thanks.

Adrian Higgins: Plants alone aren't going to fix your problem, which sounds like an engineering issue. However, you can install swales that will direct rainwater away from the house and toward areas with trees, shrubs and perennials that can take flood. Consulting with a landscape architect would be money well spent, I would think.

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But done poorly....: Oh what a pleasure to see your chat!

Just one note: You featured truly wonderful front beds in balance, with vistas and vision. The downside of wide and deep perennial/annual beds is a jumble of perennials/annuals and "interesting indigenous plants" growing riot, with little pattern or thought. There's a fine line between abundant and over-grown, and it's an easy one to cross.

Been there and done that!

Adrian Higgins: True. My philosophy about natural plantings, is that you must first create very strong lines, e.g.... fence borders, paving, walls, etc. and then the beds you plant should have fewer varieties than you might want, but more individual plants. The result is a series of blocks and lines that read as a composition rather than a mush. The masters of this are the folks at Oehme, van Sweden and Associates. Go to the firm's website and see examples of massed plantings.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I would love to get rid of my lawn. The question is, how much would it cost?

Adrian Higgins: Like everything else, the cost is dependent on how much you are willing to do yourself. If you want the whole thing "done" at once by landscape contractors, the costs can quickly run into thousands of dollars. If you do it yourself and chip away at the lawn by enlarging beds and planting them, you can do it much more cheaply and at a manageable pace.

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Raleigh, N.C.: I tried replacing part of my front yard with ice plants a couple of years ago with mixed results. My home is on a hill, with the front yard facing south, so the grass would burn up almost every summer. So I got rid of the grass on the lower half of the yard, covered it with hardwood bark mulch, and planted with ice plants.

Initially the ice plants did great and covered nearly the entire bank. However, weeds set in during the second summer and totally overwhelmed the ice plants. It was too large of an area to weed, and herbicides would also kill the ice plants. Eventually I sprayed the entire bank with Roundup, put down a fresh load of mulch and decided not to plant anything. There are still a few remaining ice plants but I don't think I will try to re-establish them on the entire area.

Adrian Higgins: That's disheartening. Ice plants are a good choice for slopes and other hot, dry sites, but they like good drainage, especially in winter, and I would not have mulched them with anything other than gravel or stone. The rule with weeds is you have to pull them before they get established en masse and before they go to seed. It's a continual process.

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Just a request: Please do an article on fall/winter gardening, soon as it's time to plant seeds! I have a hard time getting the timing right and could use a good primer and hear about what other gardeners in this area find successful. Last year, I grew parsnips, beets, cauliflower and lettuce under a plastic cover all winter, so I anticipate more success this year, but starting seeds in this heat is a challenge.

Adrian Higgins: You can start seeds of cabbages, broccoli, pac choi and kale now, but do it indoors under lights, then put out the transplants in late August. It would be too hot and dry for seedlings to be directly sown in the garden at the moment. In a month, you can directly sow lettuce, arugula, radishes and even carrots.

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Turf grass and runoff: Interesting post by Silver Spring and that turf grass actually slows down water and protects the watershed from runoff. Our house is located in an RPA (resource protection area) as it is adjacent to a lake. The ordinances put in place a few years ago do not allow removal of vegetation for the purpose of putting in a turf lawn. My understanding is that vegetation, be it natural or planted garden, is much more effective than a lawn at protecting the watershed.

Adrian Higgins: Yes, but the key is to have the new vegetation established so that you don't have erosion. One way to do this on steep slopes is to kill off the existing turf with glyphosate, but not remove the dead vegetation because the roots are holding the soil together. You can then plant through this layer.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi - This is the perfect solution for my tiny, shady front yard. What is the best way to remove existing grass, so that it doesn't keep coming up?

Adrian Higgins: You can mow it really low, and then get a sharp shovel and skim off the grass. This is quite laborious, but made easier if the shovel is sharp and you thoroughly soak the ground a day or two before doing the work. Again, start small and build.

