Lawn Reform

– Posted in: Garden Photography

I have recently been asked to join the Lawn Reform Coalition, a group of garden designers and environmental advovates who are promoting new ways to think about the American fetish for lawns.  Since my own particular advocacy is for sustainability, and most recently, meadow gardening specifically, I thus welcome the opportunity to be a part of this group.

A mini prairie meadow as a front yard garden

I hope those of you at Gardening Gone Wild will allow me a bit of personal pontificating about the idea of lawn reform since the whole idea of meadows in residential gardens was recently questioned on the widely read Garden Rant blog..  If you must click away from our blog over to those good folks, I direct you to Amy Stewart’s response: I Can’t Believe We’re Even Having This Conversation.

Amy Stewart garden front yard

Amy Stewart's front yard garden

Amy gets it. Lawn reform is not about anti lawn, it is not pro meadow, or pro any other use of lawn space, be it for a vegetable garden, a patio, or flowering groundcovers.  Anything is up for grabs, lets go wild.  I believe in garden reform, and lawn reform is an obvious place to start.

You know who else got it ?  Lorrie Otto, the amazing housewife turned environmentalist who led the charge to ban DDT so many years ago.  I say “was” because Lorrie passed away last month.  She must get some recognition for promoting ecological gardening and helping to start The Wild Ones.  She was an inspiration to us all – even if you don’t know it.

Lorrie Otto in her garden

Lorrie Otto in her meadow garden 1989

I suppose because I have spent years photographing meadows and have a book that seems to overglorify them in some people’s minds, I am to be some sort of expert on this.  Sure, I have talked to a LOT of very thoughtful people about the definition of a meadow, both in nature and in a garden.  I traveled the country looking for meadows, and ….  there IS no one definition.  In every region, local experts have different ideas.  That is as it should be.

Driggers backyard meadow garden

Path in backyard meadow garden

But what do “experts” know ?  I direct you to the marvelous commentary by legendary performance artist Laurie Anderson’s video: If you have 8 minutes to be entertained, and are suspect of experts, this may be the most fun part of your day.

So who are the real experts on garden meadows ?  Who would you look to for advice in your own garden, in your town ?  Well, aren’t we all gardeners here, and aren’t we all full of our own experiences, successes and failures ? Don’t we all know the plants themselves determine the garden ? What we call it is irrelevant to our own satisfaction.  Just do it.

There are so many variations of a meadow across the globe that almost any loose combination of plants that cover the ground and has a few grasses can be called a meadows.   Even those hyped up meadow-in-a-can schemes can be a meadow, albeit unsustainable and destined for weediness.

While I genuinely wonder what the public thinks is a meadow, I don’t care.  It is all good.  But when someone says: “even when they’re at their best, a meadow in a suburban development looks suspiciously like a weedy, unkempt yard at an abandoned property”, I do care.

Wisconsin suburban front yard meadow in autumn

At their worst a meadow looks like a weedy excuse for a broken lawn mower but at their best a meadow nourishes the earth, the critters around it, and the gardener who planted it.  If a meadow can do this do we care what the neighbors think ?

Meadow along sidewalk in Colorado garden

Garden meadow by sidewalk in Colorado

At their best a meadow can make a real difference in caring for the earth.  They represent an element of sustainability that too many folks pay lip service to without acting upon: habitat for insect pollinators, food for wildlife, low water, no imported hardscape, no need for machine grooming, recyled waste as mulch, fruit, herbs, perennial vegetables.   It is all good, and all can be found in a meadow garden.

Lauren Springer's backyard orchard with tall meadow

From touring the country looking for such gardens I know there are not many, but I know folks want to try.   Let’s don’t get hung up on some book definition of a meadow and get back to lawn reform.

Attached is an entire gallery of photos of Amy’s Front Yard (you need the password – eureka).  No, it is not technically a meadow, nor does she claim it it be, but it could be called that – even by this “expert”.  It is certainly a great way to use the space that others mighty use for a lawn, and it is a real, home owner inspired garden.  As was every photo included in this post.  None were in The American Meadow Garden.

Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic, a garden picture resource for photographs, workshops, and garden photography stories. A landscape photographer and award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California.

Saxon Holt

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Byddi - We didn't come here for the grass... July 11, 2010, 5:36 pm

I loved your post. I gave my blog its name because I feel the same way about lawns. They just don’t work in the parched soil of Silicon Valley and probably in few other places in California yet we spent a fortune poring precious water into the ground for a lush lawn. It seems senseless to me!

Especially in California or any place that requires supplemental water just to keep a boring lawn. – Saxon

Johnson @ Life in the English Cotswolds July 11, 2010, 6:00 pm

Beautiful photgraphs and very inspirational. I’ve never been a great fan of lawns for lawns sake. My own is studded with aconites, violets,primroses and cowslips all through the spring and early summer months.

