Friday, August 26, 2011

Lawn Reform - Yea, baby!

I'd like to talk to you quite seriously (for a change) about Lawn Reform.  I'm not preaching (for a change), I'm just, oh, advocating a bit for open minds about the American obsession with turf.  By turf I mean lawns of grass. It's time we rethink what a beautiful yard should look like.

My friend and ally, Pam Penick, over at Digging just announced that she is writing a book! about this very subject that is so near and dear to my heart.  (She's not writing it because it's near and dear to me; that's just me pontificating.)  And over at the Garden Designers Roundtable this month, the experts are talking about lawn alternatives as well.  

For once I can talk about something with some expertise (instead of just acting like an expert, which I am very good at as you well know).   I have no grass in my yard at all. None.  Zip.  Nada.  I mulched and planted instead.  Mostly mulched.  Still working on planting.  

I did this for a variety of reasons.  The first being environmental.  The second being the actual monetary cost of water.  The third being lazy and not wanting to mow. Did you know that Americans use 600 million gallons of gas per year on cutting grass? Check out the skinny (and more harrowing news) HERE.  In central Texas where I am, well, hell, in most all of Texas right now (and for the last few years, really) we are experiencing an epic drought.  Epic Epic, not just epic.  Huge trees falling over dead epic.  Critters never seen before in neighborhoods coming in to find water epic. 

We need to find long-term ways to conserve water.  Ditching the well-manicured, water-thirsty grass lawn is a great place to start. It won't fix everything, but it is a start.  You can have a gorgeous, interesting, extremely low-maintenance yard that you never have to mow and it's relatively easy to do.

When we bought our house the entire yard, front and back, was turf.  There was a lot of St. Augustine mixed in with Bermuda and other varieties of unidentifiable (to me at that time) ground cover. I knew I didn't want any grass, but I really had no idea what I did want.  FinnigantheCurious was only 2 at the time and I knew that I would not have hours and hours of time to fill an entire yard with decorative landscaping, so I started poking around the Internet and calling Earth-friendly nurseries in the area with all my questions. Everyone was happy to tell me how to get rid of the turf, but no one really had any suggestions as what to put down other than more environmentally sound ground cover like horseherb or clover or vinca, etc..  Some people advocated for lots of pea gravel or decomposed granite, but I had a baby and I wanted something that he could play on.  Almost everyone suggested going slowly by killing the turf in small sections, putting in beds of natives and adding lots of gravel or mulch paths.  Mulch? Hmmm. All I knew of mulch was the kind of chunky, ugly stuff I'd seen around trees.  Was there better looking, softer mulch to be had?  A few calls led me back to The Natural Gardener.  They suggested I come out and look at their various types of mulch.  

L.O.V.E at first sight.  I wanted a mulch yard. I especially wanted a mulched front yard. I've got two absolutely glorious Live Oaks in my front yard and nothing wants to grow under them.  I figured a nicely "manicured" lawn of mulch and Live Oaks would be really cool.  I initially thought I would do some shade landscaping in addition to the mulch, but we ended up loving the look so much and LOVING, I mean LOVING the NO CARE aspect of it that we just decided to leave it.  Now,  I've got a LOT going on in my yard so that's probably one reason why you don't notice that there's no landscaping.  I "landscape" with art and color.  

Here's what the lawn used to look like in front.  I don't have many good pictures because it was soooo wretched up there I could hardly bear to photograph it.

(No, not our own personal loader, just sitting there from our patio project.)
Lots and lots of grass, but none of it uniform.  There were bare patches all over and lots of different kinds of grass.  And this photo was taken in late spring when the grass was at its very best.  Here's a shot in late winter, early spring:

Dirt.  Mud. Blech.
Here's a view from the street corner.

The dogs did a great job of killing major portions of it.  I didn't water it for an entire summer. Almost 2 years of not watering and dog trotting took it all out.  You could do it much more quickly with cardboard layering (read more about that below).  I did lay down some cardboard in the spots where the Bermuda was at its thickest, but I didn't really need much.

Here's my hillbilly mulch hauler contraption that Jackdaddy constructed for the truck.  Worked great.  You can read some more about my mulch hauling adventures  HERE.  I am a world class mulch hauler. I am, in fact, a downright badass. 

Here it's starting to go in.  (That sounds like it's unloading itself.  Oh, how I wish.) I love how it looks between the new fancy shmancy walk way.

Filling up the side of the porch. (oh, wow.  We still had the old windows in then too. Damn, we've done a lot of crap to this place. No wonder I'm tired. And broke.)

I put down a lot of mulch that first year.  I can't remember how many yards, but it was a lot.  Maybe 4 or 5? Hell, I dunno. A lot.  I topped it off a bit this year with just a yard or two when the bulk mulch went on sale.  I think next year I'll do a another big dump and that's only because I like it really thick.  It's so soft and bouncy.  This is the very basic mulch from The Natural Gardener called Landscapers Mulch.  You gotta call out there for prices, but it is reasonable and much, much cheaper than watering, fertilizing, mowing, etc..  Promise.  You can also get free, free, FREE mulch from Asplundh and Davey Tree.
You just call, get on a list, sign a release form and, voila! they'll bring you a big old truck load.  I used a lot of free mulch in the backyard, but I wanted the front to look a bit nicer.

Here's where we are today:

 Ta da!

Ta da ta da!

