Book Excerpt: Energy-Wise Landscape Design

by Genevieve on April 22, 2011

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Energy-Wise Landscape Design should be a required read for anyone going into the landscaping field. In this book, Sue Reed outlines a number of steps you can take to green your landscape. Some steps are easy and can be done right away; others take more time, energy, thought or care.

When I reviewed this book a few months back, I was impressed to see how actionable the information was. This excerpt, about how to reduce or tweak your lawn to be more sustainable, is a prime example of the type of tips and techniques included in the book. Enjoy!

Excerpt from Chapter 8: Reducing (or Eliminating) Lawn (From Energy-Wise Landscape Design, by Sue Reed)

“Is lawn a good idea for your landscape? The answer is likely to be a mixture of yes, maybe, in some places, and it depends. Do we need so much lawn? Probably not. Can we afford to keep maintaining vast expanses of empty, lifeless, sometimes toxic green carpet? Definitely not.

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This is not to suggest that all lawn everywhere is useless and should be removed. Rather, we should consider just how much lawn we really need, to satisfy our practical needs and make our lives better. Ask yourself questions like: what is my lawn for? how do I use it? how much time do I want to spend caring for it? is it for me, my kids, my parents and friends? or do I have lawn just because that’s the normal thing to do and I can’t think of anything else?

If you want to reduce or even get rid of your lawn, to save energy that could better be used for other purposes, the following Actions will give you some ideas for getting started:

• Stop mowing a portion of your lawn.

• Replace some amount of lawn with other things.

• Design a lawn-free landscape.

Action: Stop Mowing a Portion of Your Lawn

IMG_3302_2Your landscape might contain portions of lawn that aren’t thriving, either because they’re too shady or damp, or because the soil in those places is depleted and thin or for other reasons. Your property may include some areas of lawn that you just don’t use, that you look out at and spend your weekends mowing, wondering why you bother. All of these places are perfect candidates for this simple action: stop mowing them.

What will happen then? It depends on a number of variables, including the moisture and fertility of your soil, the type and health of grasses already growing there and what else is growing nearby, waiting to blow in and germinate in any spaces available. Certainly the appearance of this liberated zone will immediately soften and look more furry. After a few weeks or months, the grasses that make up most lawns (probably some mix of Bermuda grass from Africa, blue grass from Europe, and North American bent grasses and fescues) will probably get so tall they fall over; maybe they’ll even ripple and wave in the breeze! If the season is hot and dry, these grasses will probably go dormant and become tan in late summer.

In a year or two, or maybe less, you’ll see new things turning up amongst the grasses. Violets, trout lily and bluets might appear in the spring; columbine, pussytoes and black-eyed Susan may show off in summer; asters, goldenrod (see sidebar) and maybe even gentian or some native grasses could turn up in the fall. Yes, some weeds that you really don’t want might also take root, and taking care of this new landscape might require a bit more attention than you’re used to giving your lawn. But if you acquaint yourself with the worst weeds and invasive plants, and if you remove them when you see them, before they get too established and comfortable, you’ll be fine. (To find out more about identifying invasive plants in lawns, and the best techniques for removing them, see the UMASS Turf IPM fact sheet listed in Appendix C.)

Another guaranteed result of not mowing will have nothing to do with the grass itself. If your liberated lawn is visible to other people, you will definitely receive comments. They may be curious, neutral or critical, but they will come. The ideal of the American “prestige aesthetic” lawn is so deeply embedded in our culture that any change or perceived violation to our set way of doing things will inevitably provoke a response. If you’re concerned about social judgments, consider liberating only small or insignificant areas of lawn at first. This probably means not your front yard. If you don’t care what anyone says, then by all means let the front yard get shaggy.

Design Tip: Mow a Tidiness Strip

IMG_5724_2One way to reassure worried neighbors that you actually planned and care about this new kind of landscape, that you’re not just being slovenly and un-American, is to maintain a mowed strip around the edges of the lawn. You might also mow a beautiful curving path right through it the meadow, perhaps passing beside this or that special drift of flowers, perhaps leading to an interesting destination. The more we display front yards that are diverse, biologically alive and beautiful in a different way, and the more opportunities we have to explain our motivations to curious neighbors, the more this kind of landscape will be understood and accepted.

Action: Replace Some Amount of Existing Lawn with Other Elements

If you’re ready to permanently let go of some portion of lawn, to never or rarely mow it again, a variety of other landscape elements can take its place.

