“We like to say we are in the lawn elimination business here,” explains Jessica, exuberantly. Jessica is a Horticulturalist and Sales Associate at Natureworks Horticultural Services in Northford, an organic garden center and landscape design company that has been in business for 40 years. She has been there for the last five.
I’ve made the trek down here, and undertaken this investigation, for a slightly selfish reason. Late last year, I was fortunate to become a homeowner for the first time. Living in apartments for years, I had gotten used to the idea of decorating, organizing, and maintaining a living space, but a single-family house brings with it a new challenge: a yard. As the seasons have changed and the snow has given way to spring, I’ve had to turn my attention from inside my new home to out. With near-infinite choices in front of me, there is only one thing I know for certain: I don’t want a lawn I have to mow or water regularly. As it turns out, I’m not alone.
Lawns take up more space than you might think. According to a 2012 survey, turfgrass covers around 2% of the landmass of the continental U.S. — or about the same amount as all the wheat crops grown domestically. While lawns serve a purpose — helping to restore groundwater, locking down topsoil, and sequestering a small amount of carbon — the varieties of grass used in the household lawn aren’t native species. As a result, they require frequent attention and resources from weekly mowing to water and fertilizer.
The EPA estimates that around a third of all water use nationwide is spent on landscaping, amounting to 9 billion gallons of water per day. With droughts and concerns over dropping pollinator populations, some homeowners have become interested in a different route, one that satisfies a desire for environmental friendliness while still requiring minimal effort to keep everything alive.
Enter, native lawns.
The last several years have seen growth in the popularity of alternative lawns. Some homeowners are looking for a climate-friendly alternative to grass that requires fewer resources to maintain and others simply don’t want to spend time, energy, and money maintaining something of low value to them.
For Natureworks, turfgrass is an enemy. “It is all one plant or a few different varieties of grass, but it does not produce seed,” explains Jessica. “It takes up a tremendous amount of water. You see people out in the heat of the summer in a drought watering their lawn and you want to shake your fist at them and say, stop!”
Jessica also points to carbon emissions and noise pollution from the frequent use of gas-powered mowers as another reason to consider a low-maintenance alternative. Plus, she says, turfgrass is boring.
“You look out into a neighborhood like this and you see mostly turf,” says Jessica, gesturing toward the residential neighborhood surrounding Natureworks. “It’s sad. It makes me sad because there’s nothing happening and there could be so much more happening there.”
Ultimately, for Jessica and Natureworks, the goal is to give everyone an opportunity to become a gardener, replacing their lawns with colorful flowering gardens full of native plants that can provide homes and food for bees, butterflies and other insects and small creatures. But that’s not the only reason.
“There’s definite personal benefits,” she argues. “You will enjoy your yard more, cause you’ll see so much more activity. And you’re also inspiring people. We sell a lot of cute little signs that, you know, pollinator-friendly garden, pesticide-free garden to try to get people in your neighborhood a little bit more excited about what you’re doing.”
Jessica also recognizes that taking on a major gardening task can be an intimidating prospect. There is much to learn, many plants to choose from, and nothing makes your lawn look bigger than the prospect of ripping it all out and starting over.
“If you have a small little property, you could probably do it all at once, but it can be a little bit overwhelming,” she sympathizes. “But there are strategies that make it more bearable.”
One of those strategies is called passive bed preparation, where you choose a small section of your yard to work on at a time and set about killing all the grass, weeds, and other plants growing there. You do this through a technique called smothering.
“You can use either tarps or cardboard or newsprint, and you put that down on the turf and leave it there and just kind of forget about it,” explains Jessica. “I call it the lazy gardener’s method.”
After a couple of months, all the grass under that material should be dead and the ground ready for planting.
“Every year I’ll kind of pick a new little section, maybe like 50 square feet,” says Jessica, who has slowly been replanting a one-acre property. “Smother it, wait a couple months, pull the tarp back, and then start planting with shrubs, with perennials, with whatever calls to you.”
Of course, she knows that switching from a lawn to a highly designed garden can be daunting for homeowners.
“That’s the advantage of turf that people like. It’s easier to maintain,” admits Jessica. “Gardens do take a lot of work. You’ve gotta weed, you’ve gotta prune, you’ve gotta feed. Whereas with grass, you just fire up the mower, mow it down once a week and you’re good.”
