Going lawn-less: Redefining suburban landscapes

“The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens — finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby,” 1925

In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald delves into conflicts among the upper, middle and lower social classes during the Roaring ‘20s. The story’s narrator, Nick Carraway, considers a person’s lawn to be a good indicator of their social standing; in fact, he mentions lawns several times, including in the excerpt above, to signify wealth or the lack thereof.

It is little wonder that Fitzgerald used lawns as a symbol for social status in his novel. Between WWI and WWII, tidy front yards with mown grass were becoming a hallmark of the burgeoning suburban American lifestyle. Even back in 1841, landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing had advised homeowners, “The close proximity of fences to the house gives the whole place a mean character. … A wide spread lawn, on the contrary, where no boundaries are conspicuous, conveys an impression of ample extent and space for enjoyment.”

By 1868, Frederick Law Olmstead had laid out one of the earliest planned suburbs in America, outside of Chicago, calling for houses to be set back from the street by 30 feet and prohibiting fences in order to give neighborhoods an open, park-like feel. In addition, the push mower was invented around that time, and in 1915, the USDA and the U.S. Golf Association teamed up to develop grasses that were more suitable for North American climates and behaved better than the weedy native species.

By the time Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby,” all of these developments had aligned to usher in a new industry aimed at suburban lawn care, including pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers for home gardeners. The Garden Club of America even sponsored lawn contests to convince homeowners that it was their civic duty to maintain a handsome and healthy lawn. By the beginning of the 21st century, 20 million acres in America were planted with residential lawns.

However, not all Americans are in love with lawns. Lawns drink up to 60 percent of the fresh water used in urban areas, which is why states experiencing long-term drought have implemented restrictions on watering lawns. Chemical weed killers and fertilizers seep into the soil, killing essential microorganisms and eventually polluting streams. The pollution generated from using a gas-powered lawnmower for one hour is the same amount of pollution that comes from driving a car for 20 miles. In addition, maintaining a lawn is hard work.

For all of these reasons, I recently got rid of the last remaining section of my front lawn, a 350-foot triangular area that was mostly crab grass and dandelions. I’m replacing the grass with vinca minor, also known as lesser periwinkle or creeping myrtle, a low-maintenance groundcover that is evergreen, fast growing, and adaptable to shady and sunny spots.

Before bidding farewell to your lawn, check homeowner’s association bylaws for lawn requirements. Also, call 811 to check for underground utilities, and remove irrigation lines before digging. I hired someone with a small tractor to dig out my lawn, but sod cutters, tillers and shovels will do the job. (See my blog for solarization and lasagna composting methods.)

After removing the grass, address any grading or drainage issues. It’s also a good time to test the soil and modify as needed. Jerry and I amended our high-clay soil with 4-6 inches of compost and a loamy topsoil. We’ll install new drip irrigation before planting the groundcover.

I’m excited about my lawn-less landscape. It’s my humble contribution toward redefining American life in the suburbs.

— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.

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