Alternative to Traditional Lawns

Jim Gallion
Master Gardener & NWF Habitat Steward
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

Here are some figures from Wildones Natural Landscapers, Ltd. that will be of use to all of us in these times of gas prices, wasting money and environmental problems in the U.S.

  • 67,000,000 pounds of synthetic pesticides are used on U.S. lawns.
  • 580,000,000 gallons of gasoline are used in lawnmowers
  • $25,000,000,000 is spent for the lawn care industry (yes, billions!)
  • $700,000,000 is spent for pesticides for U.S. lawns
  • 20,000,000 + acres are planted in residential lawns
  • $5,250,000,000 is spent on fossil fuel-derived fertilizers for U.S. lawns

Well, now we can see why things are changing! The mowed lawn aesthetic originated in the late 18th century from aristocratic France and England. Landscape architect Andre LeNotre designed small lawn areas for the palace of Versailles. This aesthetic was rapidly adopted by the rich of England, because turf grass grew easily in the English climate of moderate temperatures and frequent rain. The U.S. colonists also adopted the lawn aesthetic in an attempt to transform the wilderness of the new country into the sophistication of the old world. The middle class did not copy the wealthy look until after the civil war, with the stimulus of the new landscape architects leading the way. Soon, in the early 20th century we were being bombarded by advertising to have that "look" and in many cases shamed into submission by what the Joneses had next door.

If you want to reduce your mowing time and costs, you would benefit from a turf reduction and redesign of your current landscape. Lets start with your turf.

To start your project on turf reduction you'll want to start out small. Use a guideline of percentages. You can start off with a 10 percent reduction the first year with an overall goal of 50 percent. Pick a spot in your landscape on the outside edge of the lawn and work your way in and out to the sides until you have another planting bed. These areas will soon be linked as you continue your quest. To kill off existing turf the best method is to smother the turf with a layer of newspaper then two inches of compost and an inch of mulch.

Another way is to use bags of top soil. Lay the bags down next to each other on top of the turf. Both of these methods will kill the turf in about 2 months then you can plant right into the material left over from your smothering. Be sure to discard the plastic bags if you used that method.

The turf you have left will serve as a walkway and leisure area to enjoy your new gardens! Try not to disturb the soil. Disturbed soils will help weed seeds germinate very quickly. Plant directly into the killed off turf and amend the soil in the planting hole with compost. Use as many native plants local to the piedmont region as possible. Native trees and shrubs should be the backbone of any new garden area. Then fill in with wonderful blooming native perennials and grasses then mulch the entire area.

The Maryland Native Plant Society has a wonderful web site with great information and links at

Another great site for information on a native plant list for our area and wildlife is Your new turf reduction plan will begin to "grow" on you and you'll see the benefits in no time as well as enjoying the beauty of your new plants and beauty of the wildlife that will appear.

Be ready to welcome birds, butterflies and neighbors over for a visit!

Read other articles on ecological gardening & native plants

Read other articles by Jim Gallion