Lawn Alternative Update from the Scott Arboretum

Years ago I visited the Scott Arboretum to learn about alternatives to lawn and see the ones they were growing there.  (Here’s my 2008 report.)  Last month I returned for another event but made time to revisit their lawn-alt plants, too.  (Wonder if we can get that term to stick.)


First, the Prairie Dropseed shown above, which my friends at the U.Maryland asked me to inquire about.  They want to know if the Scott Arboretum burns it and horticulturist Chuck Hinkle answered, “We burn the sporobolis beds in late winter when the students are on break. The nice thing about it is that it can be done relatively quickly. The grass doesn’t create a huge conflagration (like miscanthus!) and can be controlled easier.”  I’ll pass that along, though a non-fire answer was hoped-for (U.Md. isn’t allowed to burn.)

But it’s Carexes I was most interested in checking on.  That’s the huge genus, commonly named sedge, that’s so promising as alternatives to lawn in spots that aren’t walked on.  At Scott they’ve been growing a wide assortment of them, many of them donated by New Moon Nursery, whose owner James Brown “has been very generous and is trying to promote the use of lawn alternatives,” quoting Chuck.


Above, Carex pensylvanica looking horrible.  Here’s Chuck’s explanation: ”The Carex pensylvanica did very well for the first few years. However, as the site became shadier under the maple trees, the plants became thinner. I tried replanting the bare spots but there just wasn’t enough light for them to thrive. So even though they say C. pensylvanica takes shade, I would not recommend it for full shade. You can see areas in the same bed where it gets more light and is more vigorous.”

Below, looking much better.



Above, C. laxiculumus ‘Bunny Blue’ also seems sparse.  Chuck wrote that it “also started out pretty well. It started to thin out when I interplanted it with Solidago caesia. Again, I think some of the plants got shaded out. I also heard that some goldenrods are alleopathic so I don’t know if that had anything to do with it.”


Above, C. platyphylla. “The same thing happened with C.platyphylla. It was doing fine until I interplanted it with Allium cernuum.”


Above, C. albicans.  ”Carex albicans has been one of the best performers for doing well in a variety of sites – sun/shade,dry/moist,” says Chuck.


Above, the C. texensis looked pretty sparce to me.  Chuck says it’s “done well in a drier,sunnier spot. The habit looks a little messy – it flops but has a flat look to it. It self-sows as well.”

IMG_2792 Above, C. appalachia.

Overall, Chuck reports that “The growth habits of different species vary greatly. Some of the small clumpers definitely take more time to fill in. C.appalachica,C.eburnea,and C.rosea are slower to fill in. C.sprengellii,C. brevior and C.amphibola filled in very quickly.  C. woodii has done well in part shade. It does not like extended dry periods, though.”

And, “Our infiltration beds using carex have generated some interest. We plan on expanding them.”

Two more of my favorites below.


Above, C. leavenworthii.


Above, C. morrowii ‘Silk Tassel.’


After reading a comment on an identical post on GardenRant about Carexes and shade, I’ve added two more photos of great Carexes for shade, and will ask Chuck to weigh in on his top recommendations, too.  It’s a great group of plants for shade, but some are better than others.  (To read that and other helpful comments on this subject, click on that link to GardenRant.)


C. morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ is evergreen, can take sun or shade, is variegated so lights up dark spots, and fills out fast enough to produce plenty of divisions (without spreading thuggishly with runners).


Above, I’ve grown this taller Carex for 25+ years and though I don’t know the name, I recommend looking into it.  Evergreen, about 3′ tall, no care required after it’s settled in.  Actually, all the Carexes I’ve grown require careful watering after being moved (and preferably not when it’s hot) because their roots aren’t as vigorous as, say, Liriope, which can tolerate any amount of abuse.  But at least in their second year in a spot, they’ve required supplemental watering very rarely.

Thanks to Chuck and the Scott Arboretum for their work in trialing and publicizing this important group of plants as lawn alternatives.  Posted by Susan Harris.

Report from the Transition Zone: Sustainable Turfgrasses Tested at U.Md.


Dr. Thomas Turner with some of the 23 varieties of fine fescue he’s testing.

It can be frustrating here in the Mid-Atlantic “Transition Zone” for turfgrasses because neither warm- or cold-season grasses are best suited to our climate. Indeed I was frustrated in my search for regional examples of the less resource-intensive no-mow-type fine fescues that are being touted from colder climes. (Here’s a shout-out from grass researcher and consultant Tom Christopher in Connecticut.)

So when the University of Maryland asked me to speak to their staff, faculty and volunteers about “no-mow lawn alternatives,” I had lots of lovely photos to show them of lawnless yards and great perennial groundcovers but almost nothing to say about more sustainable turfgrasses proven to do well in Maryland. The best I could do was to cite findings by the Maryland Turf Council on the subject, which meant I was referring them to their own research. Also, it was a tad technical for this liberal arts major.