I’ve also been developing some huge wildflower meadows in place of lawn for a client for the past ten years. They look so good (even if I do say so myself!) and always full of interest as well as bees and butterflies.

I shall check out the coalition and let’s hope there is one – or soon will be – here in the UK.

Johnson

Funny the pastoral vision of a meadow, an iconic English ideal has become the American Lawn, with such a different climate. – Saxon

Kathy in Napa July 11, 2010, 9:57 pm

I got rid of my front lawn years ago, though my reasons were not particularly altruistic–I needed more room for plants . The back lawn is almost gone, and it serves only as a pathway around two beds-both of which used to be grass. It is rarely fertilized, if it’s lucky it gets some water once a week, and is mowed with a reel push mower. It is the de facto savanna for my felines , though they would have many other options if it were gone. I am always glad to see homes in my neighborhood choose a non-lawn option , though it is regrettably rare.

I am afraid some folks are so set in their ways that don’t realize the lawn can give way to other plants. – Saxon

meemsnyc July 11, 2010, 10:13 pm

Wow, having all those flowers instead of a “lawn” what a great idea!

All depends on how you define “lawn” doesn’t it ? – Saxon

Yvonne @ Country Garden July 11, 2010, 10:27 pm

Thank you for the Laurie Anderson link — I have always loved her work. On the topic at hand, our meadow is my favorite part of our property. It’s coming into bloom now – time to get the camera out.

And I bet it looks good for many months. – Saxon

healingmagichands July 12, 2010, 7:08 am

I love this post. It almost makes me want to try for a front yard meadow again. Several years ago I had a wild flower garden in the front of my place. I had several unpleasant encounters with Our Fair City regarding the same. In fact, partly because of my wildflowers and some other land owners who felt they could store garbage in their yards, we now enjoy the presence of a Compliance Officer and the existence of an ordinance which mandates that you may not store dead vehicles on your property or accumulate trash, and your lawn is not allowed to be taller than 8 inches. If it is and you do not mow it when cited by the CO, the City will come and mow it for you and tack the charge on to your property tax bill.

Maybe I will muster up the energy for activism. At least in this neck of the woods one can have a “lawn” without pouring water and chemicals onto it. I wish I could have a sheep to mow the labyrinth, which rather flaunts the City’s rules about height due to the grass and flowers in between the rocks, but that also is forbidden by our city’s ordinances. I have no love for our city and its ordinances. Somehow the existence of the labyrinth and its “meadowness” has been overlooked by Our Fair City. I think it may be because the vineyard is in between it and the street. And boy, did THAT not cause some head scratching in city hall when we installed it. They finally decided there weren’t any ordinances that forbid you from growing grapes on trellises.

I use the term “lawn” very loosely when I apply it to the collection of plants that cover the part of the two acres here that is not already involved in some other sort of gardening endeavor. In fact, I was amused to note that I have some queen anne’s lace in the front that has determinedly set about blooming even though it is only 3 inches tall, due to being mowed off regularly.

Personally, when I see a front yard meadow I applaud. And I may just try again. I think if I outlined my new meadow with rocks I could successfully argue that it is not a lawn, but a garden. Especially if it looked anything like Amy Stewart’s front yard.

Great post, Saxon.

Go for it. If the “lawn” looks like a flowery meadow, you use som eof your rocks, mow a path it will look grand. Personally, I would tell the neighbors and powers that be that you are doing this, and do it anyway.
I have found, talking to several folks who have converted their fronts into meadows or veggie gardens, that the neighbors really like the opportunity for engagement. Gardening and the weather are usually safe topics for most folks and if you talk about your meadow in terms of health for the earth and the local habitat you will find lots of support.
Keep us informed at Lawn Reform Coalition. – Saxon

JC July 12, 2010, 11:57 am

I would like to do something like that … I’ll have to actually look into it. I live surround by woods and they like to take over anything I plant other than grass.

Woodland meadows occur naturally in nature as clearings but are quickly reclaimed. For the gardener it is simply the work of keeping it the way you want. – Saxon

Susan Harris July 12, 2010, 3:47 pm

You tell ‘em, Saxon! Um, make that tell ME. Hey, I’m a thick-skinned (sort of) Ranter, and happy to stir the pot for you. Anytime. I think.

Much enjoy the excuse for a bit of reparté – Saxon

Benjamin July 12, 2010, 9:08 pm

No lawn is a good lawn, but I feel heavy pressure thinking about resale in a few years when–fingers crossed–I get a professorship somewhere. I’m already afraid my 1500 foot garden will overwhlem future buyers, or they will simply see more space for more grass once the bobcat moves in.

I think the core issue here is what happened to our sense of wonder and awe we had as children? I am on my hands and knees for hours looking at bugs and birds and frogs in my garden, I’m discovering somethign new everyday that connects me beyond and to myself. That sounds a bit wishy washy. Part of me says lead by example, rip up the fescue. the other part says insane insane insane.

