8 Ways to Kick Your Grass Habit
March 20, 2017
Inspiring tales from those who broke free from the rule of lawn.
During my childhood in the 1960s, a neighbour of ours removed all the grass in her backyard to grow vegetables. We called her The Polish Lady. She came to Canada after surviving the Second World War in a Soviet gulag.
My neighbourhood was built on a former orchard and many yards had apple and cherry trees. Our Polish neighbour would wheel a cart around in the autumn, collect fallen apples and use them to make pies, applesauce and, as I remember, a particularly unpalatable cider.
We tolerated her incursions into our backyards and thought her garden rather quaint. She could be forgiven her eccentricities. After all, she had experienced extreme privation. The rest of the neighbourhood dutifully kept their yards in grass and bought their vegetables from IGA and Loblaws.
All that grass demanded attention from buzzing mowers and pulsating sprinklers – and weed killers such as 2,4-D and an arsenal of insecticides to battle the bugs.
Fifty years later, some things have changed. We finally agreed as a society that using potent pesticides to maintain lawns represented grossly skewed priorities: pristine grass over the health of pets, wildlife and people.
But some things remain the same. Lawns still dominate. In television commercials “real” men stand imperiously in their weed-free yards, dispensing advice to poor souls struggling with hateful dandelions.
In Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan says maintaining a traditional lawn is an exercise in domination. “Every species is forcibly excluded but one, and this is forbidden to grow longer than the owner’s little finger,” he writes. “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”
I now look back at the Polish Lady with new eyes. She was not a relict of some agrarian past; rather, she was ahead of her time. Instead of grass she made her yard produce good, healthy food.
I am not advocating abandoning lawns. I still have a front lawn and I recognize lawns have their uses and appeal. I also understand that those who criticize lawns ought to be able to suggest practical, inspiring and attractive alternatives that lead to more diverse, interesting and ecologically sound communities. So … if not lawns, then what?
1 – Grow Vegetables
When chatting with a teenage volunteer, Gary Skinn, director of operations for the Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival, told the girl that Gary’s Urban Farm on Madison Avenue in Orangeville was his. The teenager was incredulous. For years she had helped herself to Gary’s raspberries on the way to school. “I thought you were an old, dirty hippie!” she exclaimed.
At 38, Gary is assuredly not old, but a hippie? Well, there may be some truth to that – he does have a beard and shoulder-length hair. And he is a big fan of one of the most archetypal hippies of all: John Lennon. So much so that he and his partner Crystal Voisin named their son Lennon. As for dirty, Gary wears that handle with pride. His hands are frequently immersed in the dirt of his garden.
Gary and Crystal have converted most of their suburban Orangeville yard, playfully called Gary’s Urban Farm, into vegetable gardens. They are contained in a neat array of beds boxed with wood and separated by mulched paths to allow easy access for weeding and watering. They produce enough to supply up to 30 per cent of their yearly consumption. A hedge of raspberry canes bounds one side of their corner lot, tempting schoolkids and other passersby with sweet fruit.
The “why” of the garden is simple. “I want to provide as much healthy food for my family as I can, without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides,” says Gary. “I try to do everything organically.”
Gary calls lawns “a big waste of space.” He sees a positive trend toward veggie gardens, but he would like to see more of them located in front and side yards, instead of hidden in backyards. His advice to prospective urban farmers is to start small and grow what you like to eat.
One of the clear beneficiaries of Gary’s Urban Farm is Lennon. Though not yet two, Lennon has taken an interest in the garden and has his own toddler-sized garden tools and wheelbarrow. He gleefully helps his parents harvest ripe raspberries, although most end up in his mouth instead of the basket. Favourite snacks include freshly picked cauliflower and broccoli.
“Lennon is going to learn some math, some science, biology and chemistry as he grows up,” says Gary. But his greatest hope is that his son will develop a lasting love of and appreciation for vegetable gardening, a precious endowment for any child.
Gary’s Urban Farm is a bold, positive example of a healthful alternative to the typical suburban lawn. Feedback from the neighbourhood has been almost entirely positive. Gary takes particular pleasure in the rave reviews of children who say, “I love your garden!”
“I know those kids are going to try to grow something, in their parents’ yard or perhaps 20 years down the road, in their own,” he says. “I hope I’m inspiring some change here.”
