America’s love affair with the lawn gets messy | House and garden

WHITE PLAINS, NY — LeighAnn Ferrara transforms her small suburban garden from grass fringed by a few shrubs into an anti-lawn — a patchwork quilt of flower beds, veg and fruit trees.

It didn’t happen all at once, says the mother of two small children. “We started covering and planting small sections of the lawn with cardboard and mulch each year, and by now the front yard is probably three-quarters planting beds,” she says. “Every year we do more.”

Their perennials and native plants require less maintenance and water than lawn grass. And she doesn’t need herbicides or pesticides—she doesn’t strive for emerald perfection.

For generations, the lawn—that neat, green carpet of grass with no weeds—dominated American gardens. It still does. But a wave of gardeners, landscapers, and homeowners concerned about the environment see it as an anachronism, even a threat.

Like Ferrara, they pick on it.

“America is unique in its fixation on the monoculture turf,” says Dennis Liu, vice president of education at the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation in Durham, North Carolina. “Our English heritage is our own little tidy green space.”

Now, drought, collapsing insect populations, and other environmental issues—in different ways, in different places—are underscoring the need for more types of plants in spaces large and small.

Some people are experimenting with “greener” lawns, seed mixes you can buy with native grasses that aren’t as thirsty or fussy. Others mow less and tolerate old enemies like dandelions and clover. Still others are trying to replace lawns entirely or gradually with garden beds filled with pollinator-friendly and edible plants.

It all results in a more relaxed, wild looking garden.

“The more you can let your little piece that you’re stewarding go with the flow of nature, the better off everyone is,” says Liu.

In water-stressed states, many homeowners long ago swapped lawn grass for less thirsty options, including succulents and gravel.

Elsewhere, the pandemic has accelerated the trend away from turf. Gardening exploded as a hobby, and many non-gardeners were spending more time at home, paying more attention to the nature around them.

Municipalities across the country are distributing lawn signs entitled to brag about “healthy gardens” to homeowners who avoid lawn chemicals or mow less often. Many cities are proposing regulations on common tools like gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers, mainly because of noise.

“Many people interested in gardening have come to realize that it can no longer be just decorative. It has to serve some other purpose, be it food, habitat… Pack as many uses as you can,” says Alicia Holloway, an agent with the University of Georgia Extension in Barrow County. “It’s a rethinking, in terms of aesthetics.”

Monrovia, a major grower of plants for nurseries and other outlets, has seen a lot of interest in a “garden of abundance” trend — a more “lively” garden with a variety of plants, says Katie Tamony, the company’s trend watcher. She says it’s a way of thinking about your garden “as if it’s not just yours, but part of a more beautiful, larger world that we’re trying to create”.

Plants that attract pollinators were the most desirable category in a survey of Monrovia’s customers, she said.

And yet. The lawn isn’t going away anytime soon.

Many homeowners associations still have rules for well-kept yards. And lawn care is usually focused on the maintenance of grassy areas.

Andrew Bray, vice president of government relations at the National Association of Landscape Professionals, a trade group, says turf is still the most popular choice. People want well-maintained outdoor spaces to relax, play, and entertain.

He says his group supports the goal of making lawn care greener but believes some recent regulations, such as those against gas-powered blowers and mowers, have created a “tense political environment”. He says electric alternatives to these tools aren’t yet feasible for the large lawns professionals handle.

With Voices for Healthy Green Spaces, the specialist group landscape gardeners set up a new public platform this year to present itself from their side. “Whether people want a big garden, plant a forest of trees in their backyard, or want a lawn and unstructured plantings,” he said, all are green options.

Those who worry that grass lawns won’t be able to help pollinators and other species face a different problem. “A lot of people don’t want bees — they’re afraid of nature,” says Holloway, Georgia’s counselor. “I think that’s changing, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Replacing grass also requires patience. “One of the best parts of my job is site visits. I go into backyards that people have been working on for 20, 30 years and it has helped me break the mindset that everything has to be done at once. It really takes time,” says Holloway, to create a garden that’s not just grass, it’s plants.

And it’s hard to break through tradition and neighborhood expectations. A lawn “looks neat and it’s easy to do what you’re doing,” says Liu. But “once you’ve struck the new balance, it’s easier, it pays off for all those benefits.”

Some neighbors might see a lawned yard “and think, ‘There’s the crazy guy,'” he says. “But a lot of people are just going to think it’s so cool.”


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