Lawn-less sustainable garden

Download PDF

I got rid of the last bit of lawn in Wild Suburbia. We are lawn-less, lawn-free, turf-be-gone, but definitely not grassless! Deergrass, California fescue, melic grass, purple needlegrass, and even the non-grasses, blue-eyed grass (in the Lily Family), and rush (sometimes called rush-grass, in the Rush Family) have a place in my garden and in my heart.

Lawnless at last. This is the east side of the front yard before landscapers install a flagstone patio (set on a bed of sand).

But back to my former lawn. You may be wondering how I did it. How exactly did I leave my lawn? This is a big topic of discussion so let me tell you what I did.

50 Ways to Leave Your Lawn

I did not dig it out, I did not lay down cardboard and cover it with mulch, I did not poison it. Instead, I neglected it. This has worked before and I think it will work again. Let me be more specific.

The front lawn was suffering from poor irrigation. The turf grass was partly in the shade of the deodar cedar and partly in full sun. I ran the sprinkler approximately once every two weeks as a compromise for the lawn (sun and shade) and tree. I hoped this would keep the grass alive and the tree happy. In fact, it did neither. The tree would have done better with less frequent, deeper watering, and the grass clearly wanted more frequent water in the sunny areas.

During rainy winters the lawn (and the tree) did better. Though last winter was rainy, this  past summer into fall was very hot and there was no rain until last week. Rather than tending to the lawn’s water needs, I just kept watering for the tree.  This set the stage for the final act for the formerly charismatic, charming, green St. Augustine.

By October I was alarmed to see that oxalis was sprouting in the burned out areas. Ridding the yard of St. Augustine is not that hard; in contrast, removing oxalis once it gets a foothold is awful. I carefully dug out all of the oxalis that I could find, sheared the St. Augustine grass to the ground with my weed wacker, and then dumped oak leaves from the back yard on top.

Burned out lawn
St. Augustine lawn burns out in sun, but is thick and green in shade. Lesson learned: Install a proper irrigation system or get rid of the lawn.
Lazy lawn removal: hand weeded all oxalis, weed wacked lawn, covered with piles of oak leaves.

I know you are thinking that this won’t work. And yes, the remaining oxalis and grass will shoot up following last week’s deep, soaking rain, but I think I can keep on top of it. I will dig out anything green that peaks through the mulch, and then I’ll throw some more mulch on top. Not a do-it and leave-it solution, but easier and less disruptive than digging, poisoning, or laying cardboard. And it has worked for me before. (Let me qualify this by saying that I would not have done it this way if the lawn had been Bermuda grass. That would have been a losing battle, but St. Augustine is not the fighter that Bermuda is.)  Will keep you informed.

Evolving landscape

I have been thinking about the front yard for years. My office, on the upper floor of our house, has a window that looks down on the front yard. When I can no longer focus on my computer screen I get up and stare out the window. If there are no traffic incidences at the corner (and believe me, I have seen a lot!), then I try to visualize a better front yard.

The front yard is divided in half by a straight cement walkway to the front door. Our south-facing house is a classic 2-story Craftsman, and so I want to accent its symmetry. As such I planted manzanitas (Arctostaphylos manzanita) on both sides of the walkway about 3 feet in. There was an old avocado on the west side that was removed in 2014. It had been heavily damaged in a windstorm in 2011 and in spite of our efforts, we were told it was not stable and needed to be removed before it fell down (click here for more on the avocado).

Photo taken from office window of west side of front yard right after the avocado was removed. (2014)
East side of the front yard from office window in 2014 when the lawn was looking a bit better.
Flagstone path on east front yard from office window (Feb. 2016)
Grandkids harvest lettuce

Since 2014 I have mostly worked on the west side, installing a productive vegetable garden close to the house. This is the first time in my many years of gardening that I have had a large, flat, sunny spot suitable for growing vegetables. I have learned a lot, and enjoyed tasty tomatoes, fresh, crispy lettuce, yummy peas, and flavorful herbs.

A Plan

There was still lawn on the east side after workers took down the avocado and buried the lawn on the west. Now I disliked the  bright, emerald green color even more, so jarring against the more subdued grays, browns and tans of the rest of the yard. After much thought, and some help, I finally have a plan and hope to have it installed in February. The flagstone patio and path on the left (west) will extend to the east side of the yard, crossing the front walk. It will curve around forming a larger patio beneath the deodar cedar. This is an especially nice place to sit. Large stepping stones will be placed in the vegetable garden to improve access, and some boulders will be added as focal points.

Unified front yard landscape.
West front from office window. I set out logs to test the plan.

I love it! It does many of things I wanted for my front yard. It will provide access to the east side plantings. In addition, one will be able to sit in the shade of the deodar and greet neighbors who walk by with their dogs. There will be plenty of new planting opportunities for local natives that will provide valuable habitat. All of this, and also minimal disturbance to the soil beneath the majestic cedar. The plan unifies the front yard (east and west), and is consistent with the coastal sage scrub plantings in the parkways.

The next step is choosing plants. I just cannot wait!! To give you a preview (will post on this in the future), I plan to place large deer grasses along the front side of the flagstone paths – a drift of deer grass. I will put in new monkey flowers, California fuchsia, Margarita BOP penstemons along the sidewalk so that the spring is full of outrageous color. Here and there I will try new things, like the Mount San Bruno golden aster, Mountain Pride nightshade, and more. I will add more of whatever looks best. It is so exciting! I love planting season, don’t you?