Flowerbeds, emergent edible plants as alternatives to grasses

WHITE PLAINS, NY – LeighAnn Ferrara transforms her small grassy suburban yard lined with a few shrubs into an anti-lawn — a patchwork of flower beds, vegetables and fruit trees.

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

Its perennial and native plants require less maintenance and water than turf. And she doesn’t need herbicides or pesticides – she’s not aiming for emerald perfection.

For generations, the lawn—that neat, green, weedless carpet of grass—has dominated American yards. It’s always like that. But a wave of gardeners, landscapers and owners concerned about the environment now see it as an anachronism, even a threat.

Like Ferrara, they nibble on it.

A front yard in Westchester County, New York, has been converted from lawn to pollinator-friendly native plants.|

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

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

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

All of this leads to a more relaxed and wilder courtship.

“The more you can do with your little piece that you are a steward of to follow the course of nature, the better off everyone is,” Liu says.

In water-scarce states, many homeowners have long since replaced grass with less thirsty options, including succulents and gravel.

Elsewhere, the pandemic has accelerated the trend away from lawns. Gardening has exploded as a hobby, and many non-gardeners have spent more time at home, paying more attention to the natural world around them.

This 2021 image provided by LeighAnn Ferrara shows Ferrara's small yard in White Plains, NY The remaining lawn is now mostly a path between flower beds, vegetables and fruit trees.  Plants shown include hydrangea and viburnum.

This image provided by LeighAnn Ferrara shows her small yard in White Plains, New York. The remaining lawn is now mainly a path between flower beds, vegetables and fruit trees. Plants shown include hydrangea and viburnum.|

Across the country, municipalities are handing out lawn signs with “healthy yard” bragging rights to homeowners who forgo lawn chemicals or mow less often. Many cities impose regulations on common tools such as leaf blowers and gas-powered mowers, primarily because of noise.

“For people interested in gardening, many have realized that it can no longer just be ornamental. It has to serve other purposes, whether it’s food, habitat…pack as many uses as possible,” says Alicia Holloway, an extension worker at the University of Georgia in Barrow County. “It’s a change in thinking, in aesthetics.”

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

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

And yet. The lawn isn’t going away any time soon.

Many homeowners associations still have rules regarding building site maintenance. And lawn services tend to be focused on maintaining grassy areas.

Andrew Bray, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals, a trade group, says lawns are still the dominant choice. People want neat outdoor spaces to relax, play and entertain.

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

The professional group of landscape architects set up a new public platform this year, Voices for Healthy Green Spaces, to present its vision of things. “Whether people want to have a big yard, plant a forest of trees in their backyard, or want grassland and unstructured plantings,” all are green options, he said.

Those concerned that lawns are failing to help pollinators and other species face another problem. “A lot of people don’t want bees – they’re afraid of nature,” says Holloway, the Georgia extension worker. “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 visiting sites. I go to backyards that people have been working on for 20, 30 years, and it’s helped me overcome the mindset that everything has to be done at once. It really takes time” to create a yard that has plantings, rather than just a lawn, says Holloway.

And it is difficult to exceed the tradition and expectations of the neighborhood. A lawn “looks clean and it’s easy to keep doing what you’re doing,” Liu says. But “once you establish the new balance, it’s easier, it brings back all these benefits.”

Some neighbors might see a lawnless yard “and think, here comes the fool,” he says. “But a lot of people will think that’s so cool.”

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