Design Tip: No-mow or Low-grow Seed Mixes

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Some seed companies offer a blend of grasses that naturally grow to a relatively low height and form a dense turf. These mixes consist primarily of fescues, which are cool season grasses that thrive in the northern third of the continental US. Since their maximum height is generally just 6 to 8 inches, they can be mown just once or twice a year, saving a lot of gas, time and your own energy. Specific seeding instructions are provided by the seed suppliers. One company that has led the way in developing these mixes is Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin (prairienursery.com). Your own local garden center may offer a comparable product.

Design Tip: Wildflower Meadows

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If you want to preserve the open feeling that a lawn provides but avoid the work, energy consumption and environmental problems of lawn, planting a wildflower meadow may be right for you. Creating a meadow, however, requires thoughtful seed selection, to match the physical conditions of the site. The soil must be carefully prepared. The seeded ground will require attention to weeds in the first stages of growth. If you already have a lawn (as opposed to the bare ground of new construction), the process of eliminating lawn grass can consume quite a lot of energy – either in the equipment that mechanically removes lawn or in the herbicides that chemically remove it.

Despite these drawbacks, meadows offer several distinct advantages over lawn. Once established, they directly save energy by requiring infrequent mowing (generally just once every year or two) and no fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides. They make the most of the sun’s energy and recycle their own waste while improving the soil. The soft soil and intertwined root systems of a meadow help hold rainfall, reducing runoff and erosion and keeping water out of storm drains. And, quite soon after they start growing, they’ll be discovered by birds, bugs and butterflies. All of these great benefits, and they’re beautiful too!

Where’s the best place for a meadow? If you’re starting from scratch and no lawn has yet been planted, a wildflower meadow should be designed as one component of the overall landscape. It should serve various needs: year-round beauty, wildlife habitat, sunny open space, play space for kids, a place to stroll, etc. If you already have lawn, your choice of a meadow location might depend on the same factors as choosing a place to stop mowing: where the lawn isn’t thriving (too damp, too dry) or where you don’t need lawn. Perhaps one of the best places for a wildflower meadow is in our front yards, which may stand empty and unused most of the time. This is a great opportunity to show off our present-day values about energy and the environment, and to be a leader in the movement toward healthier landscapes.

What about sunlight? Some meadow plants will thrive in partial sun, such as might be found in the dappled shade of a woodland edge, but since grasses are the major component of successful meadows, and most grasses need a lot of sun, meadows should be located where they’ll receive at least a half day of full sun. If you’re interested in planting a meadow or converting some (or all) of your lawn to meadow, see the detailed instructions provided in Chapter Fourteen.

Design Tip: Other Plants

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You might consider converting lawn into a grove of trees, a hedge or stand of shrubs, a wildflower meadow, vegetable garden, fruit trees or berry bushes or even some type of plant community that’s typical of your region (tallgrass prairie, savanna, cactus desert, marsh, pine barren, etc.).

This approach can be especially helpful in places where the soil or light conditions don’t really support lawn grass to begin with, so the lawn already looks somewhat thin or unhealthy. Perhaps your property has a corner that’s deeply shaded by a neighbor’s trees, and you just can’t get grass to grow there: this is a perfect place for mosses, ferns or some beautiful trees of your own! Is one part of your lawn damp and mushy, where rain flows and snow melts, and water stands in shallow puddles long afterward? This is an ideal place for wetland shrubs and wildflowers.

Planting other things in place of grass may involve suppressing or removing the existing lawn. But if you aim to plant trees or shrubs, and especially if the established lawn grass is fairly thin, you could simply interplant among the grasses and let the resulting shade keep the grass in check, with the aid of thick mulch. See Chapter Fourteen for a more detailed discussion of mulch.

Design Tip: Vegetable Gardens and Fruit Orchards

In this time of increasing concern about the health (and energy costs) of imported and manufactured foods, doesn’t it make sense to grow for ourselves at least some of the food we eat? Of course, many people already do this, and not so long ago almost everyone did, even city dwellers.

As a society, we may have lost some of our common knowledge about how to grow food, but lots of information is available at garden centers, in catalogues and on the Internet; many landscape and garden conferences now feature food-growers. The best way to learn about gardens and orchards is to talk directly with someone – a neighbor, teacher or, best of all, an actual farmer – about the things that work best in your region. Remember, it’s perfectly okay to put a vegetable garden in your front yard, if that’s the part of your landscape that receives the most sunlight. It’ll inspire other people!”

Thanks to Sue Reed, author of Energy-Wise Landscape Design, for allowing us to run this long excerpt. Photos are all courtesy of Sue Reed as well.

Want to read more?

Check out my review of Energy-Wise Landscape Design

Follow the movement on Facebook or learn more about the book on Sue’s website

And check out the podcast interview with Sue Reed on Ecosystem Gardening

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