"bye Bye Grass"

By Valerie Lemke

February 20, 2009 5 min read


Lawns are giving way to natural landscaping

Valerie Lemke

Creators News Service

If the grass is always greener at your neighbor's house, the weeds beat out the turf in your front yard and you can no longer afford the gardener, perhaps it's time to return to nature.

"Nothing needs to be watered, pruned, fertilized or requires motorized tools to maintain as much as a lawn," said Nan Sterman, author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II" ($25, Cool Springs Press), in which she emphasizes sustainable gardening practices that conserve the land and its natural resources.

A consultant to homeowners considering a more natural yard, Sterman also teaches the aptly named "Bye Bye Grass!" at the Water Conservation Project, a demonstration garden for water-efficient landscaping in El Cajon, Calif. The four-hour course covers methods for getting rid of grass, plant choices for a sustainable garden and how to alter your landscape for interest and variety.

Ironically, replacing large areas of the green stuff with hearty, drought-tolerant vegetation is part of the green movement and it is a concept that comes as a surprise to some, according to Sterman. Americans have been growing lawns for close to 150 years, and today there are about 50,000 square miles of these grassy areas in the country.

"Originally I was asked to do the course because of popular demand," said Sterman. "Then recently I saw a marked increase in interest. Classes were selling out. There was a waiting list. The movement is in all areas of the country, not just where water is an issue. It is a huge trend."

Why are people everywhere intrigued with the idea of growing alternatives to the traditional lawn?

"With a sustainable yard you water once a week, never mow or fertilize and pruning is negligible," Sterman said. What's more, it's easy on your budget. "How many people do you know who take care of their own grass?"

There are other benefits when you replace lawn with shrubs, grasses, flowers and trees that do well in your particular climate.

"All plants you are going to put in will attract wildlife," Sterman said. "You can count on a positive change in the insect, butterfly and bird populations as well as in the landscape."

When it comes to conserving water and growing plants you desire, she has plenty of advice.

"I talk about 'spending water.' It makes sense to spend your water on plants that will give you incredible flowers or a marvelous scent," she said. "But if they require a bit more water than other plants, group them together based on those needs. And put them where you will get the most bang for your buck. Next to the front door is a good spot to show them off.

"I also give students information to help them decide whether they can do this project themselves and how. If they opt for assistance, I give them enough information to know what they should say to a landscaper about their wants."

Nevertheless, it's a big step for most.

"When couples come to class for the first time, one will be dragging the other," she said. "By the end of the session, they are making their plan."

All this excitement and interest in grassless yards is not to say lawns are doomed to extinction.

"There's nothing wrong with grass if you have a need for it -- if croquet is a family tradition or you have a budding soccer player, for example," Sterman said. "Otherwise, you may want just a small patch. A little is fine if it meets your needs.

"Often people discover they'd prefer a spacious patio, some winding pebble paths or a basketball court. And a lot of gardeners want to grow edibles."

An overview of the Sterman family's yard is an example of the progression in this gardening movement. Begun several years ago, her landscape is still a work in progress.

In the beginning, she removed the front lawn. "Our front yard became my garden, filled with natives and drought-resistant plants that do well in our Mediterranean climate.

"I kept some grass in the backyard for our toddlers to play on. But they never played on the grass and I've been whittling away at it ever since."

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