Take a walk or drive through almost any subdivision in any town or suburb or even rural area today and you will see the sad sad state of landscape design. We build a house, we level the land, we bring back a token layer of topsoil, then we sod it over or seed it to turf grass. At some point when we build up enough financial reserve from the devastation of the mortgage, we "landscape" the place. That means we put a few things around the foundation of the house, we plunk a couple shade trees into the lawn, and we plant a couple corner beds to mark our turf so we can point out the perimeters of our plot of land to visitors from inside the house. We never go out there, except to mow, which we do regularly every Saturday morning for the rest of our lives. If we are really adventuresome and fancy ourselves hobby flower gardeners, we add an island bed almost all the way out in back and put in some perennials and some ornamental grasses and a bird bath on a pedestal.
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.