I don't think people need to give up lawns, just change the way we view lawns, turf grass and learn the proper care for the choices we make. And we would all have lawns that are less water thirsty with lower maintenance as a result.
Industrial Lawns and Freedom Lawns
Generally, the American Lawn is divided into two types of lawn, the Industrial Lawn and Freedom Lawn. The Industrial Lawn is the highest maintenance, a chemically addictive monoculture. It is defined as a lawn that is composed of grass species only, free of weeds, is continuously green and is mowed on a regular weekly schedule and is uniform across America. The grass is mowed and the clippings discarded in the dumpster. Chemicals are used to stimulate growth and greening and to attempt to control the problems of insects and diseases that arise.
It’s control oriented gardening in the extreme, and it’s considered normal.
The Freedom Lawn is considered extreme. The Freedom Lawn, though still high maintenance, is more natural. The Freedom lawn can contain weeds, but is not weedy in nature and is mowed to the proper mowing height for the grass. It is mowed according to growth schedule, not the schedule of the maintenance company or calendar. A Freedom Lawn recycles the grass clippings either by using a mulching mower, as a mulch for another part of the landscape or is composted in the compost pile. Maintenance of the Freedom Lawn includes application of organic amendments to stimulate the biological life of the soil and minimizes (or eliminates) synthetic chemical remedies for growth, color, weeds and insects. Proper maintenance techniques for the lawn can rid lawns of most weeds, and prevent most diseases without resorting to synthetic chemical remedies.
Having said all this about the way we do lawns, I am not anti-lawn. My husband and I have a lawn, a Freedom Lawn, and we spend time taking care of it. We have no plans for getting rid of it. We are no different from most people. We grew up, we married, bought a house and put in a lawn – all lawn. We took care of it every weekend.
Our landscape evolved along with my gardening knowledge. I made changes to the landscape as I learned more. I love to garden, so gradually more and more lawn was replaced with beds and borders. Trees and shrubs were added, then more beds. Naturally, if I knew then what I know now, my landscape would probably look different. If I were to start over with a clean slate, my landscape would look different. I’m in my third garden makeover, the first being the typical all lawn landscape. I’ve created problems for myself, and had to solve them later on.
Unless you hire a skilled and knowledgeable designer and landscape maintenance team or become skilled and knowledgeable yourself, you’ll make mistakes along your garden journey. We’re not born with innate gardening knowledge. You also need to know a few things about gardening to help you make better choices if you do elect to hire your lawn and garden care. Taking the time to become an informed consumer will help you be a better “lord of the manor”, a better steward of the earth.
Lawnscaping – How Much is Enough?
Some homeowners lawnscape their entire landscape. Most landscapes have mainly a lawn and a few trees and shrubs. A few landscapes have no lawns. How much should you have? Are there any guidelines?
If you adopt the xeriscape principles as your gardening guidelines for conservation of water, limit high water-use turf areas to a third of the landscape area. One third can be devoted to medium and low water-use plants and a third in patio’s, paths, sitting areas, etc. This design scheme offers endless creative possibilities (refer back to the landscape preferences you’ve written down).
Think of turf areas as grass beds, similar to how you think of flower beds. When you think of turf as just one component of your landscape, it becomes easier to limit it. You may elect not to have any turf beds in your landscape. Our traditional turf grasses are high water use and high maintenance. Mowing is required every 4-7 days, depending on growth conditions. Turf grasses are high feeders and need weekly watering during the summer months.
Trees with groundcovers and shrub beds require minimal care, and less food and water (this always depends on plant selection).
If your vision of a lawn is one species of turf grass, and no other plants (weeds, etc) much more effort is required to achieve this imaginary ideal. Monocultures are not natural! Nature fights against it. My gardening statement is more naturalistic and therefore, this website does not include instructions on achieving a monoculture. Creating a monoculture lawn is not ecologically friendly. However, you can still have a pretty good-looking lawn if you’re willing to accept a few other plants growing among healthy turf grass. A lawn is not carpet.
Other Lawnscaping Tips
When putting in a bluegrass or fescue lawn, amend the soil with 6 - 12 inches of composted organic matter; more is better. It is even more important to build the soil for lawn beds as it is flower beds. I recommend adding an inorganic amendment for heavy clay soil, such as Turface® (calcined clay), Profile™ (calcined clay for sandy soil), Tru-Grow® (expanded blue shale), Ecolite™ (zeolite) or Axis® (diatomaceous earth). These are a few of the better inorganic amendments that retain water and nutrients, in addition to improving the drainage ability of your soil. Other inorganic amendments with much more limited ability to retain water and nutrients are crushed granite, granite and lava sand, greensand, glass sand, and finally, regular sand. If your clay soil develops cracks during summer droughts, please consider adding inorganic as well as organic amendments.
Caliche soil presents a difficult growing medium for our traditional turf grasses, even for buffalograss. A great deal of soil amending needs to be done if one plans on installing a bluegrass, fescue or Bermuda grass turf -- 12 inches or more of compost and 6 inches good quality topsoil too. The quality of caliche soil varies widely from somewhat caliche to mostly caliche. Have your soil tested to see what is practical. Buffalo grass is probably your best choice, with amended soil. Again, the thickness/health of your turf depends on the soil.
Avoid creating lawn berms for high water-use plants, especially bluegrass and fescue. It is harder for the soil to stay sufficiently moist at the top of the mound. Unless you spot water these mounded areas, you may be tempted to over water the entire lawn bed, for the sake of the mounds.
Avoid placing turf in narrow strips between streets and sidewalks and strips less than 10 feet wide. Also avoid placing turf next to surfaces that reflect summer’s heat, such as the driveway, or narrow strips between buildings and sidewalks.
Avoid placing turf at the bottom of slopes where it meets the sidewalk. Low water-use plants that are terraced at this lower end are a better choice for conservation of water and long-term maintenance.
Turf grass does not grow well in shade. Consider different plant material. Groundcovers for shade include Aegopodium podagraria variegatum, Bishop’s weed, Ajuga reptans, Cerastostigma plumbaginoides, hardy blue plumbago, Mahonia repans, creeping Oregon grape holly, Hedera, English ivy and Vinca major and minor. These are all low water-use groundcovers, once established. Use them separately from each other, they are aggressive and do not combine well in a shady flower bed. Mahonia repans spreads somewhat but is not invasive in shady flower beds. Lambs ear, Stachys byzantina and S. byzantina ‘Helen Von Stein’ grows in dry shade without becoming invasive.