Grassed Out Has Big Dreams for Her Small Space
An example of how replacing lawn can transform a yard from blah to fabulous
Dear Avant Gardener, Would you please suggest some low-growing, easy-care groundcovers to replace my lawn? Our historic home in a small city has a sunny, fenced 20 by 30 foot backyard. It’s currently covered in a sad mix of clover, crabgrass and dead grass. The area doesn’t get much traffic, but we’d like to be able to entertain groups occasionally, so I want to keep it low and open. Wants but not needs: I love purple. And if there’s anything that might work for a putting green, please suggest it! I’ve always dreamed of playing mini-golf in my backyard. — Grassed Out, Delaware
Congratulations for taking this step toward breaking up with your lawn! You’re in good company. In “There’s a water crisis. Why do we still have lawns?” in the Washington Post, Dan Zak writes:
Over the past 50 years, we’ve slowly fallen out of love with lawns. They began to signal waste, disregard, disharmony, homogeneity, gentrification, zombie Boomerism.
Clearly, ending our collective dependence on turf grass is a long, slow process. And with all the disdain of a really, really bad relationship! Yet, 40 million acres of turf grass are still under cultivation, making it our nation’s biggest irrigated crop.
That’s why I’m especially impressed that you are considering moving on despite still desiring your lawn’s biggest asset – its use for recreation. So let’s see how playing the field might look.
A yard that brings something to the relationship
You specify two uses for your yard – mini-golf and occasional social gatherings. What fun you’ll have creating a fantasy world around your mini-golf course, as well as playing on it and sharing it with your guests.
My recommendation for your putting green is artificial turf. Its fine texture and evenness allows the ball the roll smoothly. It also drains well and requires no mowing, fertilizer, herbicides, or irrigation. You can add ecological value – and visual interest – by incorporating native perennials into the fantasy world around the fairway and putting green.
Make sure to put some seating at the far end of your yard to draw people through the course and encourage them to admire it from various perspectives. You might even consider putting your outdoor dining area at the far end of your fairway, which will serve as a three feet by 20 or 30 foot path winding through your yard. (See my post on design attributes for a restorative landscape for more inspiration.)
Groundcovers without chemical dependency
For other walkable areas, plant large patches of common blue violets (Viola sororia), creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), and common selfheal (Prunella vulgaris). These perennials native to much of North America together offer purple blooms from March until September, stay under about six inches, and stand up to foot traffic. They also adapt to many growing conditions and do not require soil preparation, mowing, fertilizer nor, once established, watering. (You may want to mow to four to six inches each spring to keep other plants from establishing among them, however.)
I am confident you will be delighted – day after day – by your transformed yard. As Larry Fossan, facility manager and landscape supervisor at Sun City in Henderson, Nevada, told Dan Zak:
There’s flowers, color, butterflies, hummingbirds,” Fossan says of lawnless living. “Different parts of the day you see different things. We have boulders so people can sit and be part of the landscape. When we had grass, people just walked into the building, but now they’ll stop and ‘ooh’ and ‘ah.’ Landscaping is meant to be interactive. It’s meant to be part of your life.
Read on for related “Why, How, Wow!” images, plus resources on how to kill or remove your turf and buy seeds or plugs to establish native groundcovers in its place.
— The Avant Gardener
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Why, How, Wow!
Want to know more about how to replace your lawn with native plants? Read Margaret Roach’s excellent “Yes, You Can Do Better Than the Great American Lawn” and its sequel “Your Lawn Questions, Answered.”
Want to see more pics and read how Bruce Stillman created a mini golf course in his yard? Read “Miniature in Game Only.”
Curious how “Violets Go Ballistic?” Read and watch video at Sidewalk Nature.
Want to find nurseries selling Mid-Atlantic native plants and seeds? Check out Choose Natives.