2 – Reforest
When Alison and Chris Hird moved to Canada, one goal was to fulfill a dream difficult to achieve in their native England – the purchase of a house with a large lot. A two-and-three-quarter-acre lot in Caledon fit the bill. The lot was covered in manicured lawn with a few trees, the standard landscape of rural estate developments in the area. The couple’s children had plenty of room to romp and play football.
The downside, of course, was keeping the vast expanse of lawn presentable. A typical lawn-mowing session took three and a half hours. Fertilizing was expensive and laborious.
Last year was a time of reckoning for the Hirds. With the children grown, they seriously considered moving to a more manageable property. But then they decided on an alternative – reforestation. Planting trees on a sizable portion of their property would not only quiet the unrelenting demands of the lawn, but also give the property a more rustic look.
The Hirds’ property satisfied criteria for a Toronto and Region Conservation Authority tree-planting program. It was larger than two acres and located near significant wetland habitat. TRCA would pay 90 per cent of the cost of the trees and plant them as well, as long as the Hirds agreed to a minimum number of trees. Alison wanted far more and eventually about 500 trees and shrubs were planted on two acres of the property. The 20 or so species will approximate the healthy diversity of natural woodlands in this area.
A trail through the trees beckons, and walking the property now is far more interesting than before. Wildlife, including deer, are already finding shelter among the saplings. And on a practical note, mowing the much-diminished lawn takes only 40 minutes.
“All in all, it has been a very positive experience,” says Alison. She and Chris are not planning to move any time soon.
3 – Discover Ground Cover
Tucked into the woods in Caledon is the home of Debra and Bruce Wilson. When they moved to this sylvan setting from Brampton, they initially tried to manage their front and backyards in typical suburban style. And spent lots of time and energy trying to coax a lawn out of the damp shade that prevailed.
Fairy rings of fungi taunted their efforts. Despite “doing a lot of aggressive stuff to try to resolve the problem,” the fungi persisted. So Deb and Bruce decided to yield to the ecology of their property and get rid of the lawn. For the first two years post-removal, they waited to see what would happen.
At first native violets flourished, providing some welcome cover and colour, but they couldn’t hold their own against the multitude of opportunistic weeds that soon arrived. Deb considered a garden of shade-loving perennials. Bruce counselled caution – Deb already had her hands full caring for a perennial garden in the backyard. Instead, Bruce championed the idea of a “lawn-like” ground cover that would be easy to maintain and confer a manicured look on the front of the house.
They decided to plant perennial geraniums. Some gardeners recoil from this rather aggressive spreader, but for the Wilsons’ front yard it was perfect. It competes well with weeds, fills gaps quickly, shrugs off summer drought and offers spring flowers bees love.
In the backyard, Deb had free rein to create. After removing the struggling lawn, she planted shade-tolerant, predominantly native perennials and annuals. Ever evolving – the natural course of a garden – the varied mix offers season-long colour and welcomes a diversity of wildlife, including birds and butterflies. Tiny snakes wend their way through columbine and bergamot. The only fertilizers Deb uses are leaf mould and compost from the municipality.
“If you’re going to go the garden route, you do have to love gardening because it can be a fair amount of work,” Deb says. By contrast, the front yard, covered in perennial geraniums, is very little work and pleases even her lawn-loving husband. Bruce, by the way, still owns a lawn mower though he has no grass to cut. A man and his mower are not easily parted.
4 – Consider the Birds and the Bees
A grass allergy isn’t something anyone would wish on themselves, but Rick Taylor could dust off the cliché that “every cloud has a silver lining.”
In the early 1990s Rick’s allergies made grass cutting untenable. He and his partner Kathleen Mulliss pondered their options. They began expanding their existing flowerbeds by gradually removing sod. Eventually they decided to go the full monty and get rid of it all.
An early goal was to attract songbirds, and their diverse plant choice has accomplished that admirably. Rick and Kathleen have compiled a list of more than 50 species that have visited their garden over the past two decades. These include a yellow-headed blackbird, a notable rarity in this area, and a woodcock, no doubt attracted by the heavy cover the gardens provide.
