The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

Rick Grossberg has converted half his front yard from lawn to landscaping.

The de-lawning movement is slowly taking hold in the Richmond region. Converting grass into flower beds and vegetable gardens creates more attractive yards, cuts the expense of lawn maintenance and helps clean the Bay.

by James A. Bacon

About 20 years ago, Rick and Judy Grossberg moved into what he calls a “standard suburban house” on Westham Parkway in Henrico County. It had a big yard with a u-shaped driveway, some trees and a huge expanse of grass. Dissatisfied with both house and yard, he has worked a remarkable transformation over the years, adding new wings, building a back deck and converting much of the lawn into flower beds, hedges, mulch islands and an herb and spice garden in the back.

Dispensing with the driveway, Grossberg designed a small parking area close to the street and he added a series of steps and small landings leading up the slope to a shrubbery-lined retaining wall. The idea, he explains, was to create transitions from a public space on the street to a semi-public space midway up the steps, and then to a private space at a front stoop mostly screened from the neighbors .

From lawn to farm

In the back, Grossberg fenced in a quarter of the yard and erected garden beds where his wife grows rosemary, thyme, parsley, oregano, hot peppers and other herbs and spices they use in cooking. While both spouses are serious “foodies,” he concedes that Judy does most of the gardening. She plans the crops and handles the planting and weeding. His role, he smiles, is limited mainly to plucking herbs when they’re needed in the kitchen.

It would be an oversimplification to say that his plan was motivated by a desire to eliminate as much turf as possible. But a smaller lawn, which consumes only 60% of the expanse that it once did, was a tremendous fringe benefit, Grossberg says. He doesn’t have much use for grass lawns. They’re visually uninteresting, they require excessive maintenance, and they’re an environmental blight. Says he: “I’d get rid of all of it, if I could.”

There aren’t many people like the Grossbergs in the suburban wonder world of Henrico County’s West End, a locale where most homeowners still strive to maintain the greenest, best manicured lawn in the subdivision. The lawn, the origins of which can be traced to 17th-century English and Scottish noblemen, has become such a dominant fixture in North American suburbia that most people cannot imagine a yard without one. Indeed, the aesthetic standard of the well-tended lawn is so deeply embedded in municipal codes and homeowner-association covenants that it is effectively illegal to let the grass go to seed.

But the Grossbergs are not entirely alone. Lurking on the fringes of respectable society, a “de-lawning” movement is gathering strength. Patch by patch, homeowners are converting barren swaths of fescue and ryegrass into flower beds and vegetable gardens. Increasingly, Virginians are OK with the idea that their front lawn will never look like a putting green. Many are managing their lawns to reduce fertilizer run-off into the Chesapeake Bay. And a handful advocate a back-to-nature approach of reinventing lawns as meadows populated by prairie grasses that never need cutting or fertilizing.

Reasons to hate lawns

There are ample reasons to loath lawns. First and foremost for the typical suburban dweller with a half-acre of grass to mow, grass requires constant maintenance in order to keep it looking good.

Lawns also need to be trimmed, fertilized and aerated. Chemicals must be applied to eliminate pests ranging in Virginia from slime mold and gray leaf spot to white grubs and caterpillars. When rain is plentiful, mushrooms and other fungi proliferate. When rainfall is deficient, the grass turns brown — unless you can afford an irrigation system, another major expense. Keeping a lawn in tip-top shape requires loads of work — unless you outsource it to landscapers, in which case it requires more money.

Making matters worse for Virginians, says Pattie Bland, coordinator of the Master Gardener program in Hanover County, “You’re fighting against nature. You’re introducing a species that’s not well suited to local climatic conditions.” Virginia, she explains, is situated in a transitional zone between northern, cool-season grasses and southern warm-season grasses, with the result that neither type thrives here.

Lawns are odious for environmental reasons as well. Short-cropped grasses may not be as bad as concrete and asphalt but they don’t do as much as flower beds and rain gardens to absorb rain and slow water run-off. Also, fertilizer washes into creeks and streams, ultimately ending up in the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries where it feeds fish-killing algae blooms.

Moreover, turf grass is an ecological desert. Unlike natural prairie grasses and wild flowers, which typically grow three or more feet tall, grass lawns don’t provide a habitat for much more than grubs and worms. Lawns do nothing to support bumble bees, butterflies and other pollinators. They provide no cover to ground-nesting birds or other wildlife. Read more.

6 Responses to The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

  1. These are really interesting ideas.

    One big problem looms as you note. Home Owners Associations are so ossified in their covenants that are dictated by the real estate industry and lawyers that you’d have to have a gigantic rewrite. Not only would that be onerous, they wouldn’t want to do it in the first place.

    Another example is why subdivisions are given the same set of banal, unimaginative and absolutely neutral names. Marketing dictates it.

  2. Do the covenant Nazis still run your homeowners association?

    I think it would be very entertaining to see how they would react to the Galuszka household planting prairie grass in the front yard!

  3. They are a lot better these days but I did invest in that big lawn tractor which I enjoy very much.

    How about you, do you have an HOA?

  4. Yeah, that’s right, go ahead and make your yard into a prairie. The insurance company will love you for it. That’s the kind of environmental thinking that the transplanted New Yorkers came up with out in Colorado. They got the idea from the Bay Area dimwits who moved back to nature in the Sierra Nevada.

  5. a lot of sites would benefit from engineering and design to help determine what to do and a simply grass swale can be just as effective or more so than “prairie”.

    engineered swales are all the rage:

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/images/features_widecolumn/feature_green_infilt_swale_howardave_sketch.jpg

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