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Why the anti-lawn movement bugs me a little

There’s a movement afoot to convince people to ditch the lawn in favor of other plants, be they edibles, ornamentals, or a mix of the two. This is not a terrible thing. A mature, layered landscape can require significantly fewer inputs and labor hours to be healthy, happy, and beautiful. It’s also much more aesthetically interesting (done well) and you’ll get many more happy critters if you select great plants. There are many reasons to hop on board the train to NoLawnville, but I just can’t. Here’s why.

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1. There is a middle ground and many anti-lawn folks ignore it

One of the (pretty compelling, actually) arguments I hear against lawns is that they waste a ton of water with irrigation, herbicides and pesticides are bad for the ecosystem, and fertilizer runoff is a huge issue. I 100% agree, but here’s the thing. Lawns don’t have to cause all this misery.

For the sake of brevity, let’s refer to my mix of grass and weeds that stays generally green as my “lawn”. Now, I don’t irrigate, I don’t fertilize, and I don’t use chemicals. My neighbors might also complain that I don’t mow as often as I should, but I’m busy. Things happen. Anyhow, my lawn is generally green and looks decent. I grew up in lawncare, manicuring yards to look like verdant carpets, so it’s been a journey to get myself to accept a lawn that doesn’t look like a putting green. If I can do it, anyone can. The trick is getting people off the Scotts/Miracle Gro treadmill, recognizing that unless you’re on a Superfund site the grass will do just fine without massive inputs.


2. Lawns have a purpose

Two purposes, actually: functional and aesthetic. Nothing holds up to foot traffic and hard use like turfgrass. I have met with literally hundreds of homeowners and in the landscape design consultation they ALL say the same thing: “I want to keep as much lawn as possible for the (kids and/or dogs) to play.” We don’t have kids but someday we hope to have time for a dog, and in the meantime we enjoy croquet and bocce and horseshoes. In a huge proportion of my backyard designs I make an easy, open transition from the patio to the lawn so that when the homeowner has a big party, they can expand their outdoor “room” just by placing tables in the grass.

Lawns also serve an aesthetic purpose. Rich, layered planting beds (which I love creating) need something to tie them all together. Lawns also provide some visual relief, a place for the eye to rest while it digests all the botanical awesomeness around it. Generally speaking, a thoughtfully shaped lawn area can make plant beds all the more impactful. The examples of ugly lawns that the anti-lawn folks trot out are always these sterile, wall-to-wall carpets of dull green, usually in a new subdivision. Well, that’s not the goal for most people, it’s what they can do. Which leads me to point #3.

3. Ditching the lawn requires knowledge and money

A lot of the folks I talk to say they have all lawn and very little planting space because they don’t know what to plant and they don’t know how to care for it. As a plant geek it’s easy to say “cut the sod out, plant these, they’ll fill in and look awesome and voila! Less lawn and less maintenance.” Someone who knows little to nothing about plants sees that as a daunting task that they’re terrified of screwing up.

And then there’s the money issue, and this is why the anti-lawn movement strikes me as a bit classist. While I think everyone should hire a landscape designer (ideally me), I’ve talked to enough people to know that’s not always in the budget. To go it alone can mean a lot of research into unfamiliar territory – which takes time. Many working people don’t have that kind of time.

Once you know what you want to do, executing the design is expensive. Removing a lot of sod either requires renting equipment and working hard or working long and hard with hand tools. Once it’s all up, it needs disposed of unless you live in a neighborhood where you can pile it in a corner to break down. And then there’s the cost of plants. Let’s say I want to plant a 500 sq ft front yard (that’s a small Alexandria front yard) with liriope spicata, a groundcover that fills in rapidly. Planted one foot on center that’s 500 plants. 500 liriope at $5.99/ea = $2,995, plus amendments, plus mulch. Or for $150 you throw down seed and straw.

Now clearly, I see the value in making this transition. The maintenance is a lot less and many groundcover “lawns” look way cooler than turfgrass lawns. But to say that it’s what everyone should be doing ignores the fact that many people who want to do it, can’t. I hate my front yard. I would love to convert it to a Japanese-inspired boulder and conifer garden. Those are thousands of dollars, though, that currently get reinvested in the business.