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Washington, D.C.: We are creating a shade garden, but it is a huge space. To break it up a bit, we want to include a little round gravel patio area. Can we do this ourselves? I am assuming that we just need to flatten the area, put down some weed mat, and add gravel. But maybe I am missing something.

Adrian Higgins: And adding our food blog, I write a weekly entry called Groundwork that gets into topical chores in the veggie garden: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/all-we-can-eat/

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Springfield, Va.: Hi Adrian, Forgive me if this question has an obvious answer. Can I put landscape fabric directly over a weeded area then plant and mulch? Or do I have to remove the weeds first?

Adrian Higgins: I would weed, then lay the fabric, and then plant through it by cutting Xs into it. Then mulch to hide the fabric.

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Butterfly Bushes!: Hi Adrian, so glad for the guest appearance! I recently (like last weekend, kind of late I know but fingers crossed) planted two butterfly bushes in the back of my house. The soil is rather clay-ey but the spot is at the top of a slope, and I integrated some planting mix soil stuff with the bed. Do you think this counts as the "a well-drained spot" that I've read BB's need? If not, anything I can do now to remedy? Thanks!

Adrian Higgins: BBs (I like that shorthand) work in poor soil, and if your site is at the top of a slope, one assumes it is well drained. Keep the fading flowers removed to promote new flushes of blooming.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you identify possible resources -- Web sites, books, categories of service providers -- that one can consult in planning a garden of the sort addressed in today's paper?

Thank you.

Adrian Higgins: There are actually not many books at least on this topic, which surprised me when I started researching it. Many front gardens have been converted as wildlife habitat gardens. I would check out the website of the National Wildlife Federation for examples. Many public gardens in Washington have small display gardens that would give you ideas for a front garden. Green Spring Gardens, Brookside Gardens, the US Botanic Garden, River Farm, National Arboretum and Meadowlark Botanical Garden would all have areas that would inspire. Longwood Gardens has a great ideas garden, if you fancy a drive to southeast Pa.

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Falls Church, Va.: Thanks so much for these helpful chats! Our neighbor's bamboo is creeping under our fence and popping up in a shady back corner of our lawn that currently has no other plants. We toyed with installing an underground bamboo barrier, but it is just too expensive. So for now we just get out there with clippers every few months and cut it down to the ground. We do want to plant some shade-loving shrubs in that corner. Is it possible for them to grow with the bamboo roots vying for space underground? Thanks!

Adrian Higgins: You could but it's not ideal. You would have to be committed to removing the culms as they grew, especially in the spring.

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Cheverly, Md.: I loved that article on no-lawn landscaping! The ones featured did a very nice job. My neighbor is in the beginning stages of doing a natural yard. I must confess though that it isn't pretty!

Adrian Higgins: It takes two years for a newly planted garden to have any sort of presence, so I would hold off on judging it for a while. We all put in plants that don't end up working for one reason or another, so I hope your neighbor understands this is the start of a journey not the end of it. This is the point of the whole story today I think. A garden is never finished, it is constantly tweaked and edited.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Isn't the real problem with realtors, who get their knickers all in a twist over non-traditional yards, in the belief that they lower property values (and concomitantly real estate commissions for sales)? Is there any study to demonstrate whether turf vs. non-traditional makes a monetary difference?

Adrian Higgins: Yes, I think there is not enough distinction between a front garden that is weedy and one that has been planted by a loving gardener. A feather reed grass, for example, is lumped in with quack grass.

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Richmond, Va.: I don't use any chemicals on my plants or lawn so of course my lawn doesn't look very good, especially in this awful heat. I would love to get rid of all of my turf. How long would it realistically take to transform a smallish yard to all plants and no turf? Also, how does a no-turf yard look in the winter? Thanks!

Adrian Higgins: I think we're out of time. A garden in winter is going to look inherently more bare, but that is part of the seasonal dynamic beauty of a garden. The solution is to have little things that shine in winter, like coral bark maple or certain willow shrubs, and then wonderful early season bloomers like witch hazels, winter hazels, Japanese apricot and inherently. Thanks so much for your interest today, and keep watching Local Living for lots of gardening advice and coverage.

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