But it turned out to be fun brainstorming with the small but alert audience of turfgrass geeks, and best of all, I was offered the chance to survey whole fields of fine fescues being tested right there on the College Park campus. Microclover, too.  Oh boy.

The top turf expert in Maryland is Dr. Thomas Turner, and he was willing to let us through the tight security (Secret Service, listen up!) to get to the research fields. Tight security came as a surprise to me but sure, if kids can jump the fence and do whatever they want there, the results are unreliable. Got it.

Fine Fescues

First Dr. Turner showed us the 23 cultivars of fine fescues he’s been growing since 2008. For these trials there had been no irrigation or weed control and just one pound of Nitrogen added per year.  And the results are – drumroll please – that hard fescue is the best performing, and it looks damn good. Interestingly, while hard fescues being grown in the U.K. and other climates cooler than Maryland’s can take quite a bit of traffic, even sports (!), here in the Transition Zone, not much foot traffic is tolerated.

Turner says the key to the success of fine fescues, including the best-performing hard type, is to mow in the spring, stop mowing in early June, then start mowing again in mid-September.  In some locations, especially along highways, maintenance crews kept up their usual mowing routine throughout the summer and the turf was ruined. So, switching to an unconventional, slower-growing fescue might require a culture change to take hold.

But grown correctly, hard fescue becomes thick enough that there are almost no weeds, and no disease. Poor soil is just fine, and hard fescue is more shade-tolerant than conventional tall fescues.

Interestingly, the best results were attained using straight varieties, not mixes of several varieties, though golf courses are known to mix in some chewing fescue with the hard fescue, because it grows faster.

Speaking of golf courses, I asked why we’re not seeing these grasses sold commercially and was told that the golf courses are snatching up all the available seed! But hey, that’s good news because if they’re buying the seed it’s not because of some slick Scotts advertising but because the science supports it and Dr. Turner has recommended it.

That’s another example of the golf course industry being in the forefront of products and practices that require fewer resources, which makes sense because these changes help their bottom line.  (In stark contrast to the makers of seed, fertilizer and pesticide and the lawn maintenance industry, all of which stand to lose if lawns become more sustainable.)

Microclovers growing with tall fescue.

Microclovers growing with tall fescue.


I’ve been hearing the buzz about microclovers, the short types being developed for the same self-fertilizing qualities we love in regular Dutch White but a height more similar to fescues.  So, is it the miracle plant so many are hoping for?  Not when combined with fine fescues, it isn’t – it out-competes the fescue to death.  With regular tall fescue it’s fine, though, and it does reduce the need for supplemental Nitrogen.   Microclover negatives include the fact that in heat waves it dies back completely, leaving bare soil all winter, and it’s also susceptible to Southern Blight.  Clover’s inability to handle temperatures in the 90s and higher accounts for the absence of any field of all-clover being trialed here. Bare ground all winter is kind of a deal-breaker.

Results of mowing-height test.

Results of mowing-height test.

Mowing Heights

Dr. Turner showed us one more test – what happens when grass is cut at different heights – and the results were clear as a bell.  When mowed to 1″, turfgrass becomes 80% crabgrass, and that percentage drops severely as the mower height is raised.  The ideal heights in this test were between 3.5 and 4 inches, with mowing heights above 4 inches resulting in increased disease (because the blades of grass stay wet too long).

No wonder we’re all suckers for simple-sounding 6-Step programs advertised by you-know-who all season, especially during sports programs on TV.  Lawn management isn’t exactly intuitive.

Posted by Susan Harris


Contribute to this Lawn-to-Prairie Make-Over!

Benjamin Vogt wrote to tell us about his exciting new project on Indiegogo – ripping out his front lawn and replacing it with a wildlife garden that he’ll use to spread the word about how beautiful wildlife and native-plant gardens can be – even in front yards.  He went on to say,  “I’ll be bringing as many tours and talks to this new garden as I can, writing about it at Houzz and my blog and elsewhere (and sourcing the native plants at a local nonprofit nursery). With neighbors who mow 3x a week, water daily, and even use scissors to clip grass on hands and knees, my wife and I have our work cut out for us.”

Click here to read more and then contribute before the campaign ends on September 14.

Save water – Remove that lawn !


Backyard lawn replacement with permeable patio and summer-dry plants.

As the California drought persists, Water Districts are ramping up their outreach with more information on drought  tolerant landscaping and cash for grass programs.  In the City of Palo Alto that is not an offer to Stanford students for their stash, but a generous offer of $4 per square foot to homeowners who will rip out their lawn.

