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Blue Bungalow Farm

Heather Zydek writes about life on the east side of Tosa.

Grass Be Gone: Why I removed my lawn in favor of a perennial landscape

lawn care, grass, permaculture, monocultures, japanese beetles, grubs, perennial gardens

When Walt Whitman wrote lovingly of grass in his poetry collection "Leaves of Grass," he must have been referring to the showy, ornamental varieties, or, more likely, wild grasses swaying in summer fields. Surely he couldn't have been thinking of the kind of overly-watered-yet-still-thirsty, scalped, grub infested squares of lawn that form a patchwork quilt across suburbia. 

I am the owner of one of those green-brown patches – or used to be, anyway. Hard and compacted, riddled with Creeping Charlie and at least a few other varieties of herbaceous pests, my front lawn was covered in dry spots and infested with grubs and ants. It required constant coddling in order to be happy. Despite my best efforts to border it with beautiful perennial gardens, my lawn of shame ultimately rendered my small landscape ugly and unsightly. 
So after battling it for six years, I decided it was time for the grass to go.
My neighbors must have thought I'd lost it when I pulled a borrowed 12-amp electric rototiller from my garage and slowly tore into the front lawn. Two days later, it was a plot of exposed soil littered with roots and grass clippings. Piles of dead grass covered my property. The Lannon stone pieces I once used as edging for my perennial borders were heaped on my front sidewalk. My once-peaceful -- if ugly -- front lawn was now a hideous open sore. 
Let the healing begin.
I'm not necessarily against grass. But I don't love the idea of relying on herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, excessive city water and gas lawn mowers to keep it tidy and pristine. And while I like a lush green field of Kentucky bluegrass as much as anyone, I love admiring the rare suburban yard that contains no grass, favoring a landscape of varied perennials and hardscaping.
I'd been coveting such a yard for years. But every time I proposed this to my family, they scoffed.
"Where will the kids play?" my husband asked, as if our patchy front lawn were big enough for them to have small softball games.
Hardly. In reality, they run through the yard here and there on their way to the driveway or the neighbors' yards, or as a shortcut to our front door. 
But after this year's terrible drought, our lawn sunk to a new low: it was brown and crispy, with a few green weed clumps dotting the overall parched remains of bluegrass. At that point, my reluctant husband and daughters (who discovered that it's much more fun to play softball at nearby parks) gave me the green light to tear the lawn apart.
Aside from the sheer aesthetics of replacing a lawn with a front yard perennial garden, there are environmental benefits, including:
- Resisting monocultures. An expanse of grass bordered by a few day lilies and yews doesn't give bees and other insects much to pollinate, and it provides a haven for Japanese beetles, whose grubs feed on grass roots. Biodiversity is key to reducing pests by attracting the beneficial insects and birds that prey on them. 
- Conserving resources. Not having grass will, I hope, conserve water -- not just in terms of the city water used to give drink to thirsty grass during summer droughts, but also in terms of preserving rainfall. Deeper perennial roots will drink up more rain water, preventing flooding and run-off. 
- Protecting rivers and lakes. No grass means no need for herbicides and fertilizers. Rain washes at least some of the herbicides and fertilizers we use into our waters.
- Moving toward permaculture. Having a variety of plants in my yard is good for birds and bees, but it's also good for us. It means more space to grow useful plants like my currant bushes and herbs. This allows us to continue moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, one in which we grow as much of our own food as possible on our small city lot while also contributing to a healthier environment.
After rototilling the grass and painstakingly pulling up and composting all the leftover roots, I split overcrowded perennials in my small back yard, bought a few clearance mums, arranged the Lannon stone paths and then planted, watered, and mulched. This is one snapshot of the resulting grass-free front yard:
Now I am looking forward to next spring, when most of those divided perennials will take root and begin to blossom.

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