All gardens are only as sustainable as the gardener’s energy allows, and there is no predicting what a future owner of your piece of land will do, no matter what sort of garden you have or how long you tend it yourself. Few of us expect The Garden Conservancy to rescue it.

Do what pleases you, not what anyone else says is right or wrong. If whatever you do seems a bit odd to your neighbors, laugh with them and share your passion. It’s OK to be a little bit insane. And by the way, fescue lawns make marvelous meadows. I have 3 little ones (each about 200 sq ft) myself. Start by not mowing a part of what you already have. – Saxon

Alan July 13, 2010, 5:42 am

Just thought I would let you know that. The dreaded lawn fetish is not indigenous to the US. We in Australia suffer from it also. Thanks for sharing.

- A legacy of those Brits who colonized us both no doubt. – Saxon

healingmagichands July 13, 2010, 8:15 am

Thank you for your words of encouragement. My next task is to get the support of my Dear Husband, who will be happy to have less grass to mow.

The support of my neighbors will be easy. The Civic Authorities are a different matter entirely. A more hide-bound and conservative bunch would be hard to find. Imagine the worst of the Gold Old Boys you can, and then double that and that is what we have in this community. Slowly we are trying to leaven them, but it is a tough row to hoe.

Anyway, when I put in the original wild flower strip that is exactly what I did, notified them. All was fine until we had a change of administration. The New Good Old Boys found my wild flowers to be nothing but tall ugly weeds. They wore me down, and I finally gave in. However, I have rested and I have renewed energy and a better plan, thanks to the Lawn Reform site, so I may just try again. I worry that notifying them of my intentions may actually act more like waving a red flag before a bull, but the strategy of using rocks and shrubbery to create a “landscape” rather than a “meadow” (which often looks like a “weedscape” to the uninitiated) may just work.

Also, I may find myself in the unfamiliar role of Civic Activist. Good thing I am self employed and work out of my home so I have lots of spare time. LOL.

Do include some ornamental bunch grasses, even if you are not trying to create any sort of official meadow, they look great summer to winter and can really help to knit together the “tall ugly weeds” when they are done and the birds have picked all the seeds. And all gardens do require maintenance. Trim back what is ugly. – Saxon

– Saxon

catherineandme July 13, 2010, 11:53 am

love your no yard, its a joy to see, living in the wheat belt of mt. the yard thing does not appeal, water is the big deal, the idea is great , no green belt but a beeautiful aray of colors that change with the seasons, thanks

you love in a wonderful area to tie your native grass ecologies into your gardens. They can become habitat islands. – Saxon

UrsulaV July 13, 2010, 2:04 pm

While I’ve been struggling to establish a prairie planting on a dry clay hillside (and by “struggling” I mean “coping with my impatience as the grasses establish on their own schedule”) it was those spectacular photos of Amy’s garden that convinced me to get a couple of bunch grasses for my main flower beds. I had been somewhat ignoring grasses, since…y’know…flowers! Pollinators! but it was such a visually stunning effect that I figure it’s worth a try. And probably there are bugs out there just as happy with muhly grass as with flowers.

And the grasses look so great for such a long time. – Saxon

Carolyn Parker July 14, 2010, 12:00 pm

Your archives serve you well Saxon. Yes to less lawn!

Always nice to pull out photos from a generation ago. Not every gardening idea is new – Saxon

Susan Morrison July 15, 2010, 9:41 pm

I don’t think of myself as anti-lawn, I think of myself as pro-thoughtful lawn. Too many people go with lawns as the default choice without really considering alternatives, because that’s what they grew up with, or what they think is expected, etc. I followed the gardenrant discussion and am not surprised there was some push back on suburban meadows. If your idea of garden perfection includes a giant mowed lawn, it’s a fairly challenging about face to embrace a meadow garden as an alternative. But the more gardeners and designers talk about them, and install them, and explain them and post pictures of them, the more others will be converted.

My first front yard 20 years ago was a big lawn surrounded by thirsty flowers and shrubs and I thought it was pretty great. I figure if I eventually saw the light, others will to.

Susan – Thanks for your support. I think it is part of my job to find and show alternatives, not as anti-lawn but pro sustainability. Mowed lawns can be the easy default in some places, and may be all that many property owners can do, but if you are a gardener you are likely to want to do more. – Saxon

healingmagichands July 16, 2010, 11:23 am

Saxon, you and the Lawn Reform Coalition have a lot to answer for.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this since I started surfing the links on the LRC site.

If you don’t believe me, well, I invite you to step over to my place this morning and see what is going on in my tiny brain.

Maybe it is sleep deprivation talking.

Time for you to get off the internet and out to the garden for a good workout (g) – Saxon