Sustainable, Turf-Free Lawns are Catching On

“Slowly we’re learning about the environmental damage done in the name of the Great American Lawn—the wasted water, the fertilizers running off into waterways, the lawn pesticides harming everything they touch—we’re seeing connections between disappearing wildlife and the vast acreage we’ve devoted to a single plant that provides virtually nothing for wildlife.”

—Susan Harris, Founder, Lawn Reform Coalition

It’s been decades since mobile lawn-care outfits came on the scene, promising homeowners green, easy-care lawns that would be weed- and pest-free. Now, upstart services promise to eradicate pesky mosquitoes via periodic applications of pesticides. But is better living through chemistry really better?

Many of the chemicals are toxic to bees, fish and small aquatic organisms, even if they claim to be organically derived, and can reside in the environment for long periods of time, with the potential to bioaccumulate. Fertilizers used to maintain those unbroken, suburban ribbons of green turf contribute to excess nitrogen in our waterways. Plus, maintaining a pristine turf can be time-consuming, costly and noisy.

But there is a better way. Increasing numbers of property owners are advocating for no-mow, turf-free yards and are redefining the lawn as one of many potential landscape elements. The multi-stage process includes removal of existing turf and replacing it with native plants, perennials, herbs, bulbs, native grasses and zone-appropriate trees. In addition, many homes and commercial properties now boast rain gardens which mitigate the polluting effects of stormwater runoff, conserve water and create additional wildlife habitat.

To find out how a turf-free yard works within the confines of a traditional suburban neighborhood, we reached out to Barbara Gavin, River Star Homes Program Manager for the Elizabeth River Project, who suggested we pay a visit to Elizabeth Francis, a ‘true eco-warrior,’ and long-time resident of Larchmont in Norfolk.

Here’s what Francis had to say about her own lawn conversion journey:

What inspired you to create a no-turf yard?

For over 30 years I taught elementary and middle school students on military bases all over the world. I gardened in each country but was particularly inspired by the less formal English gardens and the many grassless gardens that one sees so often in the Netherlands. I loved their structure and the ways in which Dutch gardeners utilized bulbs and drifts of color. When I came back to Norfolk to live permanently, I enrolled in a Master Gardener course to become reacquainted with the area’s horticulture. I knew I wanted a grassless yard reminiscent of the ones I had come to love. It was a somewhat novel concept.

How long ago did you start the conversion process, and how long did it take until the project was complete?

I began 20 years ago. I knew when I started that there could potentially be time or physical limitations, so I did the turf removal over a 10-day period. If I had to do it all over again, I might use a more gradual approach like solarization. The yard looked terrible for the first year because I waited for the right season for perennials and native plants. It took about three years for the changeover to reach maximum impact and sustainability. Now it requires only light maintenance. I don’t need to water, and the leaf litter from my dogwood, maple and pine trees enriches the soil and provides habitat for beneficial insects and smaller wildlife. The soil is rich—I don’t need to use fertilizer or pesticides—only a little herbicide for a particularly stubborn weed if I can’t get at the root—but it’s a last resort.

Did you always have a plan for the types of plantings and general flow of the yard?

Yes. I wanted natives, perennials and plants that would self-seed. Annuals would be a waste of money. A primary goal was to attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators to my yard. Wanting to raise butterflies, I grew plant varieties that would support them at every stage of development. Inspired by the Dutch gardens, I also envisioned large areas of color provided by bulbs. I planted daffodils, and now I have about 1,500 of them. I also wanted plants that would provide interest in ‘off’ seasons like the winter-blooming honeysuckle that’s so lovely, and for which the bees are grateful. A collateral impact of my lawn conversion is that I can share plants and seeds with others.

How did your neighbors react? Was there any pushback from the city of Norfolk in terms of ordinance compliance?

Actually, I have received loads of positive reinforcement. People drive by my yard and take pictures of it with their cellphone cameras. At points, there were a few neighbors who were resistant, thinking that my ideas were crazy—but Norfolk has a rule that plantings, even on the median strips, are OK if the plants aren’t over 18” tall. Each city has different ordinances, so property owners will need to do their homework.

What most surprised you about the conversion process, and what lessons did you learn?

I’m constantly surprised by the quantity and variety of wildlife my yard now attracts. I am seeing much more diversity since the lawn conversion. Inevitably, over time, I’ll forget what I’ve planted in a given location, and am pleasantly surprised when something beautiful pops up. As for lessons learned, I might have gone a little lighter on the daffodils; it would have given me more space for other things.

What advice would you give others who are interested in renovating their lawns and adopting a no-mow approach?

Enlarging existing beds and borders is a good way to start. As for plants, zinnias, poppies, daisies, day lilies, verbena, Japanese anemone and self-seeders like coreopsis give you a lot of bang for your buck. Salvia is a hit with butterflies. Let things happen and allow the process to surprise you; don’t try to control everything. Remember that you’re not trying to imitate Colonial Williamsburg. There will be setbacks, and some plants won’t work out as planned, but in the end, you’ll be rewarded many times over.

I know that eventually, someone else will own my property, and there’s no guarantee they won’t undo all my work by putting in a lawn. But that’s okay—the daffodils will have the last word.


Learn more about no-mow, turf-free lawns with these reads:

Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives by Evelyn Hadden

Rain Gardens: A Landscape Tool to Improve Water Quality from Virginia Department of Forestry

The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession by Virginia Scott Jenkins

Beth Hester
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