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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.

Plants on the Cheap

Fall gardening, plant clearance sales, bargain hunting, local garden centers

By September of each year, gardening often falls off my radar. I'm a college instructor, and once the new academic year kicks into gear my gardening passion simmers, usually until I begin starting seeds indoors in late winter. 

This year has been a bit different. I did very little gardening over the summer because of the wretched drought and heat. So I didn't get my gardening fix. Maybe because I had a gardening itch that needed scratching, I decided in September to rip out my lawn and replace it with perennial beds – something I've wanted to do for years. 
I was able to replace much of the removed grass with perennials I divided from my own yard. But what I had wasn't quite enough. I needed more plants – and cheap. Thankfully, this time of year it's fairly easy to come by inexpensive perennials. In the fall, most local nurseries mark down their inventory considerably. 
Overall, while some nurseries are picked-over, others still have a nice variety of interesting perennials at reduced prices, and will have them through at least mid-October (some through early November). With Indian summer upon us, it's a great time to do some last-minute planting. 
Is it safe to plant perennials in the fall? According to Mike Osheim, Assistant Lot Foreman of Stein Garden and Gifts, it's generally safe to plant hardy perennials and shrubs until the ground is frozen. 
"I've planted stuff really late and it's come back," he said.
Below is a wrap up of what seven garden centers within a ten-mile radius of Wauwatosa have to offer this fall. Nurseries are arranged according to their approximate distance from the Village of Wauwatosa.
8520 West North Avenue, Wauwatosa
414.453.8450 ‎
Approx. 1.5 miles from the Village
Good for: Local pumpkins and firewood, some clearance plants, supporting the little guy
This is a cute, happy place where I always try to buy my annuals in the spring. Their fall selection is VERY limited, though you will find a few perennials and shrubs – and I mean very, very few – at discounted prices. For those of us on the east side of Tosa, Wisconsin Garden and Pet is worth supporting in whatever ways possible because it's in the neighborhood. So if you're looking for fall bulbs, pumpkins, firewood, or discounted catmint, be sure to check them out.
12217 West Watertown Plank Road, Wauwatosa
Approx. 3 miles from the Village
Good for: unique half-price perennials (get them before they're gone!)
Hands-down, my favorite garden center this fall is Hawks. Now, I should preface this by saying that I almost never visit Hawks in-season. I'm a bargain hunter, and I always try to buy plants at the cheapest prices (my favorite source is the Master Gardener plant sale in late May). The thing about Hawks is it's very boutique – they have lovely plants, unique cultivars that gardeners like me drool over. But they are sold at premium prices I can almost never afford. But this time of year, those unique cultivars, while somewhat less bountiful than in the spring, are sold at half price. When I visited this week, for example, I was able to buy an interesting sedum hybrid ('golden acre') that I don't have for just under $4. I also got a beautiful "Red-Leaved Thrift" plant for the same price. Score.
Fred's Garden Center
6238 West Appleton Avenue, Milwaukee
414.442.4492 ‎
Approx. 3 miles from the Village
Good for: healthy, well-nurtured perennials at slightly reduced prices, supporting the little guy
I'd never even heard of Fred's until a Google search of local garden centers yielded their name and address. So I recently checked them out and wow – what a little gem this place is! This small garden center owned by locals Fred and Dianne Rayner consists of a few tightly arranged greenhouses tucked away on Appleton and 62nd Streets in Milwaukee's Enderis Park. Fred's is open year-round, though they usually sell out of most of their perennials in the mid-fall and focus on Christmas trees, tropicals and cemetery arrangements during the winter months. Currently they are selling gorgeous, healthy, perennials, grasses, mums, and hanging baskets at prices ranging from 3.99 for a one-quart perennial (five for $18) to $7.99 for a one-gallon perennial. All Fred's plants are grown from seed on location. 
12000 West Burleigh Street, Wauwatosa
Approx. 4 miles from the Village
4100 North 124th Street, Wauwatosa
414.353.5471 ‎
Approx. 5 miles from the Village
Both are good for: discounted filler, shrubs
I'm actually going to lump Lowes and Home Depot together because they are so similar. Both big box stores are discounting their already affordably-priced plants this time of year. You'll find healthy-ish plants at modest discounts and sick, dormant or half-dead plants at deeper discounts, though the selection is limited. I like to visit both of these stores from time-to-time to check out their sales, though the variety of cultivars they offer is pretty humble – lots of hostas and daylilies and mums and shrubs – nothing terribly unique. Supplies should last through late October / early November, when both stores bring in their Christmas trees. Lowes did have several blueberry plants on sale, if you care to try your hand at growing the acid-loving plant in our alkaline soils (I haven’t had much luck yet, but I'm still trying!).
14845 West Capitol Drive, Brookfield
262.783.2323 ‎ 
Approx. 7 miles from the Village
Good for: clearance ground cover and dormant perennials, while they last
According to Mike Osheim, there are many shrubs left at discounted prices – deciduous shrubs are 20 percent off and evergreens are 30 percent off. There may also still be some deeply discounted perennials in small pots – most of them dormant – for a dollar or two a piece. Plant purchases come with a two-year warranty. Supplies typically last until mid November and will be discounted until they sell. 
7777 North 76th Street, Milwaukee
Approx. 8.5 miles from the Village
Good for: unique perennials at discount prices
Minors isn't the least expensive of nurseries, but visiting is still a treat for serious gardeners because of the breadth of their plant varieties. Collectors of coral bells, sedums, and other perennials will delight in the wide array of cultivars offered at this family-owned nursery in business for over six decades. I regret to say this is the one nursery I haven't made it to this fall, mainly due to very annoying construction on Capitol Drive north of Wauwatosa. So I called the store and retail manager Henry Beck gave me the low-down. He told me they are having a parking lot sale and still have "the full complement of deciduous and evergreen shrubs." 4 1/2" potted perennials are half-off. Of the 600 varieties they once sold in the spring, they are down to about 150 varieties – still a good selection. Beck said they also have an excellent selection of gallon-size grasses, which never go on sale because if they don't sell, they'll be heeled-in until the spring. Plants are usually sold until the middle of November
Good for: locating discounted plants grown by hobby gardeners
I've found some excellent spring plant sales through Craigslist, some on par with the Master Gardener's perennial sale. So now I always try to check Craigslist first when in need of plants. Go to and search with the keyword "plants" and/or "plant sale." You may have to drive out to the country for some sales, but at $1 a pop for each perennial, the 20 to 30 minute drive is often worth it.
Take care of your new plants!
After planting all my new discounted plants, I mulched them heavily in order to protect their roots from the coming cold. I normally spread mulch in the spring, usually every other year. I had to cover the soil in my front yard so I ordered five cubic yards of the economy-grade mulch from Melvin Mulch in Milwaukee. Cost me about $60. Now I feel confident that my new fall plantings will have the best chance possible of coming to life again next spring. 

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