lawn reform

Susan from Blue Planet Garden Blog dropped me a note about a new initiative she was involved in. Lawn Reform, a collaboration of nine bloggers from around the US, is trying to reshape how we all think about lawns and their roles in gardens.

If you’re not already out there crying, “Kill your lawn” (or at least something like “Reduce the size of your lawn”) the site lists six good reasons to think again about the green monster outside your house, “Polluted Waterways,” “Pesticide-Treated Lawns that are Toxic to Humans and Pets,” “Guzzling of Water, a Resource in Short Supply,” “Single-Species Monocultures that Provide Nothing for Wildlife,” “Frequent Mowing, with Air Pollution” and “Overtreated and Overwatered Lawns that Waste $$ and Keep Asking for More.”

To that list I’d add a more philosophical reason to rethink a green expanse, the idea that a lawn represents some weird macho domination of all things natural, that nature isn’t acceptable to live with until it’s been chopped to smithereens and reshaped into something that’s a pale imitation of itself. Start with this mindset and it’s not a a big leap to Silent Spring, global warming or The Bomb.

To promo Lawn Reform, Susan is hosting an “I used to have a lawn but now I have…” contest, where you’re encouraged to submit photos and stories related to transforming lawn into something else. The winners, drawn at random, will receive a copy of John Greenlee’s new book, The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn.

Dead Grass

I’ll share a couple of life-after-lawn photos of my own. The newest expanse, which might be described as “I used to have a lawn but now I have dead grass,” is a fairly unattractive alternative to lawn, a patch of unwatered grass that’s in part a response to our current water rationing. This is probably nothing that’s going to make anyone do something else with their lawn, but it’s ugly enough that we’ll have to do something about it.

Front yard overview

The second shot is an overview of my front yard, taken during the unflattering light of midday in the heat of September, something like 18 years after the we took out the front lawn. At the time we, along with much of Southern California, were into a lot of South African species, so there are a couple different forms of a stately tree aloe, Aloe barberae (a.k.a. A. bainseii) to the right, along with a big mound of Aloe arborescens. To the left is a big clump of the maligned red fountain grass from farther up in the African continent; it’s a plant that people tell you not to plant because of its invasive tendencies, although this version hasn’t self-sown in two decades. (Other versions of fountain grass, however, can take over an ecosystem in no time.)

We’ve tried various California natives over the years in this space. The most successful has been the row of coyote bush brush cascading over the front wall, Baccharis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point.’ It’s a plant that’s been said to have a ten year useful life. For us it’s doubled that number of years, though it’ll probably get renewed this planting season. Another corner of the ex-lawn, not shown here, features some buckwheats and plants from the Channel Islands. They’re filling in nicely as they provide more of a California flavor to the yard and soften a yard that used to be a lot more about succulents.

Front yard succulents

Before we undertook this big lawn replacement we asked a question about what we really used the front lawn for. Mostly we walked through it on the way to the front door. Why not put big mounding accent plants where we’d never walk? And in the place of where we used to have one species of grass that required lots of water and pampering we now have several dozen species of plants, almost all of which will make it through the summer with next to no additional watering. Greater diversity, check; less water use, check. The project also succeeds in all the other ways Lawn Reform suggests a lawn replacement would succeed.

But that’s just one success story. There are probably as many different ways to replace a lawn as there are gardeners. What would you do?

11 thoughts on “lawn reform”

  1. The days of the lawn are numbered. By the aging of the lawn proponents for one thing. Still plenty around in the suburbs of Silicon Valley I have to say, but you see the emergence of other things more interesting. One day I’d like to take a walk with my camera around my old neighborhood and chronicle a stage in this transformation in the pocket size front gardens. I love looking at all the different front gardens where people get creative.
    On a nother topic I wonder if you use Encelia californica, coast sunflower. It’s native to the south and not to my Central Coast area. I’m hosting a mother plant for our propagation group and she just popped a yellow flower! Very nice and green with a little summer water, and lots of buds promise a nice fall show.

  2. CM, yes, I have a couple of the Encelia californicas, but I have them behind the back fence on a slope where they get minimal supplemental water. They’re basically taking the summer off, flower-wise. My campus has hundreds of them planted in the spaces between the canyons and the watered landscaping. The little extra bit of watering they get keeps many of them blooming from the spring through the summer and into the fall. They’re very well suited for somewhat less demanding areas like here. They should do nicely for you.

    Pam, thank you! I should post more big-picture photos as the plants go through their seasonal changes. It’s all looking about its driest right now.

  3. Love your non-lawn front garden. I’m slowly replacing all the grass in my front yard with a mixed planting of shrubs, perennials and grasses. I really like your question: What do I use my front yard for? My answer? Gardening space.

  4. Beautiful!
    I love these Lawn Reform inspired posts! I think a great big ball has started rolling, don’t you? I’m hoping we se more and more front yard gardens in our neighborhoods!
    Your front yard is the perfect example of a thoughtful Southern California planting – fantastic!
    I have recently started adding cactus to my front yard – another adventure in going drier – but it makes me very aware of the need for softening the severity of the ‘vibe’. Can you tell me what the Channel Island natives you’ve been using to do that in your garden? Very interested!
    Thanks for the awesome post!

  5. Your front yard looks great, big difference from when you guys first moved in!

    I also think people need to rethink what lawn they do have. I’m a lawn slacker, if it’s green and can be mowed, fine with me. I don’t fertilize the lawn and never water it. I plant more clover in it each year and pretty soon it will go dormant and we won’t have to do a thing to it for 6 months or more. Fortunately, we don’t live in a subdivision, so beige lawn in the late fall/winter/early spring bothers no one.

  6. Diana, spoken like a true gardener in love with plants! Less lawn = more gardening space. Sound like a win/win to me!

    Germi, thanks for your comments! I’m glad to see the conversations going on about reducing lawns in favor of something greener, at least ecologically. The Channel Island plants I’ve added are three species, all of which have been successful: two buckwheats (St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum) and Santa Cruz Island buckwheat (E. arborescens)) plus the perky Galvezia speciosa ‘Firecracker.’ My area is close to the Channel Islands in climate, so these have done better than some of the other Cal natives.

    George, I had nothing to do with the recall, I swear!

    Jenny, I like your comment about letting your lawn go through seasonal phases. If some of your trees can drop their leaves for the winter, why can’t your lawn go on vacation too?

  7. Thanks for this post! Implementing an efficient water regime helps in maintaining the beauty of a lawn. Also we need to watch the amount of water that our lawn consumes. Here are some ways to a water-wise landscape:
    * Use less-than-thirsty plants in your garden.
    * Keep turf grass to a minimum.
    * Group plants thoughtfully.
    * Water plants only when needed
    Find more simple tips at

  8. James, one of the things I like about your post is that when you decided to redo the front, you started with the question, what do we really use this space for? I keep hearing the argument that lawns are important as a place for playing, gathering, feeling the grass under your bare feet, etc. but when was the last time you saw someone doing ANY of these things in their front yard?

  9. My designs still include some grass but less all the time. Indeed, when the time comes for absolutely no more grass, then I will adapt easily. The change is small. I find it hard to find anything more gorgeous than a lush barefoot walk over cool grass in a sweeping arching walkway, but then my takes on grass involve places which are not quite so intolerant, water-wise.

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