The East Bay Municipal Water District has added a new resource page of garden photos - “The Lawn Goodbye:Landscape Gallery“.  (Nice photos, Saxon…)

In an especially exciting development for this meadow lover and California native plant geek, The California Native Grasslands Association is co-sponsoring an all day workshop, Convert Your Water-Hungry Lawn to a Drought-Tolerant Landscape event at UC Davis on Sept 18.

California front yard meadow with native grasses.

California front yard meadow with native grasses.

For information about the drought in California and other ongoing events see Save Our Water.


If you’re interested in shrinking your lawn or making it more nature-friendly, check out the list of events below. Meet and learn from our Coalition members at an event in your area!

May 17, 10AM – Eco Xpo, San Juan Capistrano, California

Billy Goodnick, author of Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams, presents a live demo using plants from local nurseries. You’ll learn how to “purchase with purpose”, selecting plants not only for how they look, but also for what they can do for you and your home: provide food, cool the patio, soften the wind, hold a slope. Then you’ll learn the fundamentals of creating visually interesting, beautiful plant combinations.

Later that day, Billy leads a “walkabout” of the gardens of Los Rios Park, using them as an outdoor classroom to explain the key steps in designing a beautiful, useful, sustainable garden.

May 20, 1:15pm – Beautiful No-Mow Yards Featuring Eastern Native Plants, Chatham Garden Club, Chatham, Massachusetts

Evelyn Hadden, author of Beautiful No-Mow Yards and Hellstrip Gardening, presents an inspiring array of case studies—no-mow designs by everyday gardeners plus ideas from landscape professionals that you can adapt to your own yard. Examples feature many plants native to the Eastern USA. You’ll see lively grass gardens, shady havens, elegant edibles, lawnless stroll gardens, low-care living carpets, and more.

You’ll also learn cutting-edge, ecologically sound ways to convert your yard to a no-mow garden:

  • choosing ground-layer plants based on their different behaviors;
  • several ways to kill a lawn;
  • designing large-scale features with woody plants;
  • lawns that need less mowing/watering/chemicals: managed meadows, freedom lawns, and low and slow lawns;
  • natural creativity boosters for kids;
  • enlisting natural processes to manage your garden for you;
  • incorporating higher-maintenance elements like edibles.

Savor the ease and beauty of no-mow yards. Then get going on yours!

May 21, 6:30 – 8:30pm – Hellstrip Gardening: Paradise at the Curb (90 min presentation followed by discussion), The Arnold Arboretum Hunnewell Building, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts

Across the country, overlooked landscapes languish in parking strips and alongside driveways and alleys. These semi-public spaces don’t often support healthy lawns, but they can host thriving gardens that add beauty and provide ecological services, dramatically improving their surroundings. Though curbside gardens present many challenges, their potential rewards can tempt you to give that leftover a make-over.

Evelyn Hadden, author of Beautiful No-Mow Yards and Hellstrip Gardening, offers guidance for making your own thriving curbside garden. She lays out strategies for addressing common challenges including street trees, poor soil, laws and covenants, unsightly equipment, pedestrian traffic, and more. With inspiring examples, she showcases creative solutions and highlights curbside-worthy plants. Take steps to improve our shared environment and your own life–dive in and design a hellstrip garden!

May 31, 9:30AM – Beautiful Garden Designs for Drought, Lousie Lowry Davis Center, 1231 De la Vina St. Santa Barbara CA

Billy Goodnick, author of Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams, will present an array of top water-wise plant choices for your garden and how to create a beautiful garden design using these plants and others.

Billy is a landscape architect, author and speaker who has, for many years, been teaching homeowners in a upbeat and inventive manner how to create beautiful, useful, and sustainable gardens.

May 31, 10:30am – Booksigning: Hellstrip Gardening, Behnke’s Nursery, 11300 Baltimore Ave, Beltsville, Maryland

Meet Evelyn Hadden, author of Beautiful No-Mow Yards and Hellstrip Gardening, AND meet many plants that she and Behnke’s recommend for planting in area hellstrips!

June 1, 2pm – Thriving Curbside Gardens, United States Botanic Garden, Washington, D.C. 

Across the country, overlooked landscapes languish in parking strips and alongside driveways and alleys. These semi-public spaces don’t often support healthy lawns, but they can host thriving gardens that add beauty and provide ecological services, dramatically improving their surroundings. Though curbside gardens present many challenges, their potential rewards can tempt you to give that leftover a make-over.

Evelyn Hadden, author of Beautiful No-Mow Yards and Hellstrip Gardening, offers guidance for making your own thriving curbside garden. She lays out strategies for addressing common challenges including street trees, poor soil, laws and covenants, unsightly equipment, pedestrian traffic, and more. With inspiring examples, she showcases creative solutions and highlights curbside-worthy plants. Take steps to improve our shared environment and your own life–dive in and design a hellstrip garden!

