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Time to think outside the lawn

Adrian Higgins
The Washington Post
A community of plants can slow draingage on a slope or serve as a rain garden. Illustrates GREENSCENE (category l), by Joel M. Lerner, special to The Washington Post. Moved Monday, June 29, 2009. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Sandra Leavitt Lerner.)
THE WASHINGTON POST | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON – When the suburb was invented in the 19th century, a pattern of landscaping was established that remains dominant, if not bullying.

Here’s the deal: Place the house back from the street, hide its ankles with foundation shrubs, and give the intervening space over to lawn and perhaps a tree. It’s easy, it’s passive and it fits a long-held notion that one front yard should flow into the next in an unspoken gesture of neighborliness, even patriotism.

But isn’t it at the core of American values to express ourselves freely? So let’s toss the turf.

Fortunately, you don’t have to look too far these days to find homeowners who have rejected the model and have turned their former lawns into ornamental gardens. They have built a space that is more interesting, more welcoming to wildlife and, contrary to expectations, brings neighbors closer together.

For many converts, a major aim of going turfless is to reduce the damage their lawn would otherwise do to the environment by avoiding pesticides and chemical fertilizers as well as by trapping storm water that can pollute waterways.

“The most harm we are doing in our gardens is related to lawn care, and awareness of that is growing,” said Susan Harris, a garden blogger (www.gardenrant.com) and activist in Takoma Park, Md., who last year helped form a nationwide group called the Lawn Reform Coalition. Harris put a low fence around her front yard after removing the lawn and planting a decorative garden of herbs and low-growing ground covers.

For many gardeners who have replaced their lawns, the shift is as much or more about finding additional real estate to play with plants as it is about going green. Wouldn’t you rather look out your window to, say, drifts of lavender in June, or black-eyed Susans now, or asters in September and October, than to see a thinning and weedy lawn?

Textures of tall grasses and perennials animate the garden beds between the sidewalk and the elevated porch of Suzanne Hubbard’s cedar shingle house, also in Takoma Park. Hubbard, a weaver, worked with landscape architect Holt Jordan to create a garden that was natural without becoming wild. Jordan, mindful that a personal front garden still needed to connect to the neighborhood, designed a stone path that produced a strong diagonal link between the street and the house, a Sears kit bungalow from the 1930s.

A perimeter hedge of privet, a demanding evergreen that is rarely handsome in Washington, was replaced with cherry laurel and three pink flowering crape myrtles, now tall screens clouded with flowers. The central bed has been a stage for corn, wheat, sunflowers and switchgrass over the years. Now it is defined by feather reed grass, which has a rare quality of being upright but not stiff, dancing in the slightest breeze.

Hubbard points out a pleasing color combination, the blue of the fading lavender next to the red blades of Japanese blood grass and the mustard-yellow umbels of the self-seeded fennel. These assembled colors are low-key, more evident to the weaver than the gardener, possibly.

She says she is mindful that each little detail of the garden – a yarrow flowering, a bulb emerging – is part of a whole. For her, these are the threads running through a garden. Hubbard is also amazed at the sequential and concurrent cycles of growth, flowering and decline. “It’s all synchronistic; everything grows on time,” she says.