While I love having a minimalist patch of organic lawn in my backyard for the cats and chickens to run around on, as a landscape designer I am thoroughly “over” using lawn as the default option.
It takes more maintenance, fertilizer, and water than just about anything else in the landscape, yet it gives nothing back to wildlife, has little character, and in many cases, is nothing more than a sad-looking expanse for neighborhood dogs to decorate. I’ve never walked past a lawn and been wowed. At best, lawn acts as a neutral space which helps to highlight the beauty of the landscaping around it.
There’s really no competition as to which I’d rather see: a lawn or any style of landscaped bed. Even the most pedestrian combinations of hardscape with plantings still draw my eye, make me think, and increase my feeling of connection to my neighborhood and to the natural world.
That’s why I’m so excited about my friend Pam Penick’s new book Lawn Gone: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard. Pam’s a landscape designer in Texas who’s written a complete design guide full of inspiring ideas and practical how-to for reducing or eliminating lawn in your front or back yard.
She starts out by sharing a number of different possibilities for how you could re-landscape of garden area without using lawn. I mean, in most gardens lawn takes up a huge amount of space. What do you put there? Can you afford to make the change? Pam goes into the details of how to design with lawn alternatives such as no-mow grasses, groundcovers, and small perennials or shrubs, then delves into hardscaping such as patios and pathways.
One of my favorite sections is the one on incorporating ponds, play spaces, and other fun features into your lawn-free landscape. The second section goes into the practical matter of how exactly to remove your lawn, prepare your beds, plant, and maintain your new space. Pam’s coming from an environmentally-friendly perspective, so while she does mention Roundup as a last-ditch alternative for people with terribly invasive varieties of lawn, the rest of the solutions are safe for pets and kids as soon as the power equipment shuts down.
The third section is one of the most useful to me personally as a landscape designer, which is how to contend with skeptical neighbors, HOAs and city codes, and other issues surrounding the politics and safety of going lawnless. I’m lucky enough to serve on a design review board which is exceptionally encouraging about going lawn-free, using low-water plants, and choosing natives, but many homeowners have irresponsible HOAs or city codes which require the use of lawn or even outlaw native plants. Pam’s tips on how to work with any obstacles you may come across are realistic and helpful.
The book finishes up with some plant recommendations for all of the different areas in the United States. Because planting advice is best when it’s regional, Pam enlisted the help of a number of professional designers around the country to give plant suggestions which truly work. I can vouch for both the California and the Pacific Northwest plant ideas.
While each region only has about five plants suggested, they are practical picks and there’s enough detail given on how to actually use the plants that the section is helpful in getting started. You could take the list to your local nursery and use it as a starting point for discussion with your local professionals to give them an idea of what types of plants you’re looking for.
Because Pam is a landscape designer, the strength of the book is truly in the design inspiration she provides. Every page has photos, and many of them are full-on landscape shots which actually give you an idea of how you might design your garden. The photos are from a number of regions and a number of designers, and show creative ways of using gravel, stone, and recycled materials such as urbanite (reused concrete) in harmony with plantings. Once again, if I were a homeowner wanting ideas for my garden, I’d use the suggestions given as a jumping off point to discover my tastes.
After you see in the book’s photos that you like decomposed granite or urbanite, you could go on Pinterest or do a Google image search to find more ideas along those lines.
Photos reprinted with permission from Lawn Gone! Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard by Pam Penick (Ten Speed Press, 2013).