June 7, 10AM – Beautiful No-Mow Yards, Pulaski County Public Library, Somerset, Kentucky

Evelyn Hadden, author of Beautiful No-Mow Yards and Hellstrip Gardening, presents an inspiring array of case studies—no-mow designs by everyday gardeners plus ideas from landscape professionals that you can adapt to your own yard. You’ll see lively grass gardens, shady havens, elegant edibles, lawnless stroll gardens, low-care living carpets, and more.

You’ll also learn cutting-edge, ecologically sound ways to convert your yard to a no-mow garden:

  • choosing ground-layer plants based on their different behaviors;
  • several ways to kill a lawn;
  • designing large-scale features with woody plants;
  • lawns that need less mowing/watering/chemicals: managed meadows, freedom lawns, and low and slow lawns;
  • natural creativity boosters for kids;
  • enlisting natural processes to manage your garden for you;
  • incorporating higher-maintenance elements like edibles.

Savor the ease and beauty of no-mow yards. Then get going on yours!

June 19, 7pm – Eco-Friendly Gardens, Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha, Nebraska

Making an eco-friendly garden involves more than just “installing” the right plants. Feeding the soil, choosing effective plant combinations, and knowing when to intervene and when not to are all key parts of building a healthy living community. Award-winning author Evelyn J. Hadden presents new information about how to encourage natural processes like nutrient cycling, drought tolerance, runoff absorption, and insect population control that will help your garden to function more like a self-sufficient natural community.

Eco-friendly gardens can also be people-friendly. You’ll see many inspiring photos of healthy, sustainable landscapes that are also comfortable and rewarding places for people to spend time in. Examples include Rain Gardens, Slope Gardens, Vegie & Herb Gardens, Pavement Islands, and more!

Explore the answers to these questions:

  • Why are decomposers key to healthy natural communities?
  • Why are native plants essential but not enough?
  • What services can a well-designed landscape provide for you?
  • How can you let nature do more of the work?

This talk is specifically designed for gardeners who want to add sustainability and wildlife habitat, as well as functionality and beauty, to their gardens.

June 21, 10:30AM – Northwest Perennial Alliance, Hilton Bellevue, 300 112th Avenue SE, Bellevue, Washington 98004

Billy Goodnick, author of Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams, will present Married To Your Garden: How to Save the Relationship.

Symptoms: Garden has no sense of style or coherency; avoidance of long-term relationships; displays a raging case of “one-of-each-itis”; you suffer from the inability to tell a plant “You’re cute, but I’m in a committed relationship with my cottage-style garden.”

My favorite turf grass – sheep fescue

Sheep fescue path2-001

by Coalition member Thomas Christopher

Enhancing biodiversity is fundamental to transforming lawns from the polluted green deserts that they now are into the sustainable, environmentally constructive landscape features we desire.  For that reason, in my plantings I’ve avoided becoming too reliant on any one grass.  Instead, I try to include many different grasses (and increasingly, wildflowers) in my seed mixes – I combine not only different species of grasses, but also several different cultivars of any given species.   But if I were to nominate a favorite turf grass, it would probably be sheep fescue (Festuca ovina).

This overlooked species has traditionally been regarded, in the East at least, as useful only for soil erosion control on difficult and inaccessible sites.  It’s what highway departments plant on a steeply sloping highway shoulders that are difficult to mow – sheep fescue is so slow growing it requires only one or two cuttings a year and if left uncut forms a low, meadow-like carpet.  And sheep fescue is tough.  It flourishes on poor soils.  In fact, fertilizing sheep fescue is usually a mistake since the extra nutrients will benefit weeds more than they will benefit the grass.  Sheep fescue also thrives on acidic soils, something that few other turf grasses can do, and once established, it’s almost invulnerable to drought, at least in the Northeastern climate.

Traditional turf managers, whose standard of beauty was the plush, emerald green of force-fed Kentucky bluegrass, dismiss sheep fescue as homely, but I like the soft texture created by its long, thin leaf-blades, and its delicate bluish-gray color.  And if I want a richer look, I can resort to one of the two commercially available cultivars:  ‘Azay’, which is a darker green than the species type, and ‘Azay Blue’, which offers an attractive blue-green.

Actually, genetic testing has suggested that these two cultivars may be types of hard fescue (Festuca longifolia) rather than sheep fescues, but for me the important point is that they look and behave like sheep fescue.  In addition to their self-sufficient hardiness, ‘Azay’ and ‘Azay Blue’ are both bunch grasses: they do not spread by stolons to form a solid web like a bluegrass but instead grow in tufts that expand outwards to eventually merge into a single carpet.  Bunch grasses are much better at sharing their territory with other low-growing plants, which makes them good partners for the perennial wildflowers I want to incorporate into the lawns I plant.

