Monday, August 22, 2011

Garden Designers Roundtable: Lawn Alternatives

Landscaping without lawn? Hellllooooo... It's called a garden

A large home is nestled into an awkward corner lot by a lush, lawn-free garden.*

I don't hate lawns. In fact, I have a nice little patch of bluegrass myself. What I do hate, are lawns in inappropriate places where they are wasting resources and not contributing to the function or aesthetics of a landscape.  Lawns work well as active play spaces for people and pets, and as "circulation corridors" through landscapes. Thanks to their uniform color and texture, lawns often serve as a  place for the eye to rest within an area of visual intensity.  My goal, as a professional landscape designer, is to help homeowners identify areas within a landscape where alternative plantings and/or hardscaping could substitute for a traditional lawn.

In October of 2005 I launched a new class at Denver Botanic Gardens called "Landscaping Without Lawn." In a region where many gardeners embrace the concept of Xeriscape, the move to lawn-free landscaping seemed like the obvious next step.  However, I soon realized that the biggest challenge facing most homeowners is the inability to visualize gardens as a larger, interactive, three dimensional space instead of the shallow perimeter/foundation plantings that are more familiar.  So begin with small steps and build on your successes.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

Remove lawns where they struggle to survive.
This one seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes we are blind to the most obvious things! Get your lawn out of the deep shade, off the dry slope, and away from the burning pavement (i.e. the classic "hell strip" between the sidewalk and street).

The hot "no mans' land" between driveways is now a tough and attractive privacy garden.

This clever, serpentine hedge makes for a low care and low water "hell strip."

A difficult slope is tamed with stone terraces and colorful, xeric plants.

Remove lawns where they are hard to maintain.
Target narrow side-yards,  areas around trees and shrubs, and spaces smaller than 12' x 12'. Mowing, trimming, fertilizing and watering these small, awkward areas are difficult and time consuming; a real pain in the neck.  Who needs it?

Groundcover to the rescue!

Remove lawns where they are not being used for active play or entertainment.
Most of the lawn-free landscapes that I see (and design) are in front yards. These are typically smaller spaces that can become beautiful showcases for your home.

Big boulders for structure and a succession of colorful plantings for year-round interest.

A shallow front yard is given more depth with added paths and sculptural plantings.

Ready to tackle a larger area or go completely lawn-free? 

Create places to go and things to do.
Reduce large spaces into smaller areas and organize your landscape via hardscaping.  These, in turn, will inform the size, shape, and nature of your garden spaces.  For example:

An underused, but nicely shaded, space converted to a large patio.*
  • Include destination seating areas or secondary entertaining/play spaces. A few years ago I saw a front lawn that had been replaced by an inviting entry patio and bocci court (sorry, no photo!) surrounded by informal plantings. Prefer peace and quiet? A labyrinth would be a wonderful option.
Take a seat in the garden.
  • Add a designated food production area, i.e. a series of raised beds or an orchard.
  • Create walkways to take you from Point A to Point B to Point C, etc., and also allow you easier access into deeper gardens. Walkways with high traffic should be wider and built of sturdy, permanent materials. Stepping stones are great for paths with less traffic, or they could even be more trail-like.
Secondary walkways and destination seating areas help tame a big area.*
  • Use permeable surfaces like crushed rock, dry-laid flagstone, or decking as often as possible.
  • Incorporate focal points that will provide both: visual focus and movement through the landscape.  See the previous Garden Designers' Roundtable post on this topic here
Water is always welcome in the garden, even in its simplest forms.
    Choose appropriate plants.
    Trees, shrubs, perennial flowers, grasses and vines can all be used to great effect when converting a lawn to a garden. Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing plants:

    • The majority of plants should be hardy for your region and long-lived, and easy to maintain.
    Celebrate the plants that love to live where you live!*
    • In areas with a long winter season, about 30% of your plants should have evergreen or ever-present foliage (many plants with blue or gray foliage hold onto their leaves when dormant).
    The predominant, blue flowering plant here is semi-evergreen Veronica pectinata.
    • In my opinion, a combination of woody plants (trees and shrubs), ornamental grasses, and true groundcovers (creeping, or large mat-forming perennials) is the best balance of plant interest to level of maintenance required.

