Lawns are highly political things.
The green expanses first emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries as a place where wealthy European aristocrats could graze their sheep and show off the hired help. Since then, they have come to represent inequality, environmental degradation and conformity (not to mention expense and sweat).
A European import, close-cut grasslands make little sense in North American climates but came over anyway with Scottish immigrants, who also brought their love of golf and lawn bowling. The lawn evolved through the industrial revolution, on to the mid-20th century celebration of urban parks and then to suburbia, always giving prominence to design elements from its blue-blooded background – think clipped boxwood hedges, lavish flowers and formal brickwork and limestone.
Lately, though, it appears that sod might finally be losing its curb appeal.
“There is a major shift happening in what people are expecting from their garden spaces,” says Stefan Weber, a restoration biologist with the St. Williams Nursery and Ecology Centre in St. Williams, Ont. He’s noticed a gradual turn away from American Dream-style green to something more mindful.
Weber says his clients want to be smarter with the space, effort and resources available to them. They’re also more aware of various environmental concerns: from mono-diversity (planting too few species, which can lead to soil exhaustion); to the toxicity and the dermatological side effects of synthetic pesticides and herbicides; to the importance of water conservation, especially during extreme weather and drought (see: California).
At the same time, lawn owners are increasingly interested in the benefits of biodiversity. Planting many types of species in the same space allows better adaptation to changing environment or weather, and encourages the return of natural species.
“I think the full connection is finally being made,” says Weber. “[Those] who grew up seeing butterflies, bees and birds just don’t see them anymore. People are more willing to help turn a useless lawn into something more functional.”
Once you’ve decided that the grass isn’t greener on the other side, there are many options for your new turf. Depending on your style and taste – as well as soil and light conditions – going lawn-free could mean a variety of things.
One option is plants that are indigenous to the area where you live. These are commonly called native plants, and are heartier in the face of Canadian climes than imported (or greenhouse-grown) greenery.
Other common groundcovers include low-growing evergreens, which can make for a tidy, structural element in small spaces, or bush clover, which spreads across the ground but does not grow very tall, so you can let it grow wild.
Flowering shrubs and regional wildflowers are good options for inviting honeybees. Brown-Eyed Susan (rudbeckia hirta), New Jersey Tea (ceanothus americanus), Verbena and Blue-Eyed Grass (sisyrinchium) are some lovely options that bloom. Weber also recommends White Blue-Eyed Grasses and Sideoats Grama (bouteloua curtipendula) as grass options, or Wild Dewberry and strawberries for an excellent, drought-resistant patch of green.
Abandoning the lawn could also mean a new commitment to rocks, wood chips and native shrubs. Hardscaping – the addition of paved areas, stone ways, decks or fountains – might also make sense, as might a combination of various elements.
First things first: Fall is a good season to start from the ground up. Remove all weeds and amend compacted soil, turning and preparing six to eight inches of ground with natural fertilizers and mulch to condition and marinate good bacteria right through the winter. Good soil is the base to all good things.
Only then is it time to turn your mind to design. Montreal-based landscape architect Myke Hodgins says that moving away from the standard suburban lawn involves assessing your personal level of neatness. “Before you convert your lawn, stop and think about what appeals to you aesthetically, and what you want from your space,” he says. “Do you need calm and want something that’s simple? Or do you want textures or colours? Or a living space? It is easier to maintain a yard when you love it.”
City dwellers should consider plants that naturally find their home on savannas (where a lack of tree cover allows ground plants to get a lot of light) or alvars (limestone plains with sparse vegetation). These are ecosystems similar to those in Southern Ontario and Manitoba, and plants that work in these regions will thrive on compacted, dry, rocky urban environments.
As for native species, “the question is whether or not you want your yard to be a grassland,” says Winnipeg designer Cynthia Cohlmeyer. “You need to grow it where it has some ecological value: enough to provide a nesting site and place for the natural ecosystem to show up.” People have a romantic notion that native grasses will somehow translate into a maintenance-free lawn, she says, but “the reality is that it can look like a pasture.”
“It’s brown in the spring and over the season you’ll have different plants in different bloom cycles. That’s super interesting, but maybe not [what you expect],” she says with a laugh.
For a really wild look, Hodgins adds that it is totally possible to grow tall grass and just let it blow loosely in the wind, mowing a single pathway through points A to Z and calling it a day. This is probably best in rural environments. “Do your homework as to what’s appropriate to your area,” he advises. “It all comes down to site appropriation.”
Another increasingly popular option is turning personal outdoor space into a garden full of edibles, such as homegrown herbs, lettuce, peppers or tomatoes.
“From my own experience, I can tell you there is real satisfaction at having turned a great portion of my backyard into an edible garden,” says landscape designer James Thompson of Toronto. “I fully support everyone to grow something to eat, whether it’s in the back or front yard, a community garden plot or even in a bucket on the balcony … This is one of the best alternatives to a lawn.”
Whatever you decide, managing your lawn expectations is key. You might not see a return on investment for a couple of seasons. You’ll still have to work your land a little bit. And remember: Nothing is going to be like a Kentucky blue grass sod except Kentucky blue grass sod.
“Unfortunately, there is not a native species that behave and look [like grass], but some come close,” says Weber, who recommends Pennsylvania and Ebony Sedge, Poverty Oat Grass, Slender Wheatgrass and Path Rush as lawn-like options. “But don’t feel badly about keeping a small piece of lawn for your pets or kids to play on. If you pack your garden full of native plants that support biodiversity, then you’ve earned a little lawn for yourself.”
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