Late last summer I created a turf path to bisect the cobbled courtyard I created in front of our house in the Berkshire Hills of southwestern Massachusetts.   For aesthetic reasons I wanted this small strip of greenery to have a uniform height and color, so I planted it solely with ‘Azay Blue’.  The effect of this soft turf juxtaposed with the rugged glacial cobbles (I’d collected and set these myself) was as dramatic as I had hoped.  I planted the grass in late August, and by late September when I began punching holes in it to plant bulbs, I found the ‘Azay Blue’ had already sent its roots down five inches.

Early next spring the grass will be scattered with blue flowers of species crocuses and chionodoxas.  I’m starting bluets (Houstonia caerulea) and violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) from seed this winter to provide follow-up color.  If the wood sorrel takes, this will significantly enhance the total population of its species in Massachusetts.   This native wildflower, which requires good sunlight, has been disappearing from Massachusetts as the second growth forest grows denser, so that now only five limited colonies survive.  I’m hoping to add a sixth.

I’ve identified two other sheep fescue cultivars, a European type called ‘Quattro’, and another identified only as ‘MX-86’ which is especially low-growing and is inoculated with endophytic fungi, so it should prove especially insect and disease resistant.  I’m going to try both this coming spring and I would love to hear reports from anyone who has experience with either one.

You won’t find seed of any of these grasses at your local garden center, but all are available at competitive prices by mail order.

Shades of Gray in a No-Lawn Garden

By Guest Poster Rebecca Sweet


I’m thrilled to say that, as a landscape designer, most of my clients have fully embraced the thought of trading in their un-used front lawns for a garden filled with color, scent, edibles and year-round beauty.

In one of my favorite recent projects, we removed the threadbare, water-thirsty lawn and replaced it with a more sustainable, fun, and livable garden.  One that not only uses 40% less water, but also incorporates plenty of native plants to encourage all types of wildlife to visit.  My first step was to rip out the turf lawn and reinterpret a newer, smaller version using Dymondia.  I chose the tough, evergreen and drought-tolerant Dymondia as its also able to withstand a decent amount of foot traffic with ease. Plus, it’s just so darn pretty.


post gray3

My client did have an initial concern, however, which was a blinding, bright and parched effect might result from using such an expansive amount of gray in the garden. This is a perfectly valid concern, and one that I’ve often heard from others who have experienced the unintended ‘glare’ in their own gardens as a result of an overuse of gray plants.

In my new book, Refresh Your Garden Design with Color, Texture and Form, I encourage gardeners to see colors in a whole new light – more as design workhorses than ‘pretty shades of pink’. The color gray is particularly interesting, with a unique ability to straddle both sides of the color wheel (ie: warm yet cold, lush yet bright), making it particularly useful – or challenging.  When using gray in the garden, here are a few tricks to help tone down the brightness while still enjoying all this color has to offer.

Shades of Gray

post gray4

post gray5

post gray6

First, it’s important to realize that there are different shades of gray ranging from light & bright, to medium gray all the way to dark, charcoal-like foliage.  And it’s because of this wide spectrum of shading that makes no two gray plants the same.  It’s perfectly okay to use plenty of gray plants in the garden as long as you vary the shading.  No one really wants to look at one bright gray plant after another without a place for the eye to rest, so remember to use plenty of mid-level and dark gray plants sprinkled throughout.

Keeping it Lush

post gray7

In order to prevent gray plants from creating a ‘pass the sunglasses’ effect in your garden it’s important to include plenty of deep and rich colors nearby, such as burgundy, purple and dark green. In this garden, I included the brilliant blue flowers of our native Penstemon ‘Blue Springs’, vibrant purple lavender and deep burgundy stonecrop to soften the edges of the Dymondia lawn.

The lambs ear (in the above photo) is used sparingly throughout the garden as its a particularly bright shade of gray and could easily cause the Dymondia to seem brighter than it actually is.

post gray8

Each thin, strappy Dymondia leaf actually consists of two colors – green on the bottom and gray on top.  To emphasize the green in the bi-colored foliage, I’ve included plenty of other surrounding plants with green colors, such as Carex divulsa (Berkeley sedge) and Calamagrostis foliosa (feather reed grass).

