PART II: Alternatives to Turf Lawns
There are a variety of options available to those willing to experiment with alternatives to the traditional lawn. Several of the most discussed types include using mixed grasses and groundcovers, transitioning to garden, or switching to organic lawn practices.
Mixed Grasses and Groundcovers
Since the early 2000s in the UK, there have been efforts to transition from “industrial,” monoculture lawns to those more closely resembling medieval meads. These lawns are termed “freedom lawns” and are sprinkled with native British wildflowers such as daisies, clover, and buttercups. Here in Minnesota, there are similar endeavors that explore other possibilities for lawns. University of Minnesota’s Dr. Mary Meyer, a grass expert, advocates for “bee lawns,” lawns with a variety of native grasses and low-growing plants desired by bees and other pollinators. She recommends “mingling fine fescu
es with plants from the mint family, bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), thyme and the bulb plants squill and crocus,” (Fabr, “Outgrowing the Traditional Grass Lawn.”) For show lawns with little foot traffic, white clover or sedums work beautifully. Using buffalo grass offers another attractive alternative, as it is native to the area, drought and cold tolerant, and no known insect or disease problems. Another option, no-mow grass, is a blend of fescues and requires almost no watering and mowing only once or twice a year, if any. For shady spaces, sedges such as Carex pensylvanica do well and require only a yearly mowing in springtime.
Additional Plant Ideas for a Mixed Species Lawn / Meadow:
Most of these plants grow between 1 to 4 feet tall, and require an annual mowing in early spring before new growth begins (“Lawn Alternatives – Native flowers and grasses.”)
- Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
- Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
- Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
- Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
- Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
- Gayfeather (Liatris punctata)
- Prairie clover (Petalostemum purpureum)
- Compassplant (Silphium laciniatum)
- Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum)
- Partridge pea (Cassia fasciculata)
- Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
- Cupplant (Silphium perfoliatum)
- Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
- Oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
- Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata)
- Sky blue asters (Aster azureus)
- New England aster (Aster novae-angliae)
- Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra)
- Nodding onion (Allium cernuum),
- Turk’s-cap lily (Lilium superbum)
- Yellow prairie coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
- Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
- Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
- Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum
Transitioning to Garden
There are also many advocates for transitioning lawn space to garden. This was Michael Pollan’s eventual solution to his disillusionment with lawn, writing, “Gardening, as compared to lawn care, tutors us in nature’s ways, fostering an ethic of give and take with respect to the land…For if lawn mowing feels like copying the same sentence over and over, gardening is like writing out new ones, an infinitely variable process of invention and discovery.” Pollan even kept some of his lawn, yet emphasized that while lawn could be a valued feature in the garden, it should not be the focus. In 2013, artist Fritz Haeg, originally from a Twin Cities suburb, collaborated with the Walker Art Center to create an edible estate in Woodbury, Minnesota – one of his fifteen installations worldwide – that transformed a typical suburban front yard into a strikingly productive edible landscape.
Organic Lawn Practices
Even simple changes in the way one cares for lawn can make a considerable difference. Organic lawn practices include using compost on one’s lawn or using “compost teas.” Compost teas are aged compost that has been mixed with water, creating an organic, nutritionally rich liquid fertilizer. After mowing the lawn, leave grass trimmings and rake them into the lawn. As they decompose, they will add nitrogen into the soil and improve the soil quality. Water the lawn in the morning, before the day gets too hot, as less evaporation will occur. Try switching to a more eco-friendly lawn mower that creates less pollution. Plant alternatives to lawn in shady spots where traditional lawn grasses don’t do well, rather than overfertilizing. Even deciding to mow less frequently can decrease the negative consequences of lawns. These small changes can create large impacts.
As prevalent as turf lawns are in our society, they are by no means the only option. From a simple seeding of native wild flowers to a dramatic edible garden in the front yard, these changes will improve and protect the ecological value of the American landscape.
Written by Leslie Johnson, 2017.
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