You mow, fertilize, water, aerate, pamper, offer incantations to the garden gods – and nothing works.
You’re ready to ditch your grass for something else. But what?
There are plenty of alternatives for your traditional lawn that will not only relieve your stress but are attractive, relatively maintenance-free and good for the environment, too.
Ecologically speaking, gravel is the new “green.”
After all, trying to cultivate most grasses used in this part of the country – cool season varieties like fescue, for example – is a botanically unnatural act, some experts say. Hardier varieties like St. Augustine and Bermuda might be pretty in the summer but turn brown in the winter.
Furthermore, non-native grass grown locally could actually be considered a drain on the environment, say landscape architects, since it requires irrigation in times of drought, fuel to operate mowers, fertilizers and potentially harmful pesticides in addition to the physical energy for constant maintenance.
“Let’s face it,” says landscape architect J’Nell Bryson, “Charlotte has a less than ideal climate for grass lawns. We imported the idea from Europe, but it’s really difficult to grow a healthy stand of grass around here.”
The ideal notion of rolling, well-manicured lawns is shifting, agrees Laurel Holtzapple of Groundworks Studio. Many of her landscape clients are choosing to embrace the habitat we’ve been given in the Charlotte area – a canopy provided by oak, hickory and pine trees – and go natural. “There’s so much one can do with the shady conditions that exist here besides forcing a stand of grass,” she says.
To get started on the switch away from grass, Holtzapple suggests that you “create a tapestry on a ground plane. Look at your lawn as a piece of art – it is art! – and consider that your plants are your paints.” She advises clients to use recycled materials whenever possible, keep proper scale in mind, and resist pouring concrete.
“We’ve already ‘paved over paradise and put up a parking lot’ too often, so I wouldn’t usually advise paving a surface,” says Holtzapple. On the other hand, the use of decorative, porous concrete can be an acceptable, environmentally sound solution because it absorbs water.
Sheri Harrison and her husband, Bob Te Kolste, reduced the grassed area on the front of their Dilworth home as a family project a couple of years ago, and have never looked back.
With the help of Holtzapple, they created a street-facing garden to attract butterflies, birds and bees. The property is a riot of blueberries, joe-pye weeds, pomegranates, hidcote, lavender, sage and other flowering plants. A bonus is that it blends well with the other front yards along their pedestrian-oriented street.
Another of Holtzapple’s clients, Paula Lombardi, dispensed with all but a tiny patch of grass in front of her Myers Park home. The property now boasts a treasure trove of plants that provide texture and a revolving show of color year-round, such as monkey grass, false indigo, goldenrod, butterfly bushes, echinacea, bay laurel, lantana, euphorbia and several varieties of herbs.
Two benches of white oak, which Lombardi commissioned from a local artist, function both as a sculpture and as seating in a graveled circle. A graveled “secret garden” in the back has as its focal point what Lombardi calls “the world’s largest crepe myrtle.”
Another interesting feature illustrates both the owner’s and designer’s commitment to the environment: Rainwater on the gently sloping property runs into a deep “rain garden” dug at the lowest point of the lot. Rain is quickly absorbed, filtered and drained back into the water table, avoiding both erosion and flooding in neighbors’ yards. Moisture-loving ferns help it blend into its surroundings.
A Zen feel
Jane Avinger of Davidson hired Charlotte landscape architect J’Nell Bryson to redesign her backyard because “even with a whole lot of effort, the grass was going to pot.” The result, a combination of shrubs, a border of herbs and some decorative gravel, “has a peaceful, Zen feel to it. It was a workable, attractive solution to grass,” Avinger said.
Bryson herself fell in love with the Spanish-influenced lawns she found while living in San Francisco and enjoys replicating the style here. While she loves using locally sourced materials, she replaced grass with crushed granite from a quarry in Tennessee in her own Myers Park landscape. Tall decorative grasses, lavender and mulch provide color and more texture.
What it costs
Hiring a professional to redesign your lawn can begin at a minimum of $2,500, but with a plan in place you can save money in the long run. For a medium-sized yard, materials – including gravel, plants and edging – might cost around $3,500.
Installation and sod removal could run another $1,500, bringing the general estimate for a complete overhaul to $7,500. Many factors could change that ballpark figure up or down, especially the size and slope of the property.
Horticulturist Joy Cleary of Studio Cleary offers this advice for people wanting to replace grass and stay environmentally friendly:
• Concentrate on the trouble spots first, such as shady areas.
• Shrink grassy areas gradually by enlarging existing beds, extending mulch farther and planting ground covers that will spread. Everything doesn’t have to be tackled at once.
• Use mulch or decorative gravel to control weeds, cut down on lawn maintenance and create interesting new “rooms” in your yard.
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