Is your grass giving you heartache? Getting rid of it might be good for your sanity and the environment.
It was the spring of 2009 when Tierney Farrell and Mike Ewing decided they were officially “fed up” with the grass outside their home in Arlington’s Penrose neighborhood. Holding out hope for a lush, green lawn, Ewing had dutifully dug up the yard and reseeded again. It looked good for a few weeks, but then it started to die.
So the pair did something radical. Working with landscape architect Ching-Fang Chen and a local contractor, they ripped out the turf and replaced it with groundcover; plant beds with blooming perennials, ferns and shrubs; and a garden bench. Now they say they spend more time outside, and neighbors often stop by to chat and admire what’s in bloom.
“It’s a little bit of a social watering hole,” says Farrell, noting that their property has since received a Certified Wildlife Habitat designation by the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s very easy on the eyes when you come home. We’ve got no regrets at all.”
Farrell and Ewing’s decision was motivated by practicality, but they also count themselves among a growing number of homeowners who are realizing that grass lawns aren’t as utopian as suburban ideals would have us believe. With Northern Virginia’s extremes of heat and cold, maintaining the persnickety blades can be frustrating and labor-intensive. Add to that the turf-destroying combo of kids and pets and you’ve got a recipe for a dead lawn. That’s why some local residents are giving up the fight and pursuing other landscaping options. Many of the alternatives can look just as pretty, while supporting local wildlife and benefiting the health of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
“I see a cultural shift toward more environmentally sensitive and regionally appropriate landscaping in our yards,” says Evelyn Hadden, author of Beautiful No-Mow Yards (Timber Press, 2012). Her book highlights alternatives to grass lawns such as meadow gardens, edible gardens and rain gardens.
When it comes to aesthetics, Hadden argues that the conventional wisdom on yards is changing. The perceived role of the gardener has shifted from dominator of the land to steward of it, prompting many landscapers and homeowners to embrace whatever grows naturally and abundantly. That means letting go of the fantasy that we are lords and ladies of an English manor, with uniform swaths of grass and regimented bushes to prove it.
Elaine Metlin is among the converts. “A beautiful lawn is gorgeous, but how many lawns are really beautiful and what price do you have to pay to get one?” asks the McLean resident, who worked with Arlington-based landscape designer Tom Mannion when she decided to replace most of her half-acre lawn in Franklin Park with trees, shrubs and flowers, including a wet meadow near a stream.
Commonly referred to as “conservation landscaping” or “BayScaping,” practices like this have the added benefit of reducing stormwater runoff, a problem the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed the fastest-growing pollution threat to the Bay and its rivers. Why is runoff so damaging? As development continues in suburban areas, pervious surfaces that absorb and filter water are being paved or covered over, causing rainwater that would normally sink into the ground to run off. That runoff collects nitrogen and phosphorus (the ingredients in grass fertilizer), sediment and other pollutants, which then flow into local waters and ultimately reach the Bay. Excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorus feed algae that block sunlight to underwater grasses, and decomposing algae suck up the oxygen that aquatic species need to survive.
As key players in the counteroffensive against runoff, native plants have a distinct advantage over manicured lawns. Unlike those of grass, the deeper roots of indigenous plants and trees help the soil to absorb water more effectively. “They loosen the soil further down, so you get more penetration of water and more filtration of runoff,” says Aileen Winquist, the watershed outreach program manager for Arlington County.
Trees, of course, have the deepest roots of all and the greatest capacity to mitigate runoff. “One of the most important priorities for urban communities is the maintenance of the tree canopy,” says Kirsten Buhls, an agriculture natural resources extension agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service. “If you’re fortunate to have trees, you should do everything you can to protect them.” In addition to reducing runoff, trees can also lower the ambient temperature in the neighborhood (reducing power bills in summer) and improve air quality.
Homeowners who are reluctant to give up their grass entirely can at least reduce their “lawn footprint” by creating islands of vegetation under trees, Buhls says, which can include understory trees, shrubs and flowers. This creates a healthier home for the tree.
Another option, says Holly Radus of Arlington-based Benella Garden Designs, is to replace (or mix) your grass with clover, which is drought-tolerant and can be mowed. Clover stays green longer than grass, and it self-fertilizes by “fixing” nitrogen from the air.
In addition, hardy groundcovers like Bluestar creeper and Mazus reptans can withstand foot traffic from kids and pets, and spread to create a lawn-like effect, notes Amy Stronk, a landscape designer at Merrifield Garden Center.