Many other gray plants have subtle hints of green in their foliage, as well. Take a closer look at lavenders, senecios and hostas and you’ll often notice a layer of green beneath the gray.  Highlighting this hidden layer of green is what allows you to cool down a potentially bright planting combination.

post gray9

To emphasize Dymondia’s blue tones, I included plenty of nearby blue plants in the garden, such as ‘Beyond Blue’ fescue, various succulents, and blue-flowered perennials.  My goal was to emphasize the tones and colors that I wanted while minimizing the tones that I didn’t.  Can you imagine how bright this garden would be if I had used an overabundance of white flowers and foliage?

post gray10

Hardscaping (such as nearby flagstones, patios and sidewalks) play an important role when placed near gray plants as they, too, can serve to either tone down the brightness or amp it up to blinding proportions.  I’ve seen plenty of instances where drifts of bright gray lamb’s ear or Artemesia were planted next to a bright cement sidewalk. And 9 times out of 10 that’s the area the homeowner is referring to when they say they don’t like the color gray.  To eliminate this blinding effect, just remember to use hardscaping with warmer and/or darker colors.
For this garden, we chose flagstones with slightly creamy-pink tones to them. The warm, muted shades help to soften the bright gray colors of nearby plants.

post gray11Rebecca Sweet is a garden designer and writer in Los Altos, California. Her most recent book is Refresh Your Garden Design with Color, Texture and Form (Horticulture, 2013).




Help make the Arboretum’s Lawn Education Program a Good One!

postarbI wrote a while back about a forthcoming lawn education program at the National Arboretum financed entirely by the turf industry. (Scroll down here to see the funders).  Well, it’s now a reality, with the official ground-breaking event last week, and I’m more concerned than ever.  Though I’m a big fan of the Arboretum (I even volunteer there) and they need financial support from somewhere, I think it’s important to nudge them to make their “Grass Roots Initiative” serve not just the turf industry but also the cause of promoting responsible lawn care.

The four-year $400,000 program is comprised of an exhibit in a very visible spot at the Arboretum, a website, workshops, demonstrations, and more.  The website’s listing of the goals of the program are the first red flag and indication that public input is needed:

What are the goals of Grass Roots?  Increase awareness of the importance of turfgrass and lawns to society and the environment.  Demonstrate new technologies within the turfgrass industry that improve maintenance practices and efficiencies. Review and update national research priorities for turfgrass.  Bring together policymakers and others interested in regulatory issues that impact the turfgrass industry.

Now I’m fine with their touting the benefits of lawn, especially compared to, say, asphalt.  Lawn isn’t the terrible-awful-bad thing that some folks make it out to be, at least in regions with adequate rainfall.  But I urge the Arboretum to use this prominent campaign to move the public toward smart, Bay-friendly fertilizing practices, more tolerance for diversity (“weeds”), and awareness of new seed mixes that require less water and mowing.

The Website

Instead, the website includes Mythbusters: The Truth about Turfgrass, which contains language you expect from an industry lobby group, not a scientific institution like the Arboretum.  The very first “myth” listed is about lawn fertilizers polluting the Chesapeake Bay, countered with the lame defense that agriculture is way worse than turfgrass when it comes to polluting the Bay – with nitrogen.  That’s disingenuous at best, considering that that nitrogen isn’t the primary cause of pollution at all.  The worst offender is phosphorus , which has recently been banned from lawn fertilizers sold in Maryland.

The website does include this link to EPA’s info about environmentally friendly lawn and garden practices, and the video about lawn fertilizers actually says: “If you fertilize this [a lawn], a lot of it would probably wash off into [the nearby creek].  One of the studies shows that there’s more pollution from fertilizers from homeowners’ lawns than there is from agriculture.”  Also, “Fertilizers can harm the environment because they can create a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus run-offs into the Bay.”

Kick-off Event

So that’s the website, which I’m told will have much more on it eventually, and there will be signage at the outdoor demonstration site, which had its ground-breaking ceremony last week.  Some garden writers received invitations to the event but not me – I heard about it accidentally.  Reporter/garden writer attendees were David Ellis, editor of American Gardener magazine, and myself.

postarb2So here’s what I heard from the speakers at the kick-off event: “Environment, environment, peer-reviewed, science, science, science-based!”  Everything in the program will be scientifically vetted because after all, the slogan at the Arboretum is “Where science meets beauty.”  So, who’s doing the vetting?  The turfgrass division of the Crop Science Society of America.  I wonder if how familiar they are with urban soil issues.

On the bright side, the outdoor exhibit  will include not just sports fields, lawn games and golf, but a green roof, a rain garden, “responsible” fertilization practices, and proper water use and re-use techniques.  In fact, the designers doing this demonstration site (pro bono) specialize in stormwater management.

Comments Sought!

Another positive note is that one Arboretum staffer (Nancy Luria) encouraged David and me to submit suggestions to the director of this project about what we’d like it to include, so let’s do it!  Let’s be pro-active and suggest ways to make this grass-education project in a prominent spot, with the imprimatur of the USDA, as good as possible.  Email the project director (email on that link) but if you do, please also post it here in a comment (or later today on the Lawn Reform Coalition site – link to come) so that it’s public.

