Rethinking the front lawn

There are many ways to break away from tradition

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Traditional lawns are everywhere, parks, golf courses, right of ways, ball fields — maybe even your front yard is a host to these seas of verdant green.

We are conditioned at an early age that here is where play happens. Roll down that hill, kick the ball, throw out a blanket and have a picnic. They are also the source of many wasted hours on weekends or evenings mowing, watering, spraying, drenching, fretting and competing with your neighbors to have the perfect lawn.

I can’t say the I am either for or against the big green monsters that occupy so many acres of public and private space. I do believe that it is time to shift our perceptions about lawns.

In a rethinking of what a lawn is or could be there are a plethora of interesting alternatives that provide more to a localized ecosystem then a nice place to sit.

Many of the grasses that constitute our lawn spaces come from a complicated and beautiful web of plant diversity. Many of the healthiest places have more than monoculture.

Introduce some flowers into your existing lawn. Trifoliumrepens or Dutch white clover has been a popular addition to turf areas for many years. This plant fixes atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, requires very little water, tolerates mowing, provides pollen and nectar for pollinators, and helps out compete less desirable weeds. There are also species of Erigeron or fleabane that will add to your lawn’s diverse ecosystem. Simply by embracing and introducing some diversity into your lawn you can greatly reduce the amount of irrigation needed to keep it green, lush and, healthy. You are also likely going to reduce the amount of herbicide and pesticide use in your space. 

There are beautiful low to no water use alternatives to the traditional bluegrass fescue mix that is everywhere. Plant Select promotes Dog Tuff as an alternative to the high-water lawn. This grass requires water only a few times a year. The texture is incredibly fine and can either be mowed or left to hummock and billow. This is a favorite area for visitors to the Steppe Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens to kick off their shoes and go barefoot for a moment of connection to the ground and embrace the ever-soft texture. Another popular alternative is our own native Buchloedactyloides or buffalo grass. There are so many selections that there will undoubtedly be a perfect one for you and your space. Both grasses are warm season grasses so the length of time that they are green and actively growing are limited to warmer months in Colorado. The benefit to that is less water, fewer mowings and you can support bulb plantings giving your lawn a wash of color before it wakes up and knows anything even happened!

Now that we are strong and confident in the knowledge that we don’t need a lawn dictating our weekends, what’s next? The seeded prairie super nature is a trend that is making big waves in the horticultural world. Denver Botanic Gardens has embraced this wondrous new trend by installing approximately 10,000 square feet along the Josephine Street scape. This living laboratory embraces the fact that plants do best when there is a diversity of forbes combined in a collage of steppe splendor. A stylized and diverse prairie takes care of itself with little help from us. There are seed companies that have meadow and prairie mixes ready for sowing. These mixes are developed with simplicity in mind — get them established and you will be inviting nature into your lives and creating habitat for a diminishing world of resources for birds, bees, butterflies and other important pollinators. 

When we rethink what it means to have a lawn, we begin moving towards a more sustainable life right at our front doors. Do we need to be rid of all the turf grass? I don’t think so. Let’s leave them in the parks and the sports fields where we can play and enjoy them in ways that are appropriate to a community. In our homes though, it’s time to cut the hose and embrace the natural world. Make some small or large changes to your outdoor-scape and you start a sea change of positivity for the world. There is a lot to learn and an endless number of options. Your home and area formerly known as lawn, should be unique and charismatic, just like you.

Mike Bone is the curator of Steppe Collections with the Denver Botanic Gardens. He can be reached at horticulture@denverbotanicgardens.org.

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