Leftover lawns

January 2, 2010 Landscape Design, Sustainable

When you don’t think about defining space, lawns become troublesome. They become the leftover carpet of the yard, bounded haphazardly by driveways and sidewalks.

Many contractors love lawns because they’re cheap to install and look great, at first. Contractors, moreover, don’t have to pay to maintain them. Lawns for them are a financial, not a design, decision.

A large lawn wasn’t a problem when there was plenty of water, lawn mower fuel, unbuilt lots with native woodland and meadow, and no one really cared how perfect it looked.

But many of us do care now. And even if we don’t, if our neighbors have perfect deep-green lawns–due to a lawn service and year-round input of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer–it makes our yards look bad. And that makes us feel bad.

Even me. And I know how unhealthy all those chemical inputs are. I know that walking barefoot on those perfect, weedfree, monospecies lawns, is not a good idea. But I do want to.

In American Green, author Ted Steinberg writes that the South was one of the the last regions in the US to succumb to perfect lawn syndrome. Until about the late 70s, most of us were OK with weeds in our yard. In fact, in the 1950s, clover was actually added to grass seed to provide much-needed nitrogen. It fed the bees and no one minded.

I have been thinking about lawn substitutes ever since I specialized in sustainable design in landscape architecture almost twenty years ago. This is my conclusion, so far:

When you want to walk barefoot, crawl, toddle or have a picnic on the ground, there is nothing that substitutes for a soft, cool, leafy lawn (except maybe moss.)

No one wants to walk barefoot through English ivy. But grass is not natural here, anymore than most of the other horticultural delights we plant in our garden.

What’s natural here in Atlanta, part of the southeastern Piedmont, is temperate forest. Even meadows here are only a transition stop along the way.

So I use lawns the way I use any other nonnative plants–when client needs and design call for them. But I use them as discreet, positive spaces.

And I suggest that if we want to walk and roll on them, we get comfortable with a few weeds or deal with them organically. There’s even a great book on the subject:  Organic Lawn Care by Paul Tukey.

Where there is a lot of space and not much usage, let’s consider using native meadow and forest species to form positive and negative spaces. It’s only natural.