My one big suggestion is that rather than re-inventing the wheel, the project simply follow the lawn recommendations already provided by experts within the federation government – at the EPA and elsewhere.  Maryland’s Home and Garden Information Center also has good science-based advice.

by Susan Harris

Plant ideas needed for biodiverse lawn



Biodiverse lawn.

by Coalition Member Thomas Christopher 

Like other members of this group, I believe that the contemporary model of lawn has got to go. It does have its virtues, though we critics tend to overlook them. For example, traditional lawn provides a relatively inexpensive and easy way to maintain large expanses of the landscape
in a green and domesticated cover – I can think of no other landscape treatment
aside from meadow that can cover an acre or two of sunny ground and demand only
a couple of hours a week of maintenance, and though I prefer the beauty and
biodiversity of a meadow, it is not appropriate for heavily trafficked areas. Lawn also provides a nearly ideal play space for children and a relatively tick-free zone – an important benefit where I live, 30 miles from Old Lyme, Connecticut, the original epicenter of the Lyme Disease

What if we could eliminate many of the environmental defects of lawns while
preserving its benefits? That was the question I asked myself 5 years ago, and one that I have been exploring ever since. Other types of cultivated landscape used to be environmental disasters but have since been updated. When I began my career as a horticulturist 40 years
ago, rose gardens were toxic from the constant application of pesticides, but
that has changed with the introduction of disease- and pest-resistant cultivars,
and a more environmentally sophisticated style of design and maintenance. Likewise, the average vegetable garden was dependent on constant inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides a generation ago. Could the lawn be similarly updated, I wondered.

My first pursuit was to identify types of grasses that in the Northeast where
I live that are less demanding of mowing, fertilization, irrigation, and
pesticides. A few emails put me in touch with turf breeders at Rutgers, Cornell, and the University of Connecticut who very generously shared the under-utilized low-maintenance turfs that they had created. A visit to Dr. Stacy Bonos at Rutger’s turf-breeding station was particularly eye-opening.

I soon came to focus on mixes of different fine fescue cultivars as the most
promising alternative for my purposes. Once established on a site,
such blends require mowing no more than 2-3 times a year, they are
drought-resistant and much less hungry for nitrogen, and, if the cultivars are
chosen with care, naturally weed- and insect-resistant. However, I
found these blends challenging initially because they are slow-growing (that’s
why they require so little mowing) and so slow to establish.

It has taken several years of experimentation, but I have developed a routine
that will convert a conventional lawn to fine fescues in just 6 weeks at a price customers can afford, and which, with occasional interventions, produces an mature, mostly weed-free lawn within 6 months.

By “weed-free” I do not mean that such a lawn is a grass monoculture.
In fact, the sustainable lawn model I have been seeking demands a more
diverse flora. In this case, I am defining “weeds” as plants that make the lawn unsightly, increase the need for mowing, and which will overrun their neighbors. The best way to keep such plants out of the lawn is to fill their niches with other, more turf-compatible plants. My inspiration for this came from first-hand experience, of course, but also readings in guides to lawn maintenance dating back to the pre-chemical-care era – one such book from the 1920’s, for example, included more than two dozen flowers it recommended including in the lawn.

White clover (Trifolium repens) provides an obvious example of the benefits such plants can provide: not only does it enhances soil fertility but it also flourishes where soils are too poor to support vigorous grass growth, and continues to grow in conditions of heat and drought that push most northern lawn grasses into dormancy. And of course clovers are a nectar source for bees.  Strawberry clover (Trifolium fragiferum) also integrates easily with turf grasses, providing similar benefits to those of white clover and pretty flowers.


Bluets in the lawn.

Our native violets and even Viola tricolor add color and coexist quite comfortably with turf, providing food for a variety of moth and butterfly caterpillars. Houstonia caerulea, bluets, are also compatible and quite pretty and help to feed a variety of native bees.

Other plants that I have identified include Trifolium repens atropurpureum, the bronze Dutch clover (I want to create a turf networked with its colorful foliage), Thymus serpyllum
(creeping thyme), Fragaria virginiana (wild strawberry), and Potentilla indica (Indian strawberry). Some of these are native while others are not, but I use the exotic species only where they are already naturalized and non-invasive. I’ve also incorporated early
spring flowering, low-growing bulbs into my lawns, including the early crocuses,
snowdrops, grape hyacinths,
etc. as they have gone dormant by the time the fine
fescues need their first mowing.

I would like to expand this list of lawn-compatible forbs, and I am asking for your suggestions. Ideally, any such plants should be easy to start by direct seeding, as this will help to keep my sustainable-lawn model affordable. In addition, they must be sufficiently low-growing
that they do not increase the need for mowing, and they should be either
perennial or reliable self-seeders.

Violets in the lawn.

Violets in the lawn.

