University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer News Article
line

SHRINKING YOUR LAWN

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

If you have a lawn, have you ever considered shrinking it?  You can still have a lawn for recreation and beauty, perhaps just less of it.  Less grass to mow means less time on, or behind, a mower; less fossil fuels consumed; less fertilizer and watering to keep lawns at their peak; and, with proper alternatives, a landscape more conducive to wildlife.  In her book Beautiful No-Mow Lawns, author Evelyn Hadden provides dozens of ways to not only shrink your lawn, but to have alternatives instead.
   
Consider only mowing where you go.  This might be along drives, paths, or near patios and garden beds.  Particularly if you have large lawn areas, mow regularly only in such areas.  The rest of the area can still be mowed, just perhaps a couple times a year with a brush mower.  By doing this you greatly reduce your mowing yet, with mown grass around high traffic areas, you still have some lawns.  The impression to viewers is that the unmown areas are being managed, and not left unkempt.
  
If you have “fragments”—small areas between walks and buildings for instance—consider if lawn is really needed there, or if a flower bed or groundcover would be better.  If you have groupings of shrubs or trees that you mow around, could they be combined into a large mulched bed instead?  If you have slopes, particularly ones difficult to mow or to maintain with healthy grass, would perennial groundcovers (including spring-flowering bulbs interplanted), or spreading shrubs (such as junipers, Russian cypress, or cotoneaster) work there instead?
   
Although lawns are plants, and so provide some “ecosystem services” such as producing carbon dioxide and preventing soil erosion, there are other landscape plants and features that provide even more.  Trees, chosen and placed properly, can provide shade in summer and wind protection in winter.  They provide enormous numbers of insects to feed birds, habitat for birds, and are essential as noted author Doug Tallamy explains (www.bringingnaturehome.net).
   
To capture water run-off in heavy rains and snow melting in spring, consider replacing some lawn near paved areas with either rain gardens or swales.  A swale is simply a linear rain garden, such as along a road or parking lot.  These are areas that have plantings that tolerate such wet events, and help water infiltrate the soil rather than run-off. 
   
If you are near the shoreline of any body of water,  replace a buffer strip there of at least six to eight feet wide of grass with plantings.  These help decrease erosion, provide wildlife habitat, and help to filter pollutants such as fertilizers from washing into these water features.
   
A popular trend in gardening is create “garden rooms” outdoors—more intimate spaces separated by plantings such as borders or hedges, even by attractive solid fencing or planted trellises.  These are especially useful for small landscapes.  Consider transforming some lawn areas into such spaces.  Think of small lawn areas as outdoor area rugs, rather than the wall-to-wall carpet of grass we so often see in landscapes. Use lawn as paths through the garden. 
   
By using hedges around such garden rooms, four to 10 feet high, you’ll be providing a nesting habitat for many songbirds.  Plant fruiting shrubs, both for you and birds, such as highbush blueberries, clove currants, or bush cherries. These have other seasonal interest, too, besides just the fruiting.
   
If you have children, consider creating a non-lawn garden space for them.  You could use an organic mulch under and around playsets, install a sandbox or similar, or just create some gardens to play in such as arches or tunnels with vines, or a “room” with sunflower walls. 
   
Already mentioned for slopes and small areas are lawn substitutes, such as groundcovers or spreading shrubs.  Groundcovers also are a better choice than grass for shaded areas, such as those getting less than six to eight hours a day of direct sun.  By using at least some native groundcovers, you’ll provide plants more adapted to local growing conditions and native pollinators.
   
Some native perennial groundcovers spread (but not aggressively, as do pachysandra, vinca, carpet bugle and other introduced perennials), others grow in clumps so can be planted in masses.  With some, such as foamflower (Tiarella), they can spread or clump depending on “cultivar” (cultivated variety).  Spreaders include green-and-gold (Chrysogonum), barren strawberry (Waldsteinia), Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum), and the little-known Meehan’s mint (Meehania).   The latter is worth searching out at specialty perennial nurseries, or online, as it can take full shade and has nice blue flowers in late spring.
   
For clump-forming native perennials to mass in shade, consider coralbells (Heuchera), ferns such as the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), or wild ginger (Asarum canadense). Many more groundcover  and perennial options for sun or shade, including their descriptions and cultural needs, can be found either in the book above, or the author’s website (www.lesslawn.com). In particular for sun, consider clovers in masses.  The low white clover, or taller (to 18 inches high) red clover, both enrich the soil with nitrogen, and are loved by bees.
   
If you don’t need a traditional turfgrass lawn to walk or play on, consider replacing some or all with a “freedom lawn.”  This is one composed of low ornamental grasses, or plants with blade shapes that give the effect of a lawn, that doesn’t need mowing.  Some online sources sell a no-mow lawn seed mix, composed of different varieties of fescue grass for sun or part shade.


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