Two years ago, concerned about the reported decline in pollinators, Rick and Kathleen made a conscious decision to choose flowers beloved by bees and butterflies – plants with long flowering periods, single flowers and lots of nectar. Salvias and catmints satisfy these requirements, but the hands-down pollinator favourite, according to Rick, is ornamental verbascum.
The gardens do appeal to wildlife, but they also satisfy the human aesthetic sense. Rick and Kathleen’s gardens are simply beautiful, accenting their Edwardian-era house with style. Grand Valley’s annual garden tour makes their home a regular stop.
Kathleen’s advice to prospective perennial gardeners? “Start slowly. Do a little and live with it for a while.” Rick suggests, “Talk to people who have successful gardens. Learn about the plants to avoid – rampant spreaders, runners and seeders.”
Rick and Kathleen acknowledge their gardens aren’t low maintenance, but over the course of a growing season they are easier and certainly more pleasurable to maintain than lawns. As for Rick’s allergies? They’re much better.
5 – Make a Meadow
When Brett and Laurie Davis moved to their Orton area property a dozen years ago, the lawn between their house and the road took seven hours to cut. The purchase of a zero-turn mower that easily moved around the yard’s numerous conifers reduced the chore substantially, but two and a half hours of cutting was still required.
In 2007 circumstances prevented Brett from cutting until mid-May. “The result was a hayfield,” he says. The prospect of cutting and raking it all was daunting. Laurie came to the rescue. “Why don’t you just let it go?” she asked. “Just cut around the house.” The birth of twin fawns in the tall grass at the time seemed to emphasize the wisdom of Laurie’s suggestion.
That was the beginning of the Davis’s laissez-faire approach to lawn management. They let nature take over and though the results may not please those who celebrate a rigid manicured look, certain clear benefits have accrued.
The cost, noise and carbon footprint involved in lawn maintenance has been greatly diminished, the tall grass looks fine, and the meadow wildflowers provide nectar and pollen for the bees Brett keeps. Even the drifts of dandelions lining the driveway don’t faze him. “In spring they’re a sea of yellow, great for the bees as well.”
Brett still cuts the lawn around the house, but the local ecology holds sway everywhere else. “Nature seems to be able to figure out what to grow,” he says.
6 – Embrace Chaos
Gita Karklins favours a landscape that appears spontaneous, as if arising without a lot of human intervention. And though she concedes that intervention is inevitable, her yard does have a certain rampant quality. She has no quarrel with my referring to it as “the jungle.”
Gita produces quirky, whimsical art and this sensibility spills over into her yard near Mansfield. A vigorous wild grapevine frames her front door, and two small ponds beside her house allow her to enjoy the social life of frogs.
Though some may look askance at her landscaping choices, her yard is undeniably eco-friendly and lovely in a casually unkempt way. “I don’t like regularity – plants like little soldiers all lined up. My style is smooth curves, nothing too rectangular or straightedged.” Phlox billows wildly, daylilies muscle out the toughest of weeds, and robust peonies offer opulent blooms in spring and pretty foliage throughout the season.
Gita’s main period of labour is in the spring, when she does a lot of weeding and renews her epic struggle to vanquish the goutweed – which she calls “the devil’s own” – planted by the previous owner. She likes to plant perennials close together, a technique that helps crowd out weeds. Betraying a Darwinian streak, she says, “The strongest will survive.”
The shelter, seeds and nectar offered by Gita’s jungle of flowering plants and the insects that flourish among them attract a wealth of birds and wildlife to her property. One spring she looked out her window to see an exquisite fawn standing in her salad patch. Though Gita admired it, she did think, “It’s going to grow up, come back and help itself to my greens.”
Beyond the perennials, Gita hopes to produce as much food on her property as possible. An area formerly covered by lawn will grow potatoes this year – enough, Gita hopes, to see her through to 2018. More berry bushes are going in as well, plenty I trust, for the birds and for Gita.
7 – Plant Some Perennials
The pretty little garden fronting Wayne and Ellen Livingston’s semi-detached Orangeville home arose from a temper tantrum.
One fateful day in 2010, Wayne and Ellen reached the breaking point. The front lawn had mocked their every effort to keep it green and lush. Dandelions were rampant and the lawn, sandwiched between two driveways, languished in desert-like conditions. Dragging the mower to the front to cut the grass that did manage to grow made little sense. It was time for a major change.
