- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

You see them when you least expect it, while driving down some winding suburban avenue or walking along a city street: houses without lawns.

Instead of those sweeping, highly manicured expanses of green so common in your childhood, you see waving lilies, trailing vines and grass considerably longer than the old 2-inch maximum. It’s a trend that seems to be catching on, both in the Washington area and nationwide.

“Our philosophy is that natural gardens are more beautiful than lawns,” says Alrie Middlebrook, founder and president of Middlebrook Gardens, a California-based company that specializes in ecology-based landscaping.

“Beauty comes from nature,” she says.

Call it lawns gone wild. No tightly manicured greenswards here, but instead, a wide diversity of grass and plantings in a riot of colors and textures that can last well into winter. If you listen to those who are passionate about their black-eyed Susans and meadowsweet, you will find that less lawn can mean major benefits for you and your family.

“There are so many reasons to lose your lawn,” Ms. Middlebrook says, pointing to the ecological, aesthetic, economic and ethical benefits of a back-to-nature lawn.

However, eschewing the traditional lawn can be tough, particularly for those for whom the American lawn has become a sort of icon of success. With more than 58 million home lawns in the United States, the care and feeding of the front lawn has become a multimillion-dollar industry, one that depends on the homeowner’s struggles to raise up the perfect lawn: green, pristine and weed-free.

Still, the ubiquitous lawn as we know it is a fairly recent innovation, dating just to the mass suburbanization of the middle of the last century. It’s not really American, either, considering that most of the species employed in its creation — even the much-vaunted Kentucky bluegrass — are not native to the continent, having evolved instead in the moist, cool climate of Northern Europe.

That’s one reason why the classic lawn is so hard to manage and expensive to maintain. Even crabgrass, the bane of those who love their lawns, was introduced as a forage crop from Europe.

Of course, that hard-to-manage quality has been a boon to lawn care businesses.

“Some people really take it to extremes,” says Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist with the National Gardening Association. “They want an absolute monoculture, a weed-free green lawn.”

But layers of pesticide, weed killer and various fertilizers hardly provide the most salubrious environment for playing children or romping pets.

“It used to be a green lawn was part of the landscape,” Mr. Nardozzi says. “Now it’s a kind of no-man’s land.”

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans spill about 17 million gallons of gasoline every summer in the process of refueling their lawn mowers. That’s 50 percent more oil than arrived on the Alaskan coastline during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

“Kids can track in herbicides after playing in the grass that can stay on your carpet for two years,” Ms. Middlebrook says. “The chemicals on your lawn can create a very poisonous environment.”

All that watering, feeding, weeding and mowing can add up, too, particularly if you are not an avid do-it-yourselfer. Even if you are, the cost of water, fertilizer and all the other things you need to keep your lawn looking pristine is hardly insignificant.

So if you are looking to make your lawn more “green” — ecologically speaking — you may well find yourself cutting down on the amount of green lawn you already have.

Using native plantings means that you can keep down costs because they tend to need less cosseting.

“Natural grasses occur throughout America,” Ms. Middlebrook says. “Using them will cut down on expense because they’re more suited to the environment.”

Using fewer fertilizers and pesticides means less noxious runoff into local waterways, of particular interest to those concerned about the state of the Chesapeake Bay.

One innovation popular among homeowners concerned with water usage, the sunken garden, is actually designed to hold water.

“You put in plants that can take some flooding and run the water from the gutters into the garden,” Mr. Nardozzi says.

Or, you can take a page out of the early 20th century, when the front yards of the working class often held vegetable gardens, and put in plants that you can eat.

“It’s a great way to start actually talking to your neighbors,” says Mr. Nardozzi, who has his own garden where he once had lawn. “They never used to stop and chat when I was just mowing. It’s a way of socially reclaiming some of that lost space.”

But before you begin ripping out the sod and shake one of those meadow-in-a-can mixtures over the exposed topsoil, consider this: Your neighbors may not be as pleased as you are with your attempts to replicate nature.

“It may not be advantageous for someone wanting to sell their home, and it could be a deterrent,” says Tony Lewis, a Realtor with Long & Foster’s Takoma Park office. “As a rule, you want something that’s low maintenance with plenty of eye appeal.”

That means raggedy looking patches are out.

In some developments governed by homeowners associations, those who would stray from the monoculture model are sanctioned by weed ordinances and shunned by their neighbors.

Whatever the case, it’s important to let your neighbors know what you’re doing.

“It’s really about the green concept and awareness, says Lili Sheeline, a real estate agent with Long & Foster’s Chevy Chase office who has a keen interest in the environment. “We see growing numbers of homeowners who are interested in going green with their houses, and the front lawn is just an extension of that.”

If you are making changes in your front lawn, the part of your house that everybody in the neighborhood has to see, it’s wise to make your changes a little more slowly and a little less dramatically.

“Once people understand what’s going on, they’re more likely to get onboard,” Mr. Nardozzi says.

You may want to start small, says Melissa Haendler, a landscape architect who works in the Greater Washington area, with just a reduction of the lawn space. No law says you can’t have it both ways, with cut grass changing to native grasses or even a meadow within a particular space. Long grass usually looks better during the dry season anyway, and meadows work particularly well on poor soil.

“You could think of the lawn as a river, or a kind of green necklace beyond which you can put layers of levels of plantings,” Ms. Haendler says.

Small spaces lend themselves particularly well to a back-to-nature transformation.

Keeping a strip or two of sod, particularly if it is of a low- maintenance, pesticide-free variety, can reinvigorate previously dead space.

However, if you are expecting it to get a lot of use, you may want to consider a synthetic lawn alternative.

“We are seeing a lot more conversions to replicated turf,” Ms. Middlebrook says. “The surface is really safe for children, and it’s made of recycled material.”

Of course, large or small, it always helps to show that you have support from a higher authority.

If you are making changes in your back yard, you can always receive the imprimatur of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

NWF has developed a backyard habitat program that helps homeowners move toward a more natural environmental space. (www.nwf.org/backyard)

A NWF sign that you’ve created a backyard habitat is one way of assuring the neighbors that the wild landscape you’ve created is legitimate and not just you suddenly deciding to let your lawn rule the landscape.

Another method is to make the type of changes that will provide a back-to-nature sensibility, albeit with a bit of grooming.

“I like things to look natural, but sometimes that takes a bit of work,” Ms. Haendler says.

In the end, how “natural” you want to get is up to you. It always helps to keep an eye on the future as well as your front lawn.

“People look ahead to marketability,” Ms. Haendler says. “Even if they are planning to stay 20 or 30 years, in the end, they want to be able to sell their house.”

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