A Grass lawn is a monoculture, which means it lacks diversity and contributes little to local fauna, such as birds, insects and small mammals, all of which are vital to a healthy ecosystem.
“If you love songbirds and you want to have them in your yard, you need to provide food for them,” says Nancy Striniste, a former educator and the owner of Earlyspace, an Arlington firm that specializes in sustainable landscapes. “The way to provide food for them is to have insects.” And the key to attracting insects is plant biodiversity.
Those who cringe at the idea of bugs in their yards do so at their own peril. “There are still folks who believe that an insect-free landscape is something to be desired,” says Buhls of the Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Nothing could be further from the truth. The best thing people can do is plant plants that encourage our native pollinators. They are very much needed, particularly with more and more people interested in producing some of their own food.”
Recent media reports have detailed the plight of bees, whose populations are diminishing, most likely due to widespread pesticide use, pathogens and other stressors. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that bees are responsible for $15 billion in increased crop value each year.) Butterfly populations are also on the decline, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which reported a 59 percent decrease from 2011 to 2013 in the size of the Monarch butterfly colony that migrates annually from the U.S. to Mexico. The group attributes the steep drop to a diminishing supply of milkweed—which serves as a breeding ground for the butterflies and a food source for caterpillars—caused by industrial pesticide use and suburban sprawl.
Natural landscaping can help to counter that trend. When Kathy Allan and her husband, Jamie, expanded most of their side and back yard in Falls Church to include a chemical-free vegetable garden and a raspberry patch, they also added a butterfly garden. As the assistant superintendent of public works for the City of Falls Church, Allan felt that it was important for her to “walk the walk.”
“Every year we take out another patch of lawn,” she explains. “We get a lot of people stopping and complimenting us on our garden. And we don’t buy veggies from spring until fall.”
They don’t have to, now that they grow enough to feed their family of four, and often end up with a surplus, which they share with neighbors. Last summer they were happy to see their bok choy thrive.
There are those who hold fast to their grass for fear that natural landscaping will prove unwieldy and difficult to maintain. But in reality, native species, once established, usually require little to no maintenance.
“By mid-March I’m beginning to see waves of wildflowers, particularly bluebells and golden ragwort,” says Arlington homeowner Paul Kovenock, whose shady property backs up to Lubber Run Park. Over many years, he removed all the invasive species by hand, replacing them with trees, shrubs and flowers that are endemic to this area.
“For every one bluebell or woodland phlox that I may have purchased at a native plant sale, I must have at least 100 plants now. They are very sociable plants that love to spread out,” says Kovenock, who describes his current brand of gardening as “a lazy person’s enjoyment,” because it takes so little effort.
Another common justification for lawns is that they serve as play spaces for kids. To that, proponents of the “less lawn” mantra offer another viewpoint: a natural yard that provides a variety of sensory and intellectual experiences for children can, in some cases, be even better. “[Kids] need to be finding and interacting with plants and animals,” contends author Hadden. “All those things really promote their job of making sense of the world.”
Striniste, who has designed sustainable gardens and play areas at several local schools, agrees. “[Native landscaping makes] a more complex environment that creates those hiding places and pathways to follow…things that really appeal to children.”
Planting and maintaining a garden can also become a family activity that parents and kids do together. When Stacy and Jason Reed decided to convert their sunny front yard in Woodmont into a vegetable patch, they hired Meredith Sheperd, owner of Love & Carrots, a D.C.-based firm specializing in organic edible landscaping, to design a space that includes not only vegetable beds, but also an “insectory” with blooming plants such as black-eyed Susan, blueberry bushes and Echinacea to attract pollinators and ensure a good “fruit set.”
Although the beds were only added last fall, Reed says she and her two preschool-age sons have already clocked many hours observing, weeding and harvesting their fall and winter crops, which included kale, beets and turnips.
“For me, it’s so relaxing and peaceful. I see it as quiet time,” Reed says. “My kids love to do it also, so it’s fun playtime with them.”
Amy Brecount White has a small Arlington lawn and plans to add a native butterfly garden this spring.
In 2005, landscape designer Tom Mannion offered to redesign the Ashton Heights yard of his neighbors, Jay Fisette and Bob Rosen, free of charge. There was just one catch. They had to agree to much less grass and a native meadow on the side.
