Dear Avant Gardener, We have a lawn dilemma, like many amateur gardeners, I bet. The grass is . . . — Helen, Providence, RI
Before you go on, I have to warn you: I’m no lawn expert. I spent most of my life lawn-less in New York City, then largely ignored the section on turf grasses in the Rhode Island Master Gardener course (sorry, Vanessa). However, you are correct that my readers struggle with a love-hate relationship with lawns. So I’ll answer based on how I’m maintaining my own lawn in Rhode Island.
The grass is reluctant, patchy. Do we need to test and somehow solve what we feel intuitively is deficient soil, before we transition to a different sort of more ecological lawn?
Forget the whole “poor soil” thing, unless you’re planning to grow crops. Instead, encourage plants that thrive in the existing conditions without chemicals or supplemental water. You might enjoy knowing more about your soil — its pH, its composition, the portion of organic material — to help choose “right plant, right place.” But ignore the instructions for amendments that come with the results.
Will we miss the dull, low, bed of grass to cook on, sun on, etc.?
Why not keep lawn you actively use and skip chemicals, irrigation, and gas-powered equipment? That’s doable in the Northeast. I’m going to keep about a quarter of the lawn we inherited, a mix of native violets and non-native clover and turf grasses.
We like the idea of a lawn not being just some perfection of sheared grass, but more natural and with a variety of plants. How do we find, know what plants are native?
Bravo! The perfect lawn is unsustainable. But there’s a limit to the ecological function lawn can play, if by lawn we mean short, dense greenery that withstands regular foot traffic. I suggest you focus on planting natives in areas where you don’t walk, sit, lounge or play. In Rhode Island, you can buy native plants — and receive excellent advice — at Prickly Ed’s.
If you replace turf grass where you want to keep lawn, I recommend Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) and path rush (Juncus tenuis). Read more at “Love the Look and Feel of Grass? These Ground Covers Are for You.”
We like the idea of a lot of clover across the lawn, perhaps some creeping thyme.
We’re leaving the existing clover in our lawn, but not planting any. The most common clovers are invasive. They also fertilize the soil by fixing nitrogen, are drought tolerant, resist pet urine, and remain green throughout the summer. Although clovers nurture honey bees (also imported, FYI) and have some value to native insects, Pennsylvania sedge and other natives are even better. Forget creeping thyme, another invasive.
We have loads of crabgrass.
Crabgrass is an annual warm season grass that takes off just as the rest of your lawn — cool season grasses — starts to struggle in the summer heat. Planting or reseeding bare areas and keeping your lawn mown high (four inches) will shade the soil and reduce germination of crabgrass seeds.
If the depth of the lawn increases to long grass lengths, should we worry about ticks?
Ticks are one reason to mow the areas where you regularly spend time. (Readers in tick-prone areas, see “How to Protect Yourself from Lyme Disease If You Love Wildlife.”)
Should we consider a mulching mower?
Absolutely. It’s a good idea to leave organic material to replenish the soil when you mow — as well as to replace your gas-powered mower with a battery-operated or reel mower. Gas lawn mowers account for 5 percent of total air pollution in the United States.
I see more and more advice to let leaves be, not to rake at all. With nine trees overhanging the yard, the leaves will be inches deep if we don’t rake at all. My husband swears this would kill the grass . . . hmm maybe a good idea?
The shade of those trees probably explains your patchy yard. Even the most shade-tolerant turf grasses need several hours of sun. So while your husband is right that more than an inch or so of leaves left on turf grass will kill it, I’m with you: Leave six to eight inches of leaves in areas where the grass is failing (or where you don’t walk, sit or play) and then plant into them in early spring or in the fall. Pennsylvania sedge, planted from plugs, will work well in the shady areas where you’d like lawn. And kudos for raking instead of mulch (which kills insects and their larvae) or blowing (which pollutes).
Our approach to raking seems to mirror our housework habits: My husband is ultra neat and right angles; me, a more casual relationship with objects. My inclination would be to rake when needed on the grassy areas and not bother much with the areas with plants, flowers, shrubs, and allow the leaves to gather to a natural compost.
I don’t want to sow marital discord, but your inclination is spot on for saving the planet from mass extinction. Perhaps you can allow his neatness to take precedence inside while your more relaxed attitude rules in the garden?
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Lawn care is big business, incented to promote an unsustainable standard that costs billions to maintain:
Now a $60 billion per year industry, lawn grass is the cheapest landscape to plant and the most expensive to maintain. . . . In order to thrive, American lawns consume 20 trillion gallons of water, 90 million pounds of fertilizer, 78 million pounds of pesticides and 600 million gallons of fossil fuels per year. We now know so much more about how dangerous and unnecessary these chemicals are, and how many resources are drained maintaining our yards. — Perfect Earth Project
For more info about natural lawn care, check out the Perfect Earth Project FAQ. If you outsource lawn care, ask your landscaping pros to adhere to their guide (in English and Spanish).
We suggest reducing the size of your lawn to an area rug instead of wall-to-wall carpet. In other words, get rid of your lawn where you no longer need it, and replace it with native plantings. — Perfect Earth Project
Native gardens take a few years to mature, but bright spots like these woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus) planted just months before deliver joy while we wait for our privacy hedge and newly planted plugs to grow. A runner of grass is all that remains of this part of the front lawn.
To test your soil, send a baggie of dirt to a state extension lab. (Rhode Islanders use Connecticut’s, here.)
To search for native plants, run a combination search at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Database.
Looking for a new lawn mower? We like Wirecutter’s top pick. With a small, urban yard, you might get by with a reel mower.