Uprooting the American Lawn -Part II

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.

Shortgrass prairie lawn in downtown Rochester, MN is used as a turf lawn alternative. Installed by WHR in 2015.

Shortgrass prairie lawn in downtown Rochester, MN is used as a turf lawn alternative. Installed by WHR in 2015.

In 2015, WHR turned this vacant lot along a busy intersection in Rochester, MN into a pollinator garden featuring butterfly weed.

In 2015, WHR turned this vacant lot along a busy intersection in Rochester, MN into a pollinator garden featuring butterfly weed.

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)

    Floral lawn by Lionel Smith at University of Reading. Photo Credit: Lionel Smith

    Floral lawn by Lionel Smith at University of Reading. Photo Credit: Lionel Smith

  • 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.

 

Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estate. Photo Credit: Gene Pittman

Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estate. Photo Credit: Gene Pittman

Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estate: Photo Credit: Olga Ivanova

Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estate: Photo Credit: Olga Ivanova

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.

 

 

 

Sources

Haeg, Fritz. Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn. Metropolis Books, 1st ed. 2008, 2nd ed. 2010. http://www.fritzhaeg.com/garden/initiatives/edibleestates/main.html.

 

Hayes, Rhonda. “Tired of mowing? Rethink the lawn with these turf-grass alternatives.” Star Tribune, 10 July 2015. http://www.startribune.com/tired-of-mowing-rethink-the-lawn-with-these-turf-grass-alternatives/313320901/.

 

Hogue, Terri S.; Pincetl, Stephanie. “Are you watering your lawn?” Science. 19 June 2015: 1319 – 1320.

 

Huxtra, Beth. “6 Steps To Create A Vibrant And Lush Organic Lawn.” Rodale’s Organic Life, 21 June 2017. https://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/6-steps-healthy-organic-lawn.

 

Jabr, Ferris. “Outgrowing the Traditional Grass Lawn.” Scientific American, July 29, 2013.

 

“Lawn Alternatives – Native flowers and grasses.” Rodale’s Organic Life, December 9, 2010. https://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/lawn-alternatives.*

 

Lindsey, Rebecca. “Looking for Lawns.” Earth Observatory, NASA. 8 November 2005. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Lawn/lawn.php.

 

Pollan, Michael. “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns.” The New York Times Magazine. 28 May 1989.

 

Smith, Lionel S.; Fellowes, Mark D. E. “Towards a lawn without grass:  the journey of the imperfect lawn and its analogues.” Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 01 July 2013, Vol.33(3), p.157-169.

 

Smith, Lionel: Broyles, Moth; Larzleer, Helen; Fellowes, Mark. “Adding ecological value to the urban lawnscape. Insect abundance and diversity in grass-free lawns.” Biodiversity and Conservation, 2015, Vol.24(1), pp.47-62.

 

Ulrich, Carolyn. “Lawn Alternatives.” Chicagoland Gardening: Volume XXI Issue I, January 2015. http://statebystategardening.com/state.php/mn/newsletter-stories/lawn_alternatives/.

 

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