Fisette, the current chairman of the Arlington County Board, admits to being a little leery at first. After growing up with a suburban grass lawn, “It took me a while to adapt to the alternatives," he says. "It is an emotional or psychological adjustment to what we were raised to think was pretty or attractive. But now we absolutely love our yard.”
How does one even begin to think about lawn alternatives? Local landscapers offer a few pointers:
Picture your yard as an outdoor room. Then “create a space” accordingly. Often that means reversing your notion of foreground and background. “Most homeowners who do their own landscaping will try to give their plant beds a shape,” Mannion explains, when really they should be thinking about giving their lawn a shape. To visualize the possibilities, buy a can of spray paint and do a little experimenting. (You can always mow off the paint and start over if your shape ends up looking like a “wiggly lower intestine,” he says.)
Don’t try to transform the entire yard all at once. For starters, try replacing “those awkward lawn corners or areas in your lawn that no one ever uses or are hard to mow” (including slopes) with non-lawn options, such as planted beds, suggests Holly Radus of Benella Garden Designs. Radus likes to tuck edible plants such as blueberry bushes and fig trees into her designs, as they add another layer of interaction.
Consider clover. If your family still wants a flat expanse to kick a soccer ball or play catch, try a clover lawn. “It’s an increasing trend for people who want to keep somewhat of a lawn or the look of a lawn,” Radus says, noting that some companies now sell a clover-and-grass mix of seed. “A lot of people think of clover as weeds, but they’re actually not.” Clover is slow-growing and has deeper roots than grass, making it more drought-tolerant.
Treat your yard as an investment. Keep in mind that native plants may take a while to fill in, says Amy Stronk, a landscape designer at Merrifield Garden Center, and will initially be more expensive than buying a roll of turf. Whereas 100 square feet of sod costs about $50, filling a same size space with perennials and shrubs will run you about $250, she says. But the long-term payoff is a more verdant yard that requires less maintenance. Stronk replaced her own lawn with two hardy groundcovers—Blue Star creeper and Mazus reptans—both of which can withstand foot traffic.
Flavor your world. If you like the idea of growing food, but fear the commitment, start small. Meredith Sheperd of Love & Carrots suggests trying herbs, many of which are perennial, low-maintenance, space-saving and shade-tolerant. “Plus, they will enhance the space with seasonal smells,” she says.
Seek advice. Attend a workshop, read books, or hire a professional landscaper. Locally, the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia (mgnv.org) offer frequent workshops, a help desk and demonstration gardens that homeowners can tour to see what might work for their homes. You’ll get the best advice if you go into the conversation armed with some basic information about your yard. Conduct a site assessment by following these steps:
- Identify the existing plants on site.
- Observe the traffic flow (people, animals) and how the space is used.
- Identify drainage patterns, particularly how water enters and leaves your property. (The goal is to try to keep water on your property, so it doesn’t contribute to runoff pollution.)
- Make note of where you have sunlight and where you have shade at different times of day.
- Spell out your own needs and expectations in terms of maintenance, cost and aesthetics.
- Do a soil test to determine the pH (acidity) and to make sure that you don’t have lead if you’re going to include edible plants. You can get a pH soil tester for about $15 at your local hardware store.
What to Plant?
Which plant species do professional landscape designers tend to favor in our area? Try these
on for size.
In Sunny Spaces:
Local favorite: Milkweed, a host plant
for monarch butterflies
Native perennials: Echinacea, black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, Joe Pye weed, phlox, aster, goldenrod
Native ornamental grasses: Mexican feather grass, Panicum (switchgrass), purple love grass, little bluestem
Herbs: Lavender, oregano, rosemary, thyme
Edibles: Kale, arugula, lettuces, hot peppers, fig trees
Something different: “Pawpaws are really underrated,” says Meredith Sheperd of Love & Carrots. “They’re native and can grow in shade. The fruit is sweet and custardy.” Plant two trees near each other for the best pollination.
In shady spots:
Local favorite: Native ferns such as evergreen Christmas ferns, New York ferns, maidenhair ferns
Native grass/groundcover: Bearberry, blue-eyed grass, native Allegheny pachysandra, golden ragwort, foamflower
Native shrub: Serviceberry (lighter shade), spice bush, arrowwood viburnum
Something different: To create a meadow on a shady slope, Tom Mannion of Mannion Landscape Design recommends Northern sea oats and chocolate Eupatorium. Both will spread, he cautions, so be sure that’s what you want.
For more suggestions, check out the “Tried and True Plants” list on the Master Gardeners website at mgnv.org.