Grass also maintains a “classic” lawn look, allowing you to keep your curb appeal without the effort – or risk – of a garden. And it plays an important role in helping to maintain the nutrients in your soil. Open spaces in a lawn can provide space where weeds can grow, but exposed soil also can be moved by wind or water.
“You want to preserve your topsoil,” explains Victoria Wallace, the Sustainable Turf and Landscapes Extension Educator at the University of Connecticut. “You want to maintain the soil that has taken years, millions of years, to develop.”
For Wallace, sustainable lawn care involves intentional decisions and making sure you’ve done your homework. She recommends deciding what you want from your lawn and the environment your lawn creates and then choosing grasses that meet your needs and priorities.
“I’m a proponent of enhancing the landscape and reducing inputs,” Wallace explains. “And so that doesn’t mean abolishing turfgrass. Turfgrass has a big value.“
Wallace works primarily with commercial clients and municipalities, helping them figure out sustainable ways to create recreational green space that requires as little input as possible, whether water or chemical.
For homeowners, Wallace says grass can enhance a garden area by drawing the eye to flowers and shrubs, and it provides space for kids and pets and other outdoor recreation. She also notes that old-school turfgrasses don’t have to be resource intensive, as long as you approach things with care and attention to detail.
Homeowners, much more so than the commercial landscapers Wallace usually works with, can benefit from better awareness of water use.
“A good number of the landscape professionals who work for a municipality are monitoring their water use,” she explains. “On the other hand, most homeowners have never tracked their water consumption, never really paid any attention to it.”
That overuse of water isn’t just from watering the lawn and garden. If water conservation is your main goal, Wallace recommends getting a complete picture of where you’re using water inside your home, as well as out.
There is a middle ground between a high-maintenance turf lawn – one that requires regular watering and frequent mowing – and completely ditching grass for flowers and shrubs.
“We carry a product called Eco Lawn, which is a — they market it as a low mow grass,” explains Jessica. “It’s a different blend of grasses, not necessarily native grasses, but it’s a grass that you wouldn’t be mowing multiple times a year.”
Eco Lawn requires mowing only about two to four times a year, depending on how long you want it, and it is a much fluffier-looking grass than the crisp, spartan look you might associate with perfectly manicured lawns. Jessica notes that this isn’t a grass you’d want for high-traffic areas, places kids or pets are likely to run and play, but it’s a nice looking alternative.
“Another thing that we will help customers with a lot is using clover seed to overseed your lawn.”
Jessica recommends Dutch clover as a turf replacement in some cases even though it isn’t a native plant because it is drought resistant and grows easily.
“I call it my magic fairy dust for the lawn,” she says. “I just kind of walk around and scatter it everywhere.”
One reason Jessica loves clover is that it is a flowering lawn cover that provides food for pollinators better than standard turf. Plus, it provides food for a certain garden nemesis.
“It feeds the rabbits and I like it because it keeps the rabbits outta my garden. They love the clover. So if they have a good patch of clover to munch on, they will leave your perennials alone.”
Wallace also notes that clover or certain sedges can be incorporated into traditional grass mixtures to lower the amount of input or maintenance.
Experts, including Wallace, also acknowledge a drawback of clover. Since it is a perennial itself, it dies back in the colder months rather than going dormant like most grasses. This can leave patches of bare dirt which can mean a risk of soil erosion and muddy areas during the wetter spring months before it begins to grow back.
“People definitely overuse chemicals on their lawn, which is another component that makes lawns just not super sustainable or good for the environment,” says Jessica, as the conversation turns to pesticides. “Don’t use herbicides. Dandelions aren’t hurting anybody.”
In particular, Jessica is concerned about the broad herbicides sold in most hardware or big box stores that turn a lawn from a functioning ecosystem, into a green desert.
“Roundup is a product that’s really commonly used on lawns and it’s what’s known as a broad leaf herbicide,” she explains. “So it kills anything that is not a grass.” That includes things like clover.
She points out two nearby lawns. One is pristine, a smooth green well-maintained turf, while the other is dotted with yellow dandelions.
“Anytime you see just grass and nothing else growing in it,” she says, sadly. “It means that they have taken a chemical and just blanketed the entire property with that chemical and killed anything that is not a grass, which gives you that uniform look, but also dumps a bunch of chemicals into the soil.”
