The lawn, as we know it today, got its start in 17th Century England, where it was an indication of status and wealth. From there, Northern European immigrants brought seeds and the idea of the lawn to North America, where it continued to be a symbol of wealth until industrialization and the invention of the lawn mower made lawns more popular and accessible. The first lawn mower was produced in 1830 and, once mass produced, made traditional lawns common and widespread. In the late 1940’s to early 1950’s, the suburb, “Levittown”, was constructed with lawns built in. Their popularity gained traction. Later came fertilizers and herbicides coinciding with the growing envy of a weed free lawn. These, along with other influences, contributed to the solidification of the modern lawn as commonplace in today’s American landscape.
Today, cultivated, manicured lawns cover 50 million acres across America. The cost to maintain and keep all this turf green is 3 trillion gallons of water per year, 200 million gallons of gas for mowing, and 70 million pounds of pesticides. Not to mention turf grass provides little to no benefit to pollinators and to them, are essentially deserts, forcing their already waning population to traverse greater distances for sources of food and shelter. This is not to say all turf grass is evil and every square inch needs to go, but rather to raise awareness and offer alternatives to those interested and able to veer from the status quo.
Lawns offer a great medium for children to play, pets to run, and general sports and recreation, but a good portion of lawns go largely unused. Additionally, traditional lawns can be difficult to maintain in certain areas due to water, shade, soil conditions, or steep slopes. There are several alternatives or additions to turf that can provide ecological function, a reduction in resources, and a beautiful aesthetic.
Groundcovers are low growing and require no mowing. They may require mulching and weeding until established, but once they are, they will need little maintenance and can even choke out weeds. Many indigenious groundcovers can provide more ecological value and sustainability than turf, in addition to beautifying a landscape. However, try to avoid using invasive plants such as Wintercreeper Euonymus fortunei. They can choke out desirable plants and completely dominate a landscape. Additionally, they can be very difficult to get rid of once established.
Other options for low-growing groundcovers include:
1.) Kinnikinnick or Bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
2.) Green and Gold Chrysogonum virginianum
3.) Whorled Tickseed Coreopsis verticillata
4.) Bunchberry Dogwood Cornus canadensis
5.) Canadian Wild Ginger Asarum canadense
6.) Striped cream Violet Viola striata aiton
6.) Common Blue Violet Viola sororia willd
7.) Woodland Sedum Sedum ternatum
8.) Creeping Phlox Phlox subulata
9.) Running Strawberry Bush Euonymus obovatus
10.) Allegheny Spurge Pachysandra procumbens
Sedges or Carex are a viable option when looking for a lawn alternative or to diversify your yard. They look very similar to grass, require less maintenance, resources, and are more likely to thrive in a variety of conditions, including areas where grass will not. Pennsylvania Sedge, Carex pensylvanica, is a great option with fine textured leaves, a creeping habit, and only reaching heights of 8 inches tall.
Alternatives include installing flower beds, edible landscapes, adding stone or other hardscapes, and adding Sedges or decorative grasses to your landscape. When done correctly, these options can reduce the burden on homeowner maintenance and resources alike. If you are bored of a turf grass lawn, live in an area where grass is not an option, or want to include more diversity and ecological function in your yard, try incorporating one or more of these alternatives. Follow the hyperlinks for more information and ideas for a non-traditional lawn, and check out our groundcovers next time you visit the Gardens!
Kyle Strain, Lead Horticulturist