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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Lawn Gone

Pam Penick’s book “Lawn Gone: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard” (Ten Speed Press $19.99) will get you thinking about how to reduce or remove your lawn, not only because there are more sustainable alternatives, but because there are so many beautiful alternatives.

A greensward of fine turf is a pleasant thing, but it is a lot of work! And, in the end, not all that interesting or useful. How much more pleasant are paved walkways and a patio, perhaps with sweet-smelling thyme between the pavers, where you can sit with friends? How much more pleasant and calming is a burbling fountain or fish pond? How much more pleasant is it to look at native wildflowers growing in the shade rather than patchy grass that do es not thrive there?

Penick is the award-winning blogger (www.penick.net/digging/) who lives in Austin, Texas, where she is very familiar with the problems of drought. “Lawn Gone” is full of water-wise plants and designs. Yet, these days, all of us are interested in water-wise plants because you don’t have to live in Texas to suffer through periods of drought that turn lawns brown unless they are kept well watered. But concern about water usage is just one element that makes “Lawn Gone” so useful.

There are many reasons for wanting to reduce a lawn. Some of us are getting older and the work of maintaining a beautiful lawn becomes more onerous. My husband is certainly tired of spending hours every Saturday mowing the lawn. Some of us worry about the uses of herbicides and pesticides and the dangers of runoff after rain. Some of us want to support the local food web by having plants that attract pollinators.

Whatever your reason, Penick has practical advice and instructions about ways to create beautiful spaces without a lawn. Groundcovers are an easy answer. These range from the familiar foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia, to ferns and plants like hostas that don’t always come to mind as a groundcover.

In fact, many perennials and small shrubs cover the ground and add great interest when planted over a generous area. While visiting in Boston last week, my husband and I took a walk and looked at a lot of urban yards. One large front yard struck me as particularly interesting because even at this time of the year, when the snow is just melted, it was easy to imagine how lovely it will be soon when the rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom and the ground is covered with plants like the low and mysterious (as in I have no idea what it was) variegated plant that was a hint of the greenery to come. This yard shaded by a large tree would not be hospitable to a lawn, but they had used the shade to create a beautiful natural woodland garden. I cannot believe there will not be spring bloomers very soon.

Some of Penick’s chapter titles will tempt you to imagine a new yard of your own. For example: “Ponds, pavilions, playspaces and other fun features” and “Designing and installing your hardscape,” immediately set my mind buzzing. Other chapters indicate the sticky issues that gardeners may have to deal with like working with skeptical neighbors.

She also explains ways to eradicate lawn and gives you the names of grass substitutes in the sedge and carex families,

Because we have a large-ish country garden, with a too-large country lawn, usually referred to as the flowery mead, my husband was very happy to see me reading “Lawn Gone”! He dreams of the day our lawn will be gone. I have to point out to him that we have already put some of Penick’s suggestions into practice.

We now have the 10-by-30-foot piazza and welcome platform (hardscaping) in front of half the house. The steep bank that was so hard to mow at the other end of the house is now the floriferous Daylily Bank. Daylilies are a fabulous groundcover.

Adjacent to the Daylily Bank I have been planting the Rose Bank with hardy Knock Out roses, rugosas and tough roses from friends’ gardens. At the eastern end of the front lawn I have been planting barren strawberry and tiarella as ground covers. I’ve also found that common thyme is an aggressive spreader in the lawn and makes a good ground cover that only needs mowing a couple of times a year. I admit my efforts at lawn reduction are slow and limited, but I am continuing.

I do want to point out that removing a lawn for a low-maintenance landscape does NOT mean a no-maintenance landscape. I have a friend who planted hostas as a groundcover but learned that every spring she still has to weed out the maple seedlings that are such a curse in her neighborhood.

In this book filled with beautiful photographs, Penick gives us numerous ways to achieve the goal of a sustainable, low-maintenance yard.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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