“We dug up all the grass, got some dirt, moved stuff around and covered everything with mulch,” says Ellen. Wayne installed a stepping stone path for visual interest and to provide easy access to the planned garden.
Both Ellen and Wayne work long hours, so in addition to visual appeal, low maintenance was a priority. The mulch and carefully placed flagstones help keep weeds at bay. Careful plant selection also helps minimize maintenance. Colour was important to Ellen, but the plants also needed to be low growing, drought resistant and comfortable in full sun.
Portulaca, alyssum, ageratum and low-growing dahlias are among the plants that satisfied those requirements. Even during last summer’s drought, little watering was required.
Although the Livingstons’ garden resulted from a spontaneous burst of anger, Wayne recognizes the value of a more patient, planned approach to substituting garden for lawn. “Don’t leap [he might have added ‘as we did’]. Think about your objectives. Take your time and persevere.”
The Livingston’s answer to the challenges of maintaining a lawn in our climate, and to the absurdity of mowing such a small space, has been a success. With smaller lots now the norm in new developments, their garden serves as a lovely example of what can be accomplished with a little creativity and a dash of righteous anger.
8 – Lots of Perennials
The elderly woman, a tiny, frail soul, would arrive unannounced. She would work her way carefully between the flowers and then, embraced by the floral exuberance of Gail and Larry Hooper’s garden, sit down. Unable to speak English, she communicated through smiles and gentle gestures – a caress of the hand, a touch to the face.
The Hoopers’ garden is a mélange of colourful annuals, perennials and vines, covering their entire front yard on Diane Drive in Orangeville.
Before launching the garden project 15 years ago, the couple were given the green light by Orangeville town council. They could remove their lawn and plant flowers. The only restriction was a height limit of 15 inches for anything planted within eight feet of the sidewalk.
Converting lawn to an alternative landscape takes a certain degree of moxie. There is no getting around the rude shock of the first step, removal of the turf to reveal the raw dirt beneath. “Initially it did look a little like a battlefield,” Larry concedes.
Another tension to overcome is the perception of neighbours. A neighbouring couple went ballistic. “They thought our project would devalue their property,” says Larry.
The plants grew and the battlefield bloomed, but those neighbours never did come around. Ironically, they eventually sold their house to buyers who cited the Hoopers’ garden as one of the reasons for their purchase.
As long-time environmental activists, the Hoopers celebrate the garden for more than its beauty. The diversity of plants attracts bees and butterflies. A buffet of tasty seeds and insects welcomes birds. And at night the moths visit. “It is astounding the amount of life that this garden hosts,” says Larry.
They handpick pests if necessary, feed their garden with municipal compost and, even in dry summers, water only infrequently. “The garden is work but it’s good work,” says Gail. “Larry and I spend four to six hours a week in it during the growing season.”
Though that one set of neighbours did take issue with the Hoopers’ garden in its early days, in the years since, many others have gone out of their way to express their approval and delight. “A garden can enrich your life and grace you with new friends,” says Gail. “A garden builds community.”
Try new ideas, there are lawn alternatives
Late in the preparation of this article, I met John Sutherland of Orangeville. Like the Polish neighbour of my childhood, he has converted his entire backyard into a vegetable garden. Black plastic covers his front yard to kill the grass there and prepare it for planting a shade garden.
John is an enthusiastic advocate of lawn alternatives and offers this suggestion to local garden clubs: “Have garden tours to show people different possibilities.” He adds, “We shouldn’t be afraid to try new ideas, but we need to respect other opinions as well.”
Respect is key. People embarking on lawn alternatives need to talk to their neighbours and explain their goals and motivations. And respect needs to be reciprocated. Those who remain committed to their lawns should be willing to accept different landscape choices.
Imagine greater diversity in our urban landscapes. Along with traditional lawns, an eclectic mix of alternatives – gardens of varied design and composition, and veggie patches proudly visible to the street. And imagine a new aesthetic sense taking hold among rural estate owners as grand sweeps of turf, sterile and demanding, are converted to meadow and woodland.
Berry-picking children, an elderly woman at peace among the flowers, a fawn in the backyard and hummingbirds whirring. Lawn alternatives can nourish the soul.