If you’ve heard of the less-lawn movement, then you know why Plymouth author and speaker Evelyn Hadden advocates for having something more interesting than a sea of green grass in her backyard.
If you’re not, then prepare to be enlightened by a handful of our city’s own movers and shakers.
The philosophy of removing plain lawn and replacing it with brick walkways, garden beds, trees and anything, really, is attractive in a number of ways. Some people want to spend less time (and money) maintaining the perfect lawn. Others want a more environmentally friendly option to grass, which can require a lot of water and weed-killing chemicals. Many find they want something more striking to the senses.
Hadden launched the website lesslawn.com in 2001 to highlight the benefits of adding alternative groundcover and plants—and it all started with her own experiences. “I was a new homeowner, and I had moved into my small urban lot in St. Paul. It was just bare, and it was just—lawn,” she says. “I got sick of looking at it.”
Then Hadden caught the gardening bug. Throughout her five years in the city, she gradually replaced all but one strip of grass on her 40-foot by 150-foot property with birch trees, lilacs, an apple tree and other natural beauties. After moving to Plymouth in 2002, she found more locals who thought “bare grass” was a bit boring as well.
Marte Hult, Peggy Willenberg and Karen Graham’s yards are all a part of Hadden’s latest book, Beautiful No-mow Yards. Hult, a gardener for 16 years, describes herself as “probably the only Plymouth resident with a sod stripper.” After 36 years in town, she’s grown enthusiastic about one particular groundcover: Creeping thyme. “It’s great because you don’t have to do anything to this,” Hult says. No watering, no mowing, no fertilizing. Plucking a few light-green sprigs is the only notable upkeep, she says, adding, “It smells terrific.”
Creeping thyme lives well in Hult’s sunny, south-facing garden. For the shady space under her apple tree, lamium is her ground-cover of choice, working well with the Plymouth soil. “[Lamium] has pretty yellow flowers in the spring and slightly broader leaves,” Hult says. “It doesn’t need much care once it’s established; it’s low-maintenance.”
Shrubs like variegated dogwood plus native plants, such as ninebark, high bush cranberry, and vibernum, have worked wonderfully for Hult in adding some height to her foliage; by planting them around one side of her screened gazebo, she and husband Mike can relax in a little naturally private space.
Willenberg is a bit more environmental with her opinion, preferring raised garden beds as her means of having less lawn. “Lawns are monocultural wastelands,” she states boldly. “They support very little natural life, while pouring chemicals into our waters. The less lawn we have, the better off our environment will be.”
A resident of South Carolina for the past two years, Willenberg lived in Plymouth for 17, filling her space with spring ephemerals, restored prairie grass, tree peonies and even a woodland pond. She suggests that an area supporting amphibians, birds and insects makes you feel good: “[All the wildlife] in turn enriched our life with their presence,” she says.
Both Willenberg and Hult went the organic route for their gardens, and both spaces are now certified wildlife habitats. The National Wildlife Federation deems a lawn or garden a “Certified Backyard Habitat” if the space supports various kinds of wildlife by providing food, water, shelter and places for wildlife to raise their young (visit nwf.org for more information).
Graham enjoys all the butterflies and birds that come through her oak sedge and ginger meadow. She says kids in the neighborhood can enjoy the outdoors a lot more, too. “It’s much more fun when you turn over a leaf and turn over a rock and ask, ‘What's underneath?’ This way [being outside] is more about exploration and discovering the unexpected.”
Only about 30 percent of Graham’s yard is grass, because she says there are better options. In the end, she notes, "It’s more about what makes sense. Is it really more fun to push around a mower?"
Learn more about the local movement at lesslawn.com.