Reducing the lawn, two bricks at a time. Photo by Tom Atwell

We’re reducing our lawn two bricks at a time.

Lawns, especially the high-maintenance sort treated with weed-killing fertilizers, have come under criticism in recent years because they provide nothing for pollinators or other native creatures. We don’t plan to ever get rid of all of it – it’s handy for walking and working in the garden – but the lawn is a much less dominant part of our landscape than it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

Let me explain the brick, first. When we had our house built in 1975, the town of Cape Elizabeth had just finished demolishing most of the buildings that made up Officers Row at Fort Williams. Anyone was free to pick up the remaining bricks, and we got a lot of them.

We used those bricks to create edges for our perennials borders, as well as to build a patio, walkways and our driveway. We like the look and the cost. Since then, I’ve sometimes found free bricks at the Cape Elizabeth transfer station.

Over time, we developed what we call a “kitty path” as edging to our perennial gardens. (When we had cats, they liked to walk on the bricks.) This path is three bricks wide, and the bricks are laid flat, level with the lawn on one side and the garden on the other side. This means that, when I mow, I can run one side of the mower right along the outer brick and not have to return later to trim the edge lawn.

Looking back, I wish the town had preserved those Officers Row structures. To get an idea of what they looked like, visit the Cape Elizabeth Historic Preservation Society, which is located in one of the remaining buildings.


While wandering our gardens and taking photos of blossoms a few weeks ago, we noticed that many of the plants – hosta, irises, day lilies, peonies and more – had expanded so much that they were trying to escape over the bricks and onto the lawn.

Rather than prune the plants, we decided to expand the garden beds. On most of our property, the brick borders are three bricks wide. I am moving them over slightly to give the beds more space and the lawn less. I do it by leaving the lawn-side row of bricks in place, using a trowel to dig up two bricks worth of adjacent lawn, then moving the bricks that had been nearest to the garden to the border area I’ve just dug out. At this rate, we will never eliminate our lawn, and that’s fine. It serves as a handy path around our yard, letting us walk easily and tend the gardens.

Removing bricks is not the only way we are reducing our lawn.

We took part in no-mow May again this year, although less strictly than in the previous two years. The trend has come under some recent criticism, including from “Bringing Nature Home” author Doug Tallamy, who said letting grasses grow tall isn’t useful unless native flowering plants grow among the grasses. Others have criticized the practice because it provides habitat for ticks, mosquitoes and other unpleasant insects.

Much of our lawn is filled with violets – purple, white and yellow – and I would never mow there until the violets have finished blooming. They did not bloom as prolifically this year as in the past two years, but they still made a decent showing, and I hope the Fritillary butterflies and bees took advantage. When the grass got to be about a foot tall, I mowed some areas of the lawn that host no flowering plants.

These daises seeded themselves in the Atwell’s lawn and were a nice surprise. Photo by Tom Atwell

Last year, a nice patch of field daisies surprised us among the violets. This year, that patch grew more prominent. Though daisies came from Europe and Asia, as far as I know they are not on any invasive-plant lists and they’re said to be good for pollinators. Our field daisies are not the fancy kind, like the Shasta daisies created by famed hybridizer Luther Burbank, but they are pretty, and I think we’ll keep them around.

Daisies are considered meadow flowers, but our lawn still would not qualify as a meadow.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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