I just can't tell you how easy it was to do this and how completely, totally, utterly maintenance-free it is.  It looks wonderful, it's interesting, it's environmentally sound, it's comfortable.  Hardly a day goes by that someone does not stop and compliment me on it or ask about it.   

Now, you certainly don't need to do what I did.  I really, really love having NO plants at all up there to futz with other than the potted ones on the porch, but you might want to go all out and put in beds and paths and trees and ponds.  You might also just want to take baby steps.  Find a portion of your lawn that is troublesome to you.  Maybe it needs too much water or maybe it grows too fast or maybe it won't grow at all.  Just start there.  Get rid of it and put some native perennials in.  Start a little patch of love.  You'll be glad, you'll see. There are millions of ways to go lawn-free.  Here are a few fun links to get  you started (down the rabbit hole, for sure.  Be sure to set a timer.) thinking about what your options might be.

Earth Easy.  Be sure to read about clover as a ground cover!

and if you head over to the Garden Designers Roundtable, you'll find tons and tons of links to just about everything you can imagine on alternative laws.  If nothing else, just scroll to the bottom of the post and read what each blogger posted yesterday.  Mucho funo.

Tomed you!
Now I'm off to not mow, yo.


  1. Girrrrrrl we are about to take the grass out at this new house and this entry couldn't be more motivating! You know ryan and I took out our grass on Justin with a hula-ho and our bare hands? Never doing that again, haha. We also used the ugly free mulch in the front yard, something I wouldn't repeat. It smelled so bad and we had fruit flies for months. Blergh. But! In the back, like you said, it would be perfect. It's good to know that you just didn't water and let the sun take care of the grass, much better plan! Can I rent your dogs? haha

  2. I'm tellin' ya - my desert is trying to take over the state - it will all be Chihuahuan desert in 15 years! Great post!

  3. Great post...Can't wait to read Pam's book. I love your walkway and the art & color in your landscape. The good thing is that you can enjoy them year round.

  4. Me? I want sheep, goats and/or chikkens. Grass is for pasture.
    ms mdd

  5. Your yard looks so entirely different from the beginnings.
    Does having no grass force your chickkens to eat your plants? Or would they eat them no matter what?
    I love the look you have created and am so proud of your blog reminding us to SAVE WATER!!!!

  6. I couldn't agree with you more.

    My problem is my front yard is HUGE. I've lived here for 11 years and have never once watered the grass, but it doesn't die! ...It's some kind of devil-bermuda with 9 lives. I wouldn't mind it so much but I have to mow it, and it takes 4 hours to mow only the front. And if I pay someone to mow it, it's 100.00!

    There is also the fact that I only have 2" of soil over caliche...What else besides agaves will grow on caliche in blazing sun without water? I'm anxiously awaiting Pam's book...I hope she has some solutions. Laura

  7. Hallelujah! I wish everyone would take out their grass, and not just because the retired gentleman down the street makes it his mission to mow his yard EVERY SATURDAY morning at 8:00am, but because it's such a waste of water and resources, not to mention a huge contributor of toxic chemicals to groundwater.

    I'm killing my backyard sod with cardboard and mulch. Yay!

  8. Michele, thank you so much for this awesome post and for your shout-out about my book-to-be! It's great to read about the solution that worked for you and your family. I also like a big mulched area for use as a patio under the shade of live oaks, a la the Chuy's patio at Hwy 183 N, near Duval. You can plant clumps of drought-tolerant, shade-loving natives here and there to soften the look, like Turk's cap, cast-iron plant, and inland sea oats.

    As for the commenter wanting to know what to do on an expanse above caliche, I'd suggest native grasses and wildflowers -- essentially going with a natural Hill Country meadow look. I'm sure the Wildflower Center could provide some guidance.

  9. Hils: You guys did a great job at the Justin house! Um, yes, you can rent my dogs. Especially at 6am when they're barking at everything that moves.

    Corrick: I'm afraid you may be right. Do you read The Grackle blog? He took an awesome picture about Austin becoming a desert. Go poke around, you'll find it.

    Ms. Mud: I want a pot bellied pig now!! oink oink.

    MerrryMerry: You know, we've never had grass since we got them. I do have patches of Bermuda that comes up by my veggie beds and they do NOT touch that (figures). They like ruellia is purslane the best. ratfinks.

    Laura: I am currently obsessed with CLOVER! Google it. You can seed it into your grass and at least you'll be providing pollinators with some food. Read Pam's comment below. I would recommend that too. Just start plopping down some ornamental grasses and natives and some paths. (As if it's sooo easy)

    Lindsey: Oh, the sound of early morning lawmower. Or weedeater. Or leaf blower. Obscene.

    Pam: Thank YOU! I think, once my huge dogs have died, I'll probably plant more stuff in the front to soften it all, but MAN is it easy now! I have recently put in a bunch of ruellia all around the fence line and am loving that.

  10. The yard looks great. It's a good answer to our everlasting heat and drought.
    I'm anxious to see Pam's book, as well.
    Stay cool....

  11. I did the same thing with my front yard. I got a ton of free mulch and completely mulched both my side yards and my front yard, and it looks fantastic and really cut down on maintenance. Now it takes me under half an hour to cut what lawn that's left, or DID, until the drought killed the rest of it!

  12. Looking good, I have a lot more to go on my lawn. I want my sunshine mimosa to fill in as a groundcover and also doing my permaculture thing at the edges of the yard.


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