After delineating many great reasons to shrink your lawn in last month’s column, Julie and I figured that we should give a few instructions on how to go about accomplishing this change. Some of you are hands-on gardeners who will make these changes yourselves. Others prefer to think, point and pay the bill. Either way, here is how to begin.
The first step is to evaluate how much turf you actually need. If you have energetic young children or love to play badminton and croquet, you may want to keep a small panel of grass specifically for these uses. Dogs are less particular. Our two shepherds are perfectly happy running on the driveway or along the paths and trails through our garden and woods. Yes, they have made a runway through one place in the groundcover, but by using some decorative iron hoops, Julie has managed to direct their path to a place that suits her. And I have used buffalograss in their dog run to soften the gravel expanse.
The next step is to choose the type of treatment for each area. The design concept that drives us to overuse lawns in the first place stems from a desire to have open space in our landscape. We want to have wide vistas to show off our home’s architecture, to create an inviting entry for guests, or to enjoy an outward-facing view. Lawns serve as the lowest height element of the three dimensional landscapes. Other options include panels of gravel or paving, large areas of unplanted mulch, or carpets of low-growing plants in monoculture or mixed plantings. There are assets and limitations for each type of treatment.
Hardscape solutions to the open space question include traditional brick terraces, asphalt or concrete surfaces, and gravel or stonescapes as one might see in a Japanese garden or xeriphytic (dry garden) design. Green twists on each of these elements allow homeowners to choose environment-friendly options. Using stepping stones to finish large open areas can work quite well. Gravel can be a good option for the finished surface, with steppers or alone, if tree roots need to be protected. Be a good neighbor by channeling rainwater runoff from your solid surfaces into planted retention swales managed as rain gardens (see the new display at the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden). Or simply design a rock garden or rocky dry stream (details in an upcoming column) to fill a large space with interest.
A fresh new treatment option for hard finishes includes pattern-stamped asphalt. The Missouri Botanical Garden has used this method effectively in garden areas where brick or stamped concrete alternatives were too costly. It can be applied over existing asphalt, so less waste is created, and the process is faster and less messy than other options. After installation, the surface can be painted with epoxy to color coordinate with other landscape elements.
The open greenscape can be built on masses of low-growing plants grouped to fill in the space that is no longer grass. Our goal is to increase seasonal color and interest in your garden, add habitat contributions like runoff control and food for birds and butterflies, with plants that are reasonably trouble-free and very low-growing.
The closest replacement for the traditional lawn is another kind of grass, our native buffalograss. Recent breeding and trial programs at the University of Nebraska have resulted in several improved selections. Through the wholesale grower Todd Valley Farms, plugs and sod for ‘Legacy’ very low and fine with good cold tolerance and ‘Prestige’ slightly taller and more disease resistant, have come into the trade. These plants are grown from vegetative clones and provided with superior habits, like the absence of flowers (and therefore pollen), making them a good choice for people with allergies.
Prairie dropseed grass (Sporobolus heterolepis) is another option. It seems to be relatively low in most plantings, but may billow up to three feet in a perfect bed. I recommend it anyway because it is a consistent favorite for our growing conditions. Thriving in hot, dry locations, it can be planted in sweeping masses to fill large, open beds. It was recognized as a Plant of Merit in 2006, a well-deserved designation for such a lovely, space-filling grass that undulates with gentle motion in any light breeze, has seasonal interest as the seeds form, and a light, pleasant fragrance from its tiny flowers.