April 21, 2013

Maine Gardener: Your lawn a yawn? Try something different

By TOM ATWELL

Evelyn Hadden would prefer that yards had no places that require mowing, as she discusses in her new book "Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives." 

She understands that is not desirable or practical for everyone, she told people at a recent Distinguished Speakers Series lecture at Southern Maine Community College. But she offered ways to decrease the amount of lawn they have to tend.

"If you replace your lawn with other plants," Hadden said, "you have more colors and textures, sounds and scents."

For people who don't buy into the idea of completely replacing their lawn -- or for people who would like to eliminate the lawn but are living with someone who is opposed to the idea -- she has some great places to start.

The first places are on slopes, which are difficult to seed with lawn because of erosion and, if you do get the lawn established, are tricky to mow.

Hadden said low-growing perennial plants are ideal for planting on slopes "because when you put a walkway at the bottom of the slope, it brings the little plants closer to eye level."

The plants you want to have on slopes have a good root system, so they will prevent erosion. Some of her recommendations are Jacob's Ladder or Polemonium reptans, a low-growing, flowering summer plant that has some versions with variegated leaves; any number of prairie plants, including echinacea; and any number of grasses.

If you have a muddy and shady slope, Hadden suggests Dryopteris cristata, or a crested wood fern, that will thrive in those conditions.

Slopes are also good places for hardscaping, she said. They can include anything from large boulders with plants placed around them to an artificial stream that could even include a waterfall.

Another place where it makes great sense to eliminate your lawn is under trees. Trees prefer to grow in loose soil, but you compact the soil when mowing. And grass does not grow well under trees because the area is too shady, and the leaves often keep rain from falling directly under the tree. In addition, the tree roots sometimes push above the soil, making it difficult to mow.

It is tough to grow many plants under trees, but two that will work, Hadden said, are simple violets and wild ginger, either the European or the native.

You could also get rid of the lawn on yard fragments. If you have a small strip of lawn that is separated from the rest of your lawn by a driveway, sidewalk, patio or walkway, it makes sense to turn that section into a perennial garden. 

Hadden is not totally opposed to lawns. "Lawn works well as the floor of a garden room," she said. "You should think of your lawn as an area rug, and not wall-to-wall carpet."

She showed several photos of lawn paths to wider areas of lawn in a cul-de-sac, all surrounded by other flowering plants.

If you want grass but do not want to mow, Madden recommends a mixture of fine fescues that will create a shaggy rolling landscape.

"You can mow it, and if you do, it grows more slowly than other grasses," she said. "And fescues can stand shade, they like it dry, and prefer soil that is not so fertile."

Lawn look-alikes that you can use include Mondo grass, liriope, wild iris, sweet flag and a couple of sedges -- Carex pensylvanica or Pennsylvania sedge, and Carex eburnea or bristleleaf sedge. The two sedges look like broadleaf grasses, but have a maximum height of 6 to 10 inches, and can be mowed if you want them a bit shorter.

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