Get rid of your lawn

Photo courtesy of Donna Williamson
Ground covers in the shade will be small the first year. But they'll soon spread.
Photo courtesy of Donna Williamson
Elderberry and PG hydrangea are good in shrub borders.

Traveling between clients gives me a lot of time in the car so I read books. No, no – audiobooks. One of my favorite authors for a laugh a mile is Carl Hiassen. He writes loopy mysteries that are wonderfully amusing. His describes the motivation of his characters like a sketch artist, with brevity and irony, often making them even more hilarious.

He once described a greedy and incompetent landscaper (can’t remember which book) as having an important core belief in life: “Always park in the shade.”

I have one, too: Get rid of lawns. Lawns make sense to me only when sheep (goats, llamas, etc.) are eating the grass and pooping to fertilize in return.

Otherwise I think there are better ideas. Lawns are wasted space where trees, shrubs, tomatoes, peonies, or viburnums could be.

While English gardening books extol the beautiful rolling green expanse, what I see are lawn grasses that typically turn brown in our Virginia summers and look good in March and November (the happy time for cool season grasses).

I read somewhere that lawn is the most time-, resource-, and water-consuming ground covering possible. It needs watering, frequent mowing, feeding, dethatching, pre-treating, overseeding, etc.

In our typical summers, you cannot water enough to keep the lawn looking lush or even green. And why should we use the precious resource of water that way?

On a small lot, a grove of multistemmed crape myrtles, river birches, redbuds, serviceberries, or katsura would be lovely with ferns and hostas underneath and a nice bench to sit on and enjoy the bird song.

On a large lot, a meadow of coneflowers, asters, prairie grasses, and Joe-Pye weed would be beautiful and alive with birds, bees, and a balance of beneficial and not-so-nice insects.

A few trees would add structure and dimension. Perhaps an evergreen Cryptomeria, and some fringe trees? Maybe a grove of blue spruce and some big golden perennials like rudbeckia, silphium, and helianthus? Possibly a treehouse?

Or perhaps a major new woodland, with both evergreen and deciduous trees, an understory rich with dogwood, redbud, viburnum, magnolia, and spicebush.

Ferns and carex, Solomon’s seal and ginger, moss and hellebore could populate the shaded ground.

Shrubs could develop berries and cover for the birds, and be alive with butterflies, beetles, bees, and life.

Grasses such as panicum and prairie dropseed and great perennials would populate the sunny edges with colorful smoke trees and spirea here and there.

Another idea would be some raised beds containing lettuce and chard and tomatoes with figs and Concord grapes growing alongside and fat raspberries in summer and fall.

How about roses among a flowering shrub border of beautyberry, elderberry, hydrangea, and butterfly bush.

Sometimes people tell me that they need the lawn for their children to play on.


Donna Williamson is a master gardener, garden designer, and garden coach. She has taught gardening and design classes at the State Arboretum of Virginia, Oatlands in Leesburg, and Shenandoah University. She’s also the founder and editor of Grandiflora Mid-Atlantic Gardening magazine, and the author of “The Virginia Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Low Maintenance Gardening in Virginia.”  She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Editor’s note: To read more by Donna, check our blog archive. For other Monitor gardening content, see our main gardening page and our RSS feed.

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