Natureworks is an organic nursery and garden center, so they advocate strongly for organic lawn care products that don’t use chemicals that can contaminate soil and groundwater or runoff into sewer systems. The focus is on providing those foods and habitats for wildlife, moving toward a more organic beauty than a perfectly flat green surface.
Wallace isn’t as strict about organic versus synthetic products but says there is another reason to limit the number of products you’re using on your lawn.
“In the agriculture arena, they’ve named it as a pesticide. In human health, it’s a medicine. It’s the same thing. It’s killing a pest,” explains Wallace. “So certainly you don’t want to over use a product. Just as too much or over use of an antibiotic is not a good thing, that you can build up a tolerance, you can do the same thing in the environment in terms of constant application of an herbicide.”
Whatever you’re going to use, Wallace cautions to use it only as needed and to change up your products so pests, fungi, or weeds don’t become resistant to those products.
If you do decide to take the Natureworks route and jump into gardening, you’re now faced with a whole new set of decisions. What plants do you want to use? This is where native plants will save time and trouble, even if you aren’t able to use all the varieties you might want.
“The more functional plants are gonna be the ones that are native,” says Jessica. “We kind of would categorize or grade a plant based on how many species it can support.”
Better plants, in their eyes, are those that support as many wildlife varieties as possible including insects – especially bees and butterflies — and small mammals. New England has plenty of beautiful plants to choose from, including some that are both aesthetic and edible.
“Blueberries,” says Jessica when I ask where a homeowner might start. “Blueberries is a quintessential plant that humans love. Also happens to be native. Produces flowers, which provides pollen for pollinators, berries for birds, berries for humans. So it kind of, it checks all the boxes. So we’re looking at that plant as something that is, is super functional.”
There are plenty of native shrub varieties to choose from if you’re looking to add curb appeal and fill in larger areas in front of a home. Some even maintain the look of traditional evergreen bushes while requiring, you guessed it, less maintenance.
“It’s really just about making different plant choices,” says Jessica. “A quintessential plant that we use a lot is ilex glabra, which is inkberry holly. Okay. It looks, looks just like boxwood, but it’s so much better than boxwood.”
Inkberry is less susceptible to disease, fungus, and harmful insects than boxwood.
“Ilex glabra is native, evergreen, produces berries for the birds,” Jessica continues. “It has that neat, tidy, little cute fluff ball shrub appearance. So there are plants that are kind of that, that look similar to what you might see in a traditional foundation planting, but have that kind of native twist to it.”
Another benefit to native planting: they are much more robust when it comes to standing up against New England’s notoriously unpredictable seasons.
“I especially think of native shrubs as plants that compared to non-native shrubs are just able to roll with the punches of our weather a little bit better,” says Jessica.
Then there is the matter of droughts. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, droughts in the last eight years have been more severe than any since the mid-1960s. Additionally, the Northeast regularly experiences what are called “flash droughts,” or dry periods that last only a few months and are followed by extreme wet weather. While not as devastating as long-term droughts, flash droughts can result in crop loss and water shortages. Water conservation during a drought is essential, which means choosing plants that can stand up to low rainfall seasons.
“We’re definitely shifting towards plants that are — and drought is one component — but really it’s plants that are adaptable to a wide range of conditions,” Jessica explains. “Like we had a really dry early portion of the season and then we got four inches of rain in like one day. And so it’s really the climate change effect that we’re seeing is less consistency and predictability.”
Regardless of what approach you take and what plants you choose, you should be prepared for a lot of learning and a ton of trial and error. The best weapon is good information.
“It’s a matter of the right plant for the right place too,” advises Jessica. “There are lots of perennials, lots of shrubs that can take drought. There are also lots of perennial shrubs that can take wet soil, which is another, we see a lot of customers who have really wet swampy areas too. So, you just have to carefully assess your property.”
If you’re not sure how to assess your soil’s quality and pH balance, Jessica recommends sending a sample out for testing. UConn provides soil testing at each of its eight county extentions and online. It provides a standard series of tests for $15. This includes a rundown of soil nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, sulfur, iron, and others, as well as pH. Additional tests, like those that tell you how much sand or clay or other materials your soil contains, can be ordered for an additional cost.
“Knowing what you’re dealing with helps you to make really good, informed plant choices,” says Jessica.