How did lawns originate in the US? During the mid 20th century, Americans who visited the United Kingdom were taken by large carpets of green grass that covered properties around castles, large mansions, and other affluent areas. These lawns survived with no added irrigation due to the mild, rainy climate. It was also during this time that golf courses throughout the United States were admired by spectators for their healthy, green appearance and feel. Soon, commercial enterprises were working with different species of grass seed to develop a residential lawn that could be grown and cared for by the average homeowner. The trend took off, with millions of Americans planting sod in their front yards, back yards, and sometimes both. Healthy green lawns were a symbol of pride and wealth throughout suburban America. These lawns created a billion-dollar industry, from lawn mowers to pesticides to sprinkler systems. Florida Should Take a Tip from California “Time for businesses, cities to lose lawns” by Cindy McNatt, Orange County Register Columnist Hours of rolling through one city after the next meant that I could steer this expert group [of California Friendly Garden Contest judges] into a conversation about one of my pet peeves: Acres and acres of greenbelt grass in commercial settings that serve no purpose other than to enrich the landscape companies that maintain them. We’ve been asked as homeowners to cut back on water use, lose the lawn, get greener; reduce green waste and go organic. The California Friendly Garden Contest acknowledges some of these efforts. I’m not sticking up for front lawns here, but think about this: Many homeowners use their lawns for family fun and entertainment. For possibly half the population of people who keep a lawn, it serves a function- at least in the back yard, where games are played and canines romp. Compare the family lawn to the acres of grass planted around commercial buildings, public medians, and retail stores. No children playing kickball, no dogs rolling in the sun, no one catching a nap or picnicking under a shady tree. Nick Mrvos of the Irvine Ranch Water District tells homeowner groups, “If the only feet that make contact with grass are the guys that mow it, it might be time to consider alternatives.” It doesn’t matter how large or small the commercial landscape is, you will no doubt find a strip of grass that needs to be mowed each week. Some swaths we saw were so large they might equal 25 or more typical homeowner lawns. Others were so small they didn’t even make sense. I doubt there is a way to measure how many acres of “silly strips” are planted in grass, but if you spend any time in HOA neighborhoods, or the commercial areas of your town, or even drive through the local takeout restaurant and notice the stupid strip of grass in the planter, you wonder how it adds up in resources. Greenbelts are not “green” anymore. Tom Larson, adviser to the Metropolitan Water District, said these parkways were designed on the East Coast in the 1800’s for storing excess snow. Don’t you think it’s time to move on? Commercial building owners could save thousands a year in maintenance fees if they lost their lawns. Ditto for homeowners associations; shrubs and ground covers could be maintained once a month instead of weekly. Cities that need to cut expenses could lose the grass in purposeless places. Ron Vanderhoff said, “These greenbelts are from a bygone era. Water, chemicals, runoff, excess fertilizer, green waste, herbicides, air pollution, fossil fuels used all add up to a big mistake in today’s era of using less resources and protecting the resources that we do have.” Alternatives to Lawns
One alternative to grass is to create a custom pathway using flagstone or similar rock. If you think about it, people usually walk down the same path over and over again anyway when crossing your lawn. Why not just make a rock pathway with planters on either side? These planters can be planted with palms, bushes, or bromeliads and mulched to create a beautiful custom look. The picture to the right shows the side yard of a home we landscaped in Fort Myers, Florida. The row of palms on the right are Clustering Fishtail Palms (Caryota mitis). The plant on the left in the foreground is a Birds of Paradise (Streletzia nicolai) with a row of palms and Alamands behind it. Very nice!
A second alternative involves using bromeliads, air plants, and vines as groundcover where there would otherwise be grass. We typically begin with a pathway made of 3″ deep egg rock, washed shell, or gravel. Once the pathway is laid out (with a border made of larger rock or brick), dozens of varieties of low-water, low-maintenance bromeliads, air plants, and vines are planted around it. These can be accented with palms, boulders, statues, ponds, water fountains, or any other garden accents- all of which are low maintenance or no maintenance. The picture to the left shows the pathway’s rock border at the bottom and the trunk of a Flame Thrower Palm (Chambeyronia macrocarpa) in the top center which is surrounded by about a dozen species of bromeliads, one vine, and a Cordyline ‘Red Sister’ to the right.