Garden Designers Roundtable: A Connecticut Yankee’s Guide to Socially Acceptable Lawn Alternatives

This month the Garden Designers Roundtable explores the important topic of lawn alternatives, along with our guests, the members of the Lawn Reform Coalition. Since the trend of shrinking the size of your lawn is just starting to take hold here in southwestern Connecticut, I offer a slightly tongue-in-cheek look at why it seems to be taking a bit longer than it should for some of my fellow Nutmegers to embrace the lawn alternative movement…

Here on the Connecticut gold coast, in quaint little towns like Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan, the streets are dotted with modest multi-acre estates. Most are hidden behind stone walls, fences and rows of evergreens. A quick glimpse inside often reveals a meticulously manicured lawn sweeping almost as far as the eye can see. Getting these homeowners to reduce the size of their lawns in any way, shape or form, is, quite frankly, a very difficult proposition.

You see, we’re conservative, some might even call us uptight. And we love our lawns. We certainly don’t grow food in our front yards, like some hippy-dippy southern California gardeners are doing. Really, what would the neighbors say? And a meadow garden? Like the unruly and overgrown mess on the grounds of that new progressive church? Certainly not on my property. We couldn’t possibly cut back our lawn area, after all the kids play out there at least once a week and an acre of grass per child seems to be the gold standard.

We may cling to tradition a little too tightly at times but we are open to new ways of thinking. We like to support local wildlife (after all, many of us are card-carrying members of the Audubon society) and increased biodiversity is a laudable goal. We’re concerned about the environment and increased levels of pollution and pesticides, just like regular people.

The perfect place to begin embracing lawn alternatives

But we love our lawns. And the status quo. What’s a humble homeowner with just the ‘right’ amount of lawn to do?

I’d like to suggest an easy and painless way to start embracing the lawn alternative trend. Why not plant something other than grass in that narrow strip of land on the other side of the fence? Since no one really pays any attention to it, it offers the perfect opportunity to throw caution to the wind and do something a little crazy. In fact, some of the neighbors are already leading the way. Goodness, they must not be from around here!

Baby Steps 

From a maintenance standpoint, this grove of hosta is a better alternative than simply having more lawn area. And it’s much more attractive. But from a biodiversity standpoint, it’s really not offering much.

Adding a few ferns to the mix helps liven things up a bit. And the area still looks manicured and well-kept, important qualities when you’re keeping up with the Joneses.  We’re getting there but I know we can do better.

From Baby Steps to a Leisurely Walk

So I offer a few socially acceptable, eco-friendly lawn alternatives that won’t embarrass you in front of the neighbors and also won’t bring down your property values. Not only will these lawn alternatives help support local wildlife since they are all native, they will tolerate winter road salt much better than the grass you’re trying to grow there now.

Go ahead, try one or try them all. Just take that all important first step.

I invite you to continue exploring the topic of lawn alternatives by simply clicking on the links below:

Susan Harris : Garden Rant : Takoma Park, MD

Billy Goodnick : Cool Green Gardens : Santa Barbara, CA

Evelyn Hadden : Lawn Reform.Org : Saint Paul, MN

Saxon Holt : Gardening Gone Wild : Novato, CA

Ginny Stibolt : Florida Native Plant Society : Green Cove Springs, FL

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Susan Harris : Gardener Susan’s Blog : Takoma Park, MD

Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold: Garden, Life, Home : Atlanta, GA

33 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable: A Connecticut Yankee’s Guide to Socially Acceptable Lawn Alternatives

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    • You’re playing my song, Debbie, when you suggest alternatives to grass. Killing all the grass in my acre of gardens has been my pleasure for 10 years. My alternative: mosses. Sustainable, beautiful, carefree weed-chokers, they are. And, they soothe bare feet – as well as the soul.

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  8. Debbie, I love your collage of hellstrip lawn alternatives! I am relieved I don’t have to deal with road salt here – whew!

    I think you’ve hit on an important point, which is that not everyone is going to get rid of all of their lawn, so offering some baby and intermediate steps is a great way of getting more biodiversity into your landscape.

    And really, I’d rather see someone replace a small amount of lawn with a varied planting including plants with wildlife value, than a wholesale replacement with another low-growing monoculture of little value. When espousing lawn alternatives, biodiversity should be one of the major considerations. Kudos!

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  14. What fascinating insights into the mind of Connecticut landowners. :) I do think we need to offer plenty of small steps for non-gardeners and new gardeners, and your suggested plants are well-chosen, tough and beautiful natives. It may be hardest to take that first step away from a lawn, but after falling in love with that first plant, things tend to snowball…

  15. I know well those “modest multi-acre estate” as I travel around in my work. You are correct in suggesting conservatism is the biggest obstacle, and you are on the right track in playing into conservationism as a way to re-think those lawns. Many of these folks with acres to spare can recognize doing the right thing is not the hippy-dippy thing but what the planet needs. Plant some trees and native shrubs. Bring back those birds the birdwatchers want to see. Return their neighborhoods to what it once was. Those conservatives always like to live in the past anyway :)

  16. Thank you Debbie. We need more articles like this and more people thinking about moving away from lawns. Some days I feel like I live in the lawn capital of the world and it’s frustrating trying to explain myself to neighbours why I don’t mow my entire lawn.

  17. Great post, Debbie – I love this! But are you sure planting something as flashy as asclepsias won’t cause a stir in some of these communities! ;) Having visited CT. for the first time this summer I must say I was blown away by the sheer amount of lawn everywhere I looked. I realize your state has all the precious water is could ever need, but coming from parched California it took some getting used to! Ahhh…the diversity of our great nation, right? But looking at things from the wildlife point of view vs. drought tolerance is crucial no matter where you live. Wonderful, wonderful post. Thanks!

  18. You and Rebecca shared similar (and great) ideas in your post. My attitude to traditional turf grass has evolved gradually over time and I suspect will continue to evolve. I love the philosophy of baby steps.

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  20. I love your tongue-in-cheek post, Debbie. I grew up in upstate S.C., where huge lawns are standard too. It can be hard, when you have a very large lawn, to imagine replacing all or even most of it with a garden or groundcovers. (It’s so much easier in those tiny CA yards.) This was a point brought home to me at the Seattle Garden Bloggers Fling by a fellow blogger from the Midwest who said people with these big lawns don’t want to spend the time or money to turn them into a big garden. So I think your approach of starting small, where lawn may not be as easy to maintain, and to think about bringing biodiversity into the equation, is the way to go. Every little bit counts, and using lawn alternatives doesn’t mean you have to take out ALL the lawn. Just make smarter and greener choices about it.

  21. Loved your tongue in cheek attitude in this piece, so well written!
    And the great point you make here.
    Bit worried they might crash the car looking at what the neighbours are doing on the verge. But I am being tongue in cheek now!

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