The lone voice of horticultural reason

Gardens, Not Grass Part III

When is the best time to seed a lawn? I say the 1950s, back before anyone gave a hoot about making their landscape pretty, attracting wildlife to their yards, about water conservation, or the effects of millions of acres of lawns being doused spring, summer and fall with toxic-as in toxic-chemicals.

Today, I find vast expanses of lawn boring, lifeless, wasteful, and worst of all, common, a scenario as incomprehensible as everyone choosing to drive Dodge Omnis, or paint their houses, from Maine to California and from Minnesota to Texas, the same color green. In America, of all places! What happened to individuality, the pioneer spirit, creative vision? Or plain, blatant one-upmanship, for that matter? Wake up: any homeowner in America can have a grass lawn, and in fact, does.

When I bought my home, it sat atop its half-acre like a doll house on a pool table, except there were several spots-under oaks, a good portion of both side yards, and the shady half of the back-where the felt didn’t grow too well. There were just enough wispy, thin grass blades mixed amongst the moss in these areas to tell me the previous owners had sincerely tried to grow a lawn, and failed.

So one suggestion is to stop trying to grow grass where it doesn’t want to grow, and grow something else. My next-door neighbor has a big patch of front yard under tall trees where he gave up trying to grow grass years ago, and planted hostas instead. He started out with some old dogs he had in back, plus a few newer varieties he picked up at the garden store. I gave him a few, he picked up more from other neighbors, then after three years he spent a few hours dividing and replanting them, and now his front lawn contains this giant, gorgeous hosta glade that people stop and point at. When was the last time someone stopped and pointed at your lawn?

I’ve completely done away with grass in both my side lawns. The east side is now set for planting as a low-maintenance shade garden; I’m going to install an irrigation system, so upkeep will be minimal. On the west side, grass did poorly from front to back, so I plan to rototill the whole stretch-180′ x 15′-and seed it with a native woodland/shade perennial mix, run sprinklers until it germinates, then let nature take its course. What flourishes and blooms with the sunlight and moisture nature provides will take over, and what doesn’t like it there will die, and three years from now it should be darned attractive. The bees, butterflies and birds will certainly think so.

Hills are another strange place for grass. If your house sits up high and the yard zooms and rolls down away from it, why have a grass lawn? For the challenge of that seventy-foot, bouncing, downhill croquet shot? The thrill of rolling the Toro? “Come on son, let’s step out to the hill and work on pop flies.” There’s just no good reason.

Hills are what shrubs, terraced gardens, ornamental trees, tall grasses and groundcovers are for. You could make your hill an ever-changing sculpture of color, shape and form, giving your property a different, noble look spring, summer, fall and winter. For help and ideas, call the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, visit their library, call the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association, interview landscape designers until you find one whose eyes light up.

But a word of caution. I’ve never forgotten an article in the Star Tribune from ten years ago about the Edina woman who removed the sod from her long back hill- she thought, why am I mowing and watering this?-and planted it with crown vetch (not a bad choice). It was only a matter of time before her neighborhood PC Lawn Police anonymously reported her to the city, and asked that the situation be corrected. The woman wasn’t growing grass!

Keep in mind, this was ten years ago, and it was, after all, Edina, but be aware that you are about to become a trend-setter, a pioneer-a Renegade Gardener to the fullest. Be resolute, assured. The quote from the poor woman in the paper, defending her choice of crown vetch, was priceless: “I bought it at Bachman’s, for heaven’s sake!”

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener