Thursday, February 18, 2010
Lawn – after the house is built, the property is seeded or sodded
Accesorized with beds – Foundation, Corners, Island
-Lacks Aesthetic Cohesiveness
-Lacks Environmental Responsibility
----Exhaust, noise, fuel use, time use to mow
----Potentially invasive plants
Why Lawn? Conformity, yes: presumes lawn exists to conform to
Why Lawn? Visual Calm - relief from clutter
----Instincitvely seen as safe, therefore relaxing
How to achieve Visual Calm without turf grass?
Masses of any single plant
Naturally occurs: Overstory of forest, colonies, wind spread seed
Old way: Default is lawn, beds designed (accessories)
New way: Default is native prairie & woodland, lawn shape is designed as accent
Future goal: Lawn replaced by mass of native prairie or woodland plants
-Circulation: Moving between drive, house, & living spaces
-Enclosing the property and the living spaces
-Screening and distracting
What is wrong with this picture?
Well, a first clue should be how much time we spend out there. If all we do is mow, our yard is not very functional, is it? There are oh, so many things one can do outdoors in ones own yard, and if all we are doing is mowing it, we are missing out on opportunity. It's kind of like having a room in the house that sits empty, never used except to vacuum it once a week. Another issue is that for all the money and time spent on it, it is just not that attractive. In fact, some might go so far as to call it boring, bland, lifeless. There is so much more that could happen out there visually. And finally, it is an environmental train wreck. That weekly mowing not only wastes time, but it wastes energy. The mower uses fossil fuel, pollutes the air and water, and causes noise pollution. We might even put chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers on it. That turf grass contributes to flooding and water pollution, because instead of allowing rain water to soak into the ground, that rain water flows off to the nearest storm sewer. It takes along any chemicals that have washed onto the soil, rushing to the nearest stream to the nearest river. That extra water flow wreaks havoc on the waterway in may different ways, from adding nutrients to polluting it to making its level fluctuate artificially.
The possibility exists that some of those plants might be or might become invasive. Certainly the big drive to landscape with ornamental grasses has caused some of the non-native species to escape into natural areas. There, they compete with the native plants and damage ecosystems. Burning bush and many of the creeping groundcovers have become such pest plants. These unnatural plantings do not serve as home for critters of any type. In presettlement times, each plot of land supported a diverse interacting set of plants and animals. Native ecosystem provided shelter and food for birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, spiders, and a wide array of soil organisms. Turf grass lawns with shrub and perennial borders are not able to serve as habitat, creating a lifeless landscape.
So how did we get here? Why does every landscape begin and end with vast expanses of turf grass lawn? Your first answer might be conformity, because making our yards look like every other yard in the neighborhood is an important factor. But this presumes there is lawn to conform to, and so, how did we get to that point? Well, our instinctive preference is NOT for grass or turf specifically, but for something that is visually calming. We crave visual relief from the clutter of too many different sized plants, sheds, decks and houses. This visual relief reads as "safe" to us. Lawn is a simple cheap way to provide a calming non-challenging blandness to our landscape. So, if we are to give up the lawn and its subsequent mowing and other bad habits, how can we achieve visual relief? With masses of any single plant species. A mass of a low prairie grass is an obvious choice, but there is nothing magical about the visual relief of grass. The mass can be any perennial plant or any shrub or even a wall of the same kind of ornamental trees. This aesthetic occurs naturally in the secessional canopy of a forest that might be mainly maples or widely spaced oaks. It occurs in a prairie where a species of forbs has spread by root into a wide area. It occurs in a woodland where there might be acres of wild geranium or wild ginger or trillium, which have spread into a colony over many years. It occurs in a prairie where wind spreads the seed into a long broad oval. Our impulse as consumers is to buy one of this and three of that, but using the mental discipline of making the entire back property line all the same black chokeberry or serviceberry goes a long way toward achieving the visual calm that the lawn provides.
Next to the prevalence of the lawn, our next big mistake is how we design our spaces. We make lawn accessorized by beds. The little corner beds and the foundation beds are "designed" and then everything else defaults to lawn. In the environmentally sound landscape, we have to turn that habit on its head. We have to design the little token lawn FIRST, then default everything else to native plants. Native plantings becomes the default instead of lawn. The landscape is now one of native plants from various local ecosystems with a little plot of lawn as an accessory to provide that local conformity. As the compliments come in and local acceptance grows, we may then finally convert that patch from turf grass lawn into a meadow of a native plant species, such as a prairie grass or a woodland wildflower that has persistent foliage.