If you have and love a lawn, I’d ask that you keep the inputs as minimal as possible and maybe- when the kids are older – consider reducing the size of it and adding plants. If you’re pushing the anti-lawn agenda, I implore you – don’t push people away by not recognizing shades of gray. We can all work together to make awesome happen.

What do you think? Are you a lawn person, a no-lawn person, or one of the millions somewhere in the middle?



    April 8, 2013 REPLY

    Well put Dave. I’m in the same camp. Yes, ditching the lawn is great, but somehow or other having a “lawn” got paired with being irresponsible and requiring boatloads of time and products. Nice work Scots.

    I can tell you first hand that nope, you can have a lawn w/o making it your fulltime hobby. Who has time for that anyway!? I’m pro-lawn, and anti-lawn-snob, if that makes any sense.

    April 8, 2013 REPLY

    Exactly! Besides, if I overcook a slice of Vidalia onion on the grill I can lob it into the yard and next time I mow, it gets chopped up and the circle of life continues. Know what it would look like if I had ophiopogon instead? Yep, a vast sea of green with little rotting circles of onion floating on top.

    Could you live with THAT, lawn haters?

    September 7, 2014 REPLY

    Expensive native landscaping is no solution for most of us that don’t have the time, money, or skill for it. But there’s a much better way…

    In fancy terms, every “low-use” outdoor space (lawn, park, golf course, etc.) on the planet should be allowed to revert to a state that maximizes ecosystem services while reasonably accommodating occasional human use. This means maximizing native, carbon-stocking, air-purifying, water-cleansing, soil-replenishing, wildlife-supporting, edible, diverse vegetative biomass.

    In simple terms, let things go wild. For example, a typical 1/10th-of-an-acre back yard in the Eastern U.S. can still accommodate 20 guests for a barbecue, 3 times a year, if the grass is succeeded by a random patch of semi-sparse, naturally-occurring woods that sprouted up over 10 years. Imagine a few native tall shady trees, a few wild bushes underneath them, maybe a few small patches of wild ground plants, all atop a sporadic layer of fallen leaves, pine needles, twigs, pine codes, etc. Throw in a couple wooden picnic tables or a small wooden deck to complete the effect. It feels more like a campout than a golf course. But there’s just as much space for people to sit, walk, and stand. Dogs have just as much space to run around. Kids still chase one another, toss frisbees and snowballs, climb trees, and swing on rope swings instead of rusty steel playground equipment.

    The maintenance and equipment slowly disappear. No more lawn mowing. No more raking. No more fertilizing. No more planting. No more sprinklers. The early years of succession benefit from weeding until enough wild-sprouting trees start to take over. But it’s less work than mowing and raking. And once your woodsy yard becomes established, it stays that way forever. Mother Nature does all the work. That’s what happens when we co-exist with Mother Nature instead of trying to tame her or eradicate her.

      September 23, 2014 REPLY

      It’s an interesting concept. I’ll say the same thing I say whenever someone talks about ideas like this: it’s going to have to come from the pro side, showing that homeowners can achieve a look they like and, more importantly, live the lifestyle they’ve imagined themselves living. With the exception of the aberrant treehugger client (said with love, I count myself among that number) a fundamental shift like this is never going to come via consumer demand.

      August 16, 2019 REPLY

      You have literally never seen an abandoned yard in your life. They have two natural states, depending on the climate: jungle or desert. If you have 40 years for a native tree to get really dense shade, then what you describe will work, as long as you’ve spent those 40 years keeping down competitors…. You’re talking about early successional growth. It’s not a mature forest. Not by a long shot.

    May 11, 2019 REPLY

    Love your perspective. Shades of gray is what life is all about. I’m on the Grow Wild side of this argument. That is, I’m not going to put in or encourage OR pull out turf grass. There is little of it in my 1/2 acre front yard. What I do is to let whatever wants to grow there grow. I still mow, but raise my blade to 4″, mow less frequently, and when my annual patches of white clover erupt, I mow around them, let them grow to seed before mowing over them. I do not fertilize, or use herbicide nor do I overseed. I hope one day, my whole front lawn is clover!!!

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