If not a lawn . . . then what?

by Judy Brinkerhoff

Why continue the tradition of lawn planting? It’s an historical tradition, really, and perhaps a misguided sense of aesthetics, often based in our childhoods. Many of us have our roots in the east, south, or Midwest, and we grew up with big lawns that were kept green by summer rains. Those emerald green patches, fondly remembered, were ideal for ball catch, hammocks, long, warm summer evenings. In the winter, they were covered by snow, and needed no fertilizers, pesticides, mowing or other maintenance.

Here in Sonoma County, the evenings are long, but normally quite cool, even misty, and we seldom use our lawns as patios. We instead sit on our brick, wood, or rock patio, barbequing, eating, chatting with friends. A lawn, especially a large expanse of decorative lawn, is no longer appropriate. A small lawn for toddlers or puppies to roll about on is wonderful, as long as it’s organically grown, that is, without pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Keep it mowed high, with a minimum of irrigation applied. After the kids are through their “lawn stage”, consider replacing the lawn with something else, either hardscape such as patio stones or decking, or one of many plant options. From walk-on ground covers to meadows to cottage gardens, options abound.

The truth is, we can no longer afford to use up water solely to maintain an outdated tradition. And the downsides of lawns are huge.  Pesticides and fertilizers run off into ground water or sewers, then into creeks. The poisons harm beneficial organisms that thrive in good humusy soil. And gas-powered mowers, used everywhere, are little pollution factories on wheels. I read this shocking statistic in National Wildlife: “one mower used weekly during the growing season pollutes as much as 43 late-model cars driven 12, 000 miles a year.” Mowers, as of yet, have no catalytic converters, nor do leaf blowers, weed whackers and other gas-powered garden machines. According to the EPA, about 54 million mowers are used annually in the U.S.

Another downside of having a lawn is that it offers no benefits to wildlife. With asphalt roads and parking lots on a rampage across the county, where does wildlife turn for food, shelter and water? Drive through a corporate center; remember when it was a big open field? Now it’s asphalt and lawn! You’ll see no birds other than crows, blackbirds, and English sparrows. Where does the white-tailed (formerly black-shouldered) kite go to hunt its prey of grasshoppers, lizards, or mice? Nowhere, is the answer. I remember the resident kite at the corner of Stony Point Road and Highway 12: that bird is long gone and no bird of prey has taken its place.

So if no lawn, what do we do? My little house in Forestville had a small lawn many years ago…I tore it out and have made the area into a wonderful habitat for pollinators and birds; a cottage garden. I look out my office window into a jungle of annual wildflowers and perennials, a hanging birdbath in the center. I watch a continual procession of birds, insects, butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds, a joyful and inspiring sight.

This time of year is a perfect time to remove the old lawn and get the process of a different type of yard going. If there is no invasive grass, such as Bermuda grass, cut the sod in strips with a sod cutter and place it root side up. Cover it with 2″ of good compost or topsoil and it is ready for planting. The rain will come soon, eliminating watering chores. Don’t till it; this brings up weed seeds and disturbs the microorganisms in the soil. If the area is in really bad shape, cover it with overlapping pieces of cardboard and newspaper and top with 2″-4″ of compost; then let it sit for the winter. Planting can be done in the early spring, right through the paper, when all the weeds and old grasses have decomposed.

Lawn Alternatives

GRASSES: Native grasses are good choices. Try easy, low-growing blue grama, or mosquito grass (Boutelia gracilis); or buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides). They take foot traffic, very little water, no fertilizer and do well in dry, sunny areas. Warm season grasses that spread slowly by rhizomes, they turn straw-golden in winter. They may be mowed or not.

CA meadow sedge (Carex pansa) is an evergreen, low-growing sedge that does not need mowing and is good for dogs and kids to play on. It needs some regular water to remain green and tolerates sun or shade.

Berkeley sedge (Carex tumulicola) is a taller, clumping, evergreen grass that makes a ground cover on which you or the dogs can romp. Sun or shade, a bit of water, and some trimming, keep it tidy.

For a taller, meadow-like appearance, several native fescues and our deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) are stunning and fast growing. CA fescue (Festuca californica) is my favorite, with its soft blue-gray leaves and tall waving seed heads. Red fescue (Festuca rubra), Western fescue (F. occidentalis), and Idaho fescue (F. idahoensis) are good evergreen bunch grass choices.

Purple needle grass (Nassella pulchra) our state grass, is a classic native CA bunch grass. It goes dormant in the summer and turns golden, but lights up in the winter and spring with blue-green leaves and tall, wavy maroon-purple seed heads. As with other dormant CA plants, they do not want to be watered or fertilized in the summer. Trim back the spent seed heads if a tidier look is desired.

HERBS: Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys ‘Prostretum’) is a low-growing, dark green ground cover that makes good bee and bird habitat. It loves sun, is drought tolerant, deer-resistant and tough.

There is nothing prettier than planting a tapestry of thymes. Various colors, textures, leaf sizes and flowers make a crazy-quilt ground cover. Look for lemon, woolly, creeping, caraway, or camphor thymes. They can be walked on occasionally, the blooms are attractive to pollinators, and are aromatic.

Other groundcover herbs include: English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) which forms a mat of bright, light green, fragrant leaves with yellow button-flowers. Woolly yarrow (Achillea tomentosa), a gray-green mat of leaves blooms with flat-topped yellow flowers. Creeping mint (Mentha requienii), gives off an herby smell, and its tiny round leaves are bright green.

Now you’ve removed the lawn, what else can you do in that area? Suggestions might include a large herb garden in raised beds: rosemary, both upright and weeping; sages, mints, oreganos, lemon verbena, marjoram, chives, parsleys, tarragon, savory, and the annuals such as basil and cilantro. You’ll have evergreen herbs; the pollinators love the flowers.

NATIVE PLANTS: Maybe you really want to get into the native shrubs, such as the salvias for hummingbirds, or barberries or toyons for birds. Lupines and buckwheats mixed with manzanitas, ceanothus and coyote brush make a summer dry, wildlife-friendly habitat. There are several low-growing manzanitas and ceanothus ground covers that provide nectar and seeds. We now have available so many informative books on native plants by various authors: Glenn Keator, Nevin Smith, Alrie Middlebrook, and Bornstein/O’Brien. See any of them for more ideas on CA natives. EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Utility District) put out a fabulous book called “Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the SF Bay Region”. Great photos and ideas for hundreds of plants appropriate to our climate. I believe you can find it online. It’s worth every cent of the $30 plus it costs.

WILDFLOWERS: Our annual, non-native grasses and weeds are the bane of any wildflower garden. The flowers cannot normally compete with the weeds, thus must be constantly managed. Our CA bulbs and wildflowers bloom so spectacularly in the spring that for some of us, it’s worth the trouble. Judith Larner Lowry’s book, “Gardening with a Wild Heart” has the most authoritative info on how to do a wildflower garden-meadow. See her Web site at: larnerseeds.com. You will learn so much about our CA landscape from that classic book!

The goal of removing a lawn is to cut back on our water use, to stop the runoff of poisons into our groundwater and creeks, to quit the use of air-polluting mowers and leaf blowers, to aesthetically relieve the tedium of expanses of wildlife-unfriendly lawns, and to increase the joy of gardening and the diversity of more natural beauty around us. The more natives and wildlife friendly habitat we encourage, the more we return our state to the way it was. Nothing against the big box conglomerates, but they are just not in the landscape business!

Share with your friends!