Within that default expanse of native plants, we fit our functional living spaces. We should begin by considering how we spend our day, and then try to move as many of those activities outdoors. We dine, we relax with family, we do crafts, we play games, we work on our computers. So we will place around the landscape little rooms for various functions. Between those spaces, we will put paths. For people arriving at the front driveway, circulation should be provided to a living space in the back yard. Paths should link all doors to the house to the living spaces, and should link each outdoor living space to the others. There should be some paths that are just for strolling among the interesting and beautiful plantings. The living spaces need enclosure. The size and shape of the living space will be defined by the arrangement of its furnishings and the size and shape of the floor under them, and then around that "room", walls need to be added to box it in. Walls can be the trunks of shade trees that also provide ceiling with their branches. Or they can be ornamental trees that are left to grow limbs in a natural form all the way along the trunk instead of being limbed up. Walls can be shrubs or even the tallest of the prairie plants, such as Indian grass and cup plant. Once the living spaces are defined and enclosed, there might be additional areas at the perimeters of the property that need some enclosure. And there may be views that are not pleasant that should be screened with taller plants. Then the remaining area is filled in, with shorter shrubs and prairie grasses and forbs in the sunny areas and woodland understory plants in the shady areas. Now there is shelter for wildlife, perches and nesting sites for birds, flowering plants with nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds and the many native species of bees. There will be seeds for winter birds and small animals. What was once hostile sterile lawn is now fertile and diverse and on its way to becoming ecosystem.
The default is turf grass lawn, accessorized with foundation plantings and a couple perimeter beds and shade tree here and there.
The future of landscape design should be a default of native plants from local ecosystems.
If there is to be any turf at all, that should be designed as an attractive simple shape, with all other land dedicated the default of native plants.
The native planting are should contain the functional ares.
This example has a living/dining space that would have a large picnic table to also be used for family games and crafts and computer use, and a smaller seating area for relaxation and conversation that would have perhaps an L shape of two benches. Paths connect the living spaces, the house exit doors, and the front drive for arriving guests.
Enclosure of the living spaces and screening to provide privacy and hide ugly views fill in the planting areas.
Tall shrubs and ornamental trees provide walls for the living spaces and to enclose the property as a whole. Remaining areas of the planting space are filled in with prairie grasses and forbs in the sunny areas and woodland understory plants in the shady areas. Native plants with especially pretty flowers or interesting leaf form or attractive seed heads can be planted to provide aesthetically pleasing views from the house and the living spaces and along paths.
Not everyone can afford the time or money to do such an extensive project at once, but having a design of the entire area allows the phasing to be done intelligently.
Key living spaces might be given priority to allow functional use of the outdoors as soon as possible, with other areas filled in as time and budget allow. An ideal last phase, after the native landscape is admired and accepted by the neighborhood, would be to replace the turf grass shapes with a mostly single-species mass of a native plant. Prairie dropseed or little bluestem would make a nice visually calm mass if there is enough sun, or wild geranium or wild ginger could be used if the area has become shaded by trees.
See the separately posted article under the same title for a detailed discussion of the topic of designing the landscape in an environmentally responsible manner with native plants.
+ Learn what 'native plant' means and the various subtleties of the concept.
+ Learn what plant ecosystems are native to your area. I presume tallgrass prairie in this document, since I landscape in Illinois and Wisconsin, so you will need to adapt for your region.
+ If you live in a tallgrass region, learn about the plant layers of the prairie, savanna, and woodland.
+ Learn about rainwater runoff and how turf grass compares to prairie.
+ Learn the distinctions between 'natural landscaping', 'environmentally sound landscaping', and 'native landscaping'.
+ Learn reasons 'native' is good and non-native is bad.
+ Learn why chemical pesticides (herbicides and insecticides) are bad and also, some exceptions when their use may be justified.
+ Learn the distinction between 'restoration' and 'recreation'.
+ Learn about landscape installation methods and the debate on the merits of various methods.
