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July 17, 2013

Creativity by the yard: Thinking beyond grass

Grass isn’t always the best ground covers for a yard: It’s thirsty at a time when water is becoming scarce, it attracts fewer pollinators, it requires expensive chemicals to maintain, and it must be disposed of if you bag as you mow.

That’s why many property owners are downsizing their lawns or simply eliminating turf grass in exchange for something more functional and less demanding.

“We’re recommending ecosystem changes provided by a more productive landscape, instead of a monoculture from grass,” says Susan Barton, an extension horticulturist with the University of Delaware. “A lawn should not be a default vegetation, but it should be more purposeful. More diverse.”

She suggests four alternatives to turf grass: landscape beds, meadows, woods and paved, permeable hardscapes.

“All of these provide more ecologic service,” she says. “We’re talking clean water. More habitat for insects. More oxygen taken in and less carbon dioxide given off.”

Barton helped get a county landscape ordinance passed a decade or so ago allowing “managed meadows” to replace grass in residential front yards. These no-mow areas filter water, encourage the return of native plants that provide food and cover for wildlife, and still have curb appeal.

“A managed meadow isn’t simply a matter of letting your grass grow long,” she says. “It means mowing paths through it and adding edges where needed. If people think about it and make it look good, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be part of suburbia.”

Downsizing or replacing turf isn’t simple or cheap, but it can be done in stages. Start with your toughest-to-grow or hardest-to-mow sections.

“Use the 80-20 plan, where 20 percent of your area requires 80 percent of your maintenance,” says Evelyn Hadden, a founding member of the Lawn Reform Coalition and author of “Beautiful No-Mow Yards” (Timber Press, 2012).

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