Tidy, well-mowed lawns of bluegrass are the norm in the Quad-City region, but some landscapers/gardeners are suggesting different approaches that are more environmentally friendly and that they find more appealing, not just for their looks but also for the wildlife they attract.
One of these "shrinking lawn" advocates is Evelyn Hadden, a Plymouth, Minn., gardener and writer who will bring her message to Muscatine, Iowa, on Saturday, March 19.
She will be the keynote speaker at the "Art of Gardening" seminar sponsored by Iowa State University/Muscatine County Extension and Muscatine Community College.
Knowing that husband-wife homeowners often disagree on the idea of reducing the lawn, Hadden will offer some "less-controversial" ways to begin, such as turning a slope over to groundcover or other perennials. This has the added bonus of eliminating mowing where it can be dangerous.
Another idea is to convert an area that is cut off from the bulk of your lawn by a sidewalk, fence or driveway.
"It's easier to agree on when it's limited in size, when it's a fragment you can do in a weekend," Hadden said. "And a little place like that can make a big impact on your yard, making it a real place, not just an area where the eye moves past."
Still another idea is to build a rain garden, a landscape feature that has received a lot of attention in the Quad-Cities as a way to beautify the landscape while reducing water runoff (thereby reducing erosion downstream) and infiltrating water into the ground where it can be filtered and cleaned. In this way you are replacing your grass with a planting that provides a service.
Another "service" planting is an herb garden. "Think of the cost savings," Hadden said. "One little sprig of something in the grocery store might cost as much as one plant. But with that one plant, you eat all season."
Reducing one's lawn is environmentally friendly because lawns - if you want them to look good - generally require fertilizer (for growth), herbicides (to keep down broadleaf weeds such dandelions), insecticides (do you have grubs?) water (to keep the bluegrass growing when it's dry) and mowing, which usually means the burning of fossil fuel and contributes to pollution.
The inputs (fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides) require energy to make and transport, and they introduce chemicals into the environment, often making their way into streams through runoff.
"Every little yard really does make a difference," Hadden said of trying to be more environmentally friendly and creating habitat.
Diverse plantings are fun, satisfying
But there are other advantages besides reducing your environmental footprint.
By planting something other than grass, you get away from a monoculture and into a rich mix that makes for a more interesting landscape while offering sustenance for wildlife such as birds, butterflies, insects, squirrels and rabbits.
And for people like Hadden, that is extremely satisfying. It is also the reason she gardens.
She realizes her message probably doesn't resonate with homeowners who simply want something "nice-looking" around their houses, and she knows that the sometimes-tangled look of her plantings is an acquired taste.
But she thinks the "less lawn" time has come, both in the back yard, where people usually begin the conversion, as well as in the front yard.
"I think this is a huge trend, a big cultural shift we're experiencing in the way people think about their landscapes," she said. "I see it all across the country. It's really becoming way more diverse. It is a shift in our aesthetics."
She likens the non-lawn look to a person you don't know very well, but the more you get to know the person, the more you come to appreciate and like them.
Another point she wants to make is that working with a more diverse landscape is "really fun."
"Gardening is fun, and diversity is really interesting," she said. "People have a natural affinity for plants and animals, and it (diverse landscaping) does draw you there and adds to your quality of life."
How it's playing in Muscatine
Jo Ann Christofferson, a Muscatine County Master Gardener who suggested Hadden as a speaker, has put some of the "less lawn" ideas into practice in her own yard.
This past fall, she began the installation of three different areas, one with daylilies, another with birch trees and another with stands of ornamental grasses, accented with an old pull-behind horse plow.
Converting from grass to other plantings takes time and does mean work because you first have to kill the grass. Christofferson began with an application of the herbicide Roundup (active ingredient glyphosate), and then she set down old newspapers and mulch as an extra precaution.
Her experience is that dandelions and other broadleaf weeds can sometimes peek through, even after using Roundup.