I am aware that many members of the Lawn Reform Coalition will object to continuing lawns in
any form. I myself was of that position for many years, but what I found was that friends and customers often did not have the time, resources or commitment required to transform their landscapes so fundamentally. According to a NASA study, lawn is, like it or not, the largest irrigated crop in the United States, covering an area equal to that of the states of
Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and ¼ of Vermont combined. If we can make an immediate impact on this, reducing its resource-use and turning it into a carbon-sink rather than a CO2 generator, wouldn’t that be worth doing?

Lawn Reform Coalition member Tom Christopher’s pioneering sustainable lawn company is aptly named Smart Lawn.  Tom’s the author of Water-Wise Gardening, a guide to new styles of
gardening, editor of the wonderful New American Landscape, and more.   Tom also writes for HuffingtonPost and contributes to a blog about sustainable gardening, Green Perspectives. It’s a product of the New York Botanical Garden, where Tom earned his degree in professional horticulture.

Book Review of Pam Penick’s Lawn Gone!

by Susan Morrison
penick review
A few weeks ago, fellow LRC member Evelyn Hadden shared her thoughts on three new books that include helpful information on replacing or downsizing lawn. The following review, reprinted from Blue Planet Garden Blog, is a more in-depth review of Lawn Gone!: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard by popular blogger and garden designer Pam Penick. The latest book to tackle the topic, its soup-to-nuts approach, inspiring
photos and emphasis on DIY solutions make it a must-have for anyone considering reducing or eliminating lawn.

The book is divided into three parts. “Part One: Beyond the Lawn” explores what to do with all the real estate eliminating or reducing a
lawn makes available. Low-growing plant alternatives are discussed in detail, but Lawn Gone also makes a case for replacing lawn with new living spaces and garden features, such as patios, ponds and play spaces.

penick review2
Mixed species lawn. Design and photograph by Rebecca Sweet

“Part Two: Out with the Grass, In with a Garden” gives step-by-step instructions on removing an existing lawn. This is an area where the book really shines, as Pam explores multiple methods, and provides the pros and cons of each. She knows her target audience of DIYers well, and also
includes instructions on planning and creating a range of garden features, from how to edge pathways, to basics on bed preparation.

penick review3
A welcoming space for entertaining. Photograph courtesy of Pam Penick

In “Part Three: The Politics, Health and Safety of Going Lawnless,” Pam provides tips on dealing with both man-made obstacles (think HOAs and city codes) and natural ones, such as lawn alternatives for fire prone areas.

penick review4
Design and photograph by Kelly Kipatrick

 What I liked

  • The book is one of the most well-organized and thorough resources I have yet to read on on lawn alternatives. What isn’t addressed? From removing lawn, to dealing with skeptical neighbors, Lawn Gone covers all your questions, including some you probably haven’t even thought of yet.
  • I enjoyed the conversational tone of the book, which feels appropriate for both advanced and new gardeners. as even those with years of gardening under their belts don’t necessarily have experience with removing and replacing lawn.
  • The inclusion of regional experts greatly broadens the Lawn Gone’s potential readership. In the final chapter, Pam taps garden experts from eleven regions of the country for
    suggestions on the best lawn alternatives for their specific area. Beyond that, throughout the book advice is regularly qualified as to what parts of the country the tips apply to.
  • Lawn Gone paints an enticing picture of the lawn-free lifestyle without sugarcoating the
    realities of what’s involved to get there. While you may be thrilled to ditch
    the lawnmower, Pam makes it clear that a successful garden still requires an
    ongoing commitment.


No quibbles this time, but be sure to do your research before following any of the specific plant advice in the book. Many of the plants mentioned, in particular the ornamental grasses, are invasive in California and other regions of the country – I counted more than one plant  I would hesitate to recommend to my clients. This can’t really be avoided in a book geared
towards a national audience, but follow the advice Pam includes in Lawn Gone, and be sure to check online or with your county’s extension program before choosing plants for your

Confidential to California gardeners: The alternatives provided that most closely mimic a lawn are mainly those grown from seed or plugs. Since here in California we’re addicted to the look of fresh sod rolled out in a new garden, I usually specify no-mow native grass mixes in sod form for my clients. Check out Delta Bluegrass for alternatives that work in a range of USDA zone 9 cultural conditions.

A must read for anyone considering reducing or eliminating a lawn, Lawn Gone provides a thoughtful mix of inspiring photos, step-by-step solutions and troubleshooting tips.

I received this book as a review copy. Photos reprinted with permission from Lawn Gone! Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard by Pam Penick (Ten Speed Press, 2013).


penick rview 5Susan Morrison is a landscape designer, master gardener, and the co-author of Garden Up! Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces , an Amazon “Best Books of 2011”
A nationally recognized authority on small-space garden design, Susan is the author of the garden app Foolproof Plants for Small Gardens (Sutro Media 2013). Her designs have been featured in various publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Cottages and Bungalows, and Fine Gardening, where she also contributes articles on design and plant selection.