    Think, Gradation and Repetition.
    Gradation is a principle of art and design that refers to the transition between opposites.  When designing your garden areas - large or small - site the largest/tallest plants first, then expand outwards with, first, the medium,  then small, and finally, smallest plants. This technique will help you create a garden that is full of fluid visual movement instead of jerky stops and starts.

    Repetition is a principle of art and design that can be applied to landscaping in terms of creating visual mass and unity.  Large scale lawn-free plantings benefit from large, single species plant groups for higher visual impact. Repeated use of a particular plant, or color (like the blue/gray foliage in the photo below) will carry the eye through the landscape and give it continuity.

    A gardener's garden of woody plants, perennials and  ornamental grasses.*

    Still a bit overwhelmed?
    Contact me for a personal consultation, coaching session or landscape design!

    And read on --- join my fellow members of the Garden Designers' Roundtable  and our special guests from the  Lawn Reform Coalition for more, much more, on  Lawn Alternatives:
     (and no, you’re not seeing double, Susan Harris has contributed two posts!)

    Susan Harris : Garden Rant : Takoma Park, MD
    Susan Harris : Gardener Susan’s Blog : Takoma Park, MD
    Billy Goodnick : Cool Green Gardens : Santa Barbara, CA
    Evelyn Hadden : Lawn Reform.Org : Saint Paul, MN
    Saxon Holt : Gardening Gone Wild : Novato, CA
    Ginny Stibolt : Florida Native Plant Society : Green Cove Springs, FL
    Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA
    Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA
    Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT
    Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA
    Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA
    Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX
    Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
    Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA
    Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA
    Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA
    Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN
    Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

    *Landscape design by Jocelyn H. Chilvers. All others of unknown origion.


    1. Very inspiring. We hope to someday get rid of the massive lawn in the front of our house.

    2. Awesome! What beautiful and inspiring photos. In my area, the largest issue with lawn is the lack of any contribution to wildlife. We get such ample rainfall that even if you never water your lawn, it is only brown for about three months of the year.
      So replacing lawn with such a lovely array of colors and plants that can help support pollinators and birds is a wonderful contribution, even minus any issues with water. And man, so beautiful!
      Thanks for sharing such a great set of photos.

    3. What a great primer. Now I have taken your class....

    4. Deb, based on what I've seen of your backyard, I'm sure your front yard will be stunning!

      Gen, thanks for your comments! I agree that beyond the boring visuals, a lawn-based landscape is sorry excuse for a habitat!

      Saxon, I think we are on the same page regarding the issue of lawns vs. gardens!

    5. Anonymous6:09 PM MDT

      Lovely photos! And you hit on one of my pet peeves - lawn on slopes! There's a big one I go by on my morning walk, and it drives me nuts when the sprinklers are on and the sidewalk and streets just floods! Your option is not only more sustainable, it's SO much more attractive!

    6. I feel as if I've just taken a design class, Jocelyn. Very nice job with this post and illustrating photos! It'll be a great inspiration to your readers.

    7. Susan, there are lots of solutions for gardening on slopes (I have a class for that, too - ha!)that are more sensible than a lawn. Glad you liked this example!

      Thanks for stopping by, Pam - I'm sooooo excited for you about your new book deal!

    8. Jocelyn, First, I must tell you I love you title...I laughed out loud when I read it! Second, you've articulated an issue I run across when I teach classes too. So often homeowners think of the garden as beds that surround the house rather than looking at their entire property as 'the garden'. Your photos are so inspiring. What's the low grass in front of the little bluestem? I love the contrast of the tussled grass against the vertical one.

    9. Always happy when I can elicit a smile, Debbie! That low grass is our native, short prairie buffalo grass. It's a warm season grass that makes a terrific lawn alternative *if* you have full sun and not too much foot traffic.

    10. Jocelyn, that is a masterclass!

    11. The ideas are really amazing.... I'd love to work in the same fashion.... I've some clients who don't have enough space in front of their house and wanted to have a patch or a small lawn.. This might definitely work for them.... Thanks for the idea....

      Garden Designers London

    12. Thanks so much Rahul and TGD! I find inspiration from British/European gardens - it always helps to look at ideas with the "will this specific plant grow here" focus removed from the equation. Hope to see you here again!

    13. Thank you for sharing these inspiring photographs with intelligent points. These are great Garden Designers tips!!

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