The Case for a No-Mow Lawn

If you own a home, to some extent you have a lawn. For many of us, a lawn is a source of pride. Here in the suburbs, rows of manicured lawns lend consistency to our shady, tree-lined streets. The front of the house has always been a sense of pride for homeowners. It’s our showplace. We manicure the turf, weed, spray, edge , mow, trim and otherwise fret away our summer Saturdays making sure everything is squared away. Your front yard is your first impression. It can say a lot about you.

But what about that one person down the street? You know the one. Where the lady in the straw hat and crocs is always weeding some patch of flowers, in that jungle she calls a front yard. As much as it bothers you, it most likely bothers you because it isn’t the same as all the rest. Not because it is ugly, but because it isn’t. Some people it seems, are willing to break the mold. To boldly go where no one mows anymore. I am talking about the no-mow lawn.

Traditional turf has been replaced, and endless possibilities have been discovered. Instead of a traditional expanse of manicured green carpet, let stone, mulch, beds of flowers, clumps of perennials, shrubs and even vegetables rule the landscape. Your entire front yard is now transformed into a giant landscaped garden, as unique as the homeowner wants it to be. There are a few different paths to take here. Either just plain and simply stop mowing your existing lawn, or a least a part of it, and let nature take it’s course. Or your lawn gets turned into planted beds.

Standing Out

There are benefits to doing this. First, you stand out. If done right, your home will have “pop”. People will walk by, just to look at it. You get included in local garden tours, and it is just plain and simply enjoyable to look at, and ever changing as you progress through the season.

Conserving Water

Also, if you live in an especially dry, arid zone, an established no-mow lawn despite all its lush greenery, will require significantly less water. Which is very helpful if you have water restrictions and its also less work for you. Watering a no-mow lawn also produces much less run-off that just ends up in your storm sewer system.

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Irrigation run-off on a traditional lawn

Expand Your Growing Space

For all you avid vegetable gardeners who have run out of space, no-mow lawns present an opportunity: Front Yard Vegetable Gardening! A lot of vegetables, especially the leafy ones, make attractive landscape plants. Why not decorate with them? Move that Kale out front to make room for more potatoes out back. Rainbow Swiss Chard grouped together can make an attractive planting instead of hostas. There are lots of possibilities here.

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Edible front yard

So What’s the downside? There are a few, and carefully consider each before you dive headlong into something like this:

  • Work
  • Municipal issues
  • Impact on selling your home

It’s a lot of Work

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Despite it’s really cool appearance, in some cases it can be more work than the lawn was. It will of course take a lot of labor to establish. But the remember, unlike grass that you just basically mow, all those lovely perennials, bulbs, vegetables, shrubs and cutting flowers have individual needs. There are different times to prune, fertilize, pests to fight, watering and a host of other unique factors. If you like gardening, this is not much of a down side, and in many cases, much more enjoyable than schlepping a lawn mover back and forth. So I wold say this one at least balances out.

Municipal Issues

The nail that sticks out usually gets hammered. That’s true with your lawn as well. Check your town regulations. Especially if you want to just stop mowing all or a portion of your lawn. In most cases they can legally deem you a nuisance and fine you or more. I used to work for a landscaping contractor who did jobs for the town in those instances. If the town deemed your property a nuisance, and you did nothing about it, we showed up and did it for you. Then we billed the town, who in turn billed you. There are ways to get around this. But start by knowing your rules. The internet is rife with stories of this happening to people. 

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These people had to fight the town to save their lawn

Impact on Selling

Not everyone appreciates the growing world as much as some of us do. If you plan on selling your house in the future, something like this may not exactly be a selling point. There are exceptions, such as a a Victorian -style house set close to the sidewalk. Something that is usually in keeping with several other houses in the neighborhood.

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Most potential buyers may see an overworked, heavily designed front yard as a negative. Or at the very least use the potential cost of removal as a bargaining chip. But that is your decision in the end. Don’t let yourself be talked into it by a realtor as soon as they see your house for the first time.

My Approach to the Concept

I like this concept. But I am literally going to play both sides of the fence with this one. I have a nice front yard, and I sit on a corner lot. I even pay someone to care for it. My back yard is separated by a white picket fence. It is the back yard where I decided a while ago to apply the no-mow concept. Starting this spring, I intend to turn the back yard into a series of gardens and functional areas connected by a meandering stone pathway. A sizable piece of my backyard is already taken up by a deck, the vegetable garden, a brick patio that needs to be re-leveled, and a nice magnolia tree. I think those things make for good bones to design around. And I relish the thought of sitting on the deck on summer mornings, drinking a warm cup of coffee and looking out over the gardens, admiring their colors, textures and shapes. To appealing to pass up.

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2019 Rochester Garden Show

 

About this time each year, we here in upstate are pretty damn sick of winter.  Gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts more than most. Just when we can’t take it anymore, along comes an annual event that draws us like moths to a flame, and leaves us practically drooling for warmer weather, with our minds stuffed full of crazy ideas. Where did we get such fanciful notions?

The annual Rochester Garden Show, where else? The inside of a local indoor arena is turned into stone pathways meandering through some of the most fantastic and artistic landscaping displays you will ever see. Like a fashion show, designers throw out what’s practical, and instead show us what is possible. Displays of stone work, melded with water gardens, timbers, living walls, and much much more. And just when you think you have had enough, an area stuffed full of vendors with everything from hydroponics and tools, to seeds and statuary. So let me take you on a tour and show you what I love about this.

I will not attempt to go into detail on every single display. That would take a long time. Instead I will take you through my favorites, of which there were quite a few. The arena is round. So you have an outer ring of displays, then several throughout the center. This year’s theme was Enchanted Gardens.

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First up, was the display for the Monroe County Parks Department. Not something  I was expecting. However, after entering through a tunnel of birch and willow branches, I came across some very cool hand-made chars, a table and benches. As it turns out, the Parks employees made these, and there representative told me they were looking for a way to market them in order to fund projects. I thought that was a magnificent idea. No wonder why we have great parks with people like that.

 

Even though this is a Garden Show, the next display was actually requested based on the small display they did last year. The National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, New York’s Victory Garden. Last year they had a small victory garden display, hearkening back to World War 2, when people were encouraged to plant vegetables in order to help support the war effort. This year they added an iconic white picket fence, stars and stripes flying high and a larger garden. They also had a vintage Willy’s Jeep, and I got to register for a chance to go for a flight in a restored C-47 airplane that was actually used for the D-Day parachute drop. It was a touching display and just looking at it made me feel like I was looking at an actual 1940’s victory garden.

Right after that,  ran across an odd but cool piece by a company called GFNLA Plantgfx Gardenscape Pros (not exactly a catchy name). A giant stone throne/chair made for a giant, with a giant ax sunk into the ground next to it. Like Paul Bunyan himself was sitting there.

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I need this in my backyard. It’s just cool.

Fossil Rock Landscaping was up next. Their display was breathtaking in the level of detail, and that really made the design what it was. The display was titled  Enchanted Wedding Barn. It looked like something you would see in Country Living or Martha Stewart Living magazines. This was the People’s Choice Winner and Best In Show and I could easily see why. An open timber roof with nice natural looking