+ Hike in prairies and woodlands, observing the arrangements and relationships of the plants and the specific species.
+ Find guided tours of natural areas and listen and ask questions.
+ Volunteer at a seed gathering event at a local natural area.
+ Volunteer at an invasives removal event at a local natural area. "Brush cutting" or "buckthorn removal" are a couple such events.
+ Learn what attracts wildlife: Birds, butterflies, bees, other insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians.
+ Learn about prairie and woodland fire ecology and how to use fire as a maintenance tool.
Reading a book might require a bench, but conversing with friends might require an L-shape of two benches. Playing chess or checkers would require a 'coffee table' between them. Now you have small, relatively private living space that can serve multiple needs. Dining requires a large table and chairs, but it is also a space that you can do crafts on or where several people can play games. If several of you work on computers in the evening, can you provide wireless Internet or cable access and electric access so that you can gather outdoors at the dining table?
There are two key ingredients to living more of your life outdoors. One is thoughtfully planning out the spaces where you can do the things you like to do in an outdoors setting. The second is getting into the habit of getting out there and staying out there. It takes a bit of planning and some effort to make these things happen, but once you begin to spend more of your time outdoors, you begin to appreciate the subtlety of nature more fully. Instead of seeing the flower when it is in full glorious bloom, you will notice the buds and look forward in anticipation of the day they open. You will notice the flowers turning into seed heads or seed pods. You will notice the seed pod opining to release the seeds.
The more time you spend outdoors, the more you then spend quiet time out there, and that leads to the wildlife becoming used to you as a part on their habitat. You will see hummingbirds and bees coming to the flowers for their nectar and notice the different flight patterns of the many kinds of native bees. You will see spiders forming their webs if you stay long enough. Birds get used to you and come in close to get the plant seeds or grab a bit of dried leaf from the ground to line a nest. If you are quiet enough and lucky, you may see raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, opossums, and other animals make their rounds in your yard.
You will come to experience your own piece of nature as a part of it and not just a distant observer, as you watch the day pass into dark and the plants change through the seasons and you will enjoy new dimensions of nature in your very own back yard.
And in winter, your garden spaces will serve as hopeful reminders that spring and green will return, and you will be able to return to living outdoors. So make sure you can see one of them from a window to keep you thinking outdoors all year long.
If 'best for the environment' was the only criteria, then the following would be true:
1) Traditional landscaping where no lawn chemicals are used is better than a traditional landscaping where chemicals are used.
2) Traditional landscaping that is mowed later in spring, mowed less often, and where mowing is stopped earlier in fall and no chemicals are used is better than 1).
3) Traditional landscaping where those steps are taken and all new plantings are native is better than 2).
4) Traditional landscaping where old non-native plants are replaced by native plants is better than 3)
5) Landscaping that is redesigned with very minimal lawn and the rest of the plantings are native plants is better than 4)
6) Naive landscaping with no lawn is better than 5).
If human use is the only consideration
1) Adding some benches and picnic sets to a traditional landscape is a good starting point.
2) Adding good enclosure around living spaces is better than just adding some furniture.
3) Making a serious study of how the family spends their time and designing living spaces that meet those needs is better than just randomly adding living spaces.
4) Planning for purposeful circulation makes the adding of living spaces in 3) even better.
5) Using only native plants in the design will lower the need for maintenance and increase the interest due to increased insect, bird, and wildlife presence.
If fitting into the neighborhood were the most important criteria
1) Traditional landscaping would be the best answer. Period.
If budget was not an issue we would
1) Redesign and install the whole thing this coming spring.
Since all landscapes are influenced by a combination of environmental factors, family needs, a desire to conform to the neighborhood, and family budget, there is no perfect answer.
So the answer right now is the next step that you are ready for that fits your particular combination of conditions and needs and factors. It doesn't matter so much where you are on the continuum of making changes toward a more native natural landscape, but rather that you are identifying which step to take next and making plans to do it. Every change you made is an improvement over what was there before and so should be celebrated even it if does not meet someone elses ideal criteria. A bit a at time, or slow and steady wins the race. You know what I mean, so get on with it!
You can have a very very small lawn in that is designed to be an aesthetically pleasing simple shape and the rest of the 'beds' can be native plantings. You can push the limits yet still 'fit in'.
"Prairie looks messy and wild."
You can find books and catalogs that list prairie plants by height allowing you to design beds with taller plants in the center or in the back, shorter plants along the front and along walks and drives and along neighbor's lawns, and you can fill in between the tall prairie plants and the low prairie plants with medium height prairie plants. This is the same design concept that has been used for years in perennial gardens to keep them looking 'designed' and 'organized'. Planting in masses of each species of plants instead of in a mixed jumble also helps create blocks of color and texture that bring a 'tidier' look to the design.
"I can't burn in my yard so I cannot have prairie."
Most ordinances that prohibit burning of yard waste or garbage have provisions for maintenance burning of a prairie. You file for an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) permit and take that to your fire department to register, and they notify the other agencies such as police and emergency dispatch services. The way to get the fastest answer is to pretend you already have a prairie to burn and file the paperwork and see what objections you raise. Most people find there are none because exceptions have been written into the laws for these landscaping maintenance burns. Even if you uncover laws that are insurmountable, you can still maintain your prairie without fire. Your biggest problem will be the invasion of woody weeds such as buckthorn, Norway maple, boxelder, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, mulberry and others depending on what trees and shrubs are in your neighborhood to be spread by seed to your yard. You can remove these woody weeds to maintain your prairie with an annual mowing. Or you can just inspect the prairie a few times a year and hand cut the seedlings. Hand cutting them will result in resprouting probably multiple sprouts that you will need to cut again for several successive years, or you can treat the cut stump with a glysophate herbicide by spraying it directly onto the stump. This limited herbicide use will prevent the sprouting and reduce woody weed removal to a manageable chore.
"I need lawn for my kids to play."
There are dozens of lawns at your kids' friends houses. There are lawns at school and at parks. There are lawns by churches and businesses where no one will mind if you toss a ball around. Give your kids something special and unique and alive! Give them a prairie with some paths that circle around and some that dead end into little openings and they will play far more imaginative games on them. The plants will be alive with insects that they can observe and it will draw in birds that they can watch and listen to and it will attract cute furry animals and interesting frogs and toads. There will be pretty flowers and once kids notice those, they will notice the interesting buds that lead to the flowers and the amazing seed heads and seedpods that come after the flowers. Kids don't want lawn. Kids want novelty. They can FIND lawn in the neighborhood in so many places that you can afford to give them prairie and when the neighbor kids are jealous, you can let them come over and play in the cool wonderful interesting alive prairie.
Toss around a softball of football or Frisbee.
Kick around a soccer ball.
Get bored and go inside.
What kids can do in a prairie with a network of paths:
Toss around a softball or football or Frisbee and search for it among the plants when they miss.
Kick a soccer ball down the paths.
Invent their own running games on the paths.
Play hiding and seeking games with each other.
Play hiding and seeking games with objects.
Have pretend adventures and explorations.
Act out stories.
Sit in among the tall plants to read.
Sit in among the tall plants to play board games.
Sit in among the tall plants to write in a journal or draw in a sketchbook.
Listen and watch for birds.
Find insects and insect eggs and insect chewings on leaves.
Find spiders and maybe even watch them make webs.
Search for different kinds of flowers.
Find different kinds of seed heads and seed pods.
Make collections of nature things.
Find traces of wildlife.
When a natural garden is being planted where a turf grass lawn now exists, there are a number of ways to 'prepare the bed' for the new native plants. One is to dig up the sod with a sod cutter. If you are going to carry the sod away, off your property, this is a horrible idea. Top soil is a precious resource so why would you give it away? If you have somewhere to compost the sod on your property, this is a fast way to prepare the bed, but should never be used if the sod is going to be hauled off property.
The ideal way to prepare the bed is to cover the turf grass with waste paper such as newspaper, then cover that with mulch and wait several months for the paper to soften and decompose. Then you can move away the mulch, plant the garden, and redistribute the mulch. This is the most environmentally friendly way to plant into turf grass.
However, in many cases, we do not have the luxury of leaving a mulched bed unplanted for so long. A garden on a commercial property or park or church or even in a residential front yard are areas where such a method might cause complaints. In these cases, spraying the turf area with a glysophate herbicide will kill the grass all the way to the roots. When the grass is dead, which takes about 10 days to 2 weeks, you can plant directly into the dead turf, then mulch over it when the planting is complete. The dead turf biodegrades to improve the soil and the dead roots keep the soil stabilized while the new plants fill in.
The other situation where herbicide use is mare valuable than the harm it does is in natural landscaping maintenance to keep invasive woodies out. In a woodland garden, undesired tree and shrub (woody) species such as boxelder, buckthorn, Norway maple, burning bush, and honeysuckle may seed in, threatening to overtake the native trees and shrubs and wildflowers. In a prairie, any woody plant is probably undesired, including those above as well as mulberries, multifora rose, even walnuts or sumac. In these situations, the maintenance burns will keep most of the woodies out, but if you cannot burn or do not burn often enough, you will need to remove them by hand. Once the woody is cut to the ground with a lopper or hand pruner, that stump will resprout, often with several shoots. You can recut them year after year for a number of years before the roots will be starved and the plant finally killed. Or you can spray a tiny amount of an undiluted glysophate herbicide directly onto the cut surface and prevent most resprouting. The labor saved by this careful and minimal herbicide use can mean the difference between a manageable natural landscape and one that ends up abandoned back to traditional landscaping. This is especially true in an area such as a restoration or park or church where precious volunteer labor is being used to keep the woody weeds out. Of course, responsible decisions about use must be made. The glysophate herbicides need a few hours of dry weather to soak in and a few hours of sunlight to be broken down into harmless substances, so never use them just before a rain is predicted, and do use them when sunlight is predicted. Store them carefully to prevent spillage and waste, wear rubber gloves when handling, use with care to prevent spillage on site, wash hands and gloves and bottles in appropriate places, and dispose of gloves and bottles responsibly.
Following is a list of reasons that you might give to support having or NOT having a natural landscape. You can the importance of each one on a scale, or simply designate them as important or not important in order to help you work out your landscaping goals.
(Email me if you want me to send you a Word document with a table of these items)
-Recreate an accurate slice of a native ecosystem to preserve species and ecosystem interaction patterns
-Include native plants to preserve species
-Include native plants for lowered maintenance
-Include native plants for water conservation
-Include native plants for aesthetic reasons
-Keep plants given to me by others or that have sentimental value even if not native
-Remove all natives to make sure my garden is not a source of invasive plants
-Reduce level of chemical use
-Reduce level of energy use
-Reduce level of pollution
-Reduce level of water use
-Reduce amount of water that flows away from property
-Reduce waste of resources
-Reduce impact on landfills
-Reduce creation of noise pollution
-Reduce dependence on petrochemical fuels
-Grow garden produce or other crops for food, decoration or other hobbies
-Grow cut flowers
-Teach kids to enjoy nature
-Teach kids specific details about ecosystems or another aspect of nature
-Teach kids mechanics and process of gardening
-Create a place that attracts garden visitors
-Create a place that educates the public about an aspect of natural landscaping
-Preserve heirloom varieties created by human cultivation
-Create a garden consistent with the historic style of your home
-Preserve or recreate historic aspects of your landscape
-Awe garden visitors
-Get published in a garden magazine or newspaper or gain other forms of public recognition
-Active enjoyment of garden work as a long term hobby
-Presenting an attractive view to the neighbors
-Presenting an attractive view to the street
-Tidy organized look
-Cottage garden look with abundant variety
-Conform to the landscaping norm of your neighborhood
-Provide privacy/screening from neighbors or undesirable views
-An expression of self/personality
-An expression of philosophy/religious views
-To create spaces so that my family can spend more time outdoors
-Low maintenance levels
-Create pretty gardens to look at from house
-Create pretty gardens to look at from outdoors
-Provide spaces outdoors for family to relax
-Provide spaces outdoors for family to dine and cook
-Provide spaces outdoors for entertaining small groups
-Provide spaces outdoors for entertaining large groups
-Provide spaces for active outdoor recreation
-Provide peaceful soothing spaces
-Provide secret private hideaways
-Provide space for gathering around fire
-Provide adventure or themed or imaginative gardens for children
-Limit size of lawn to minimize mowing/for other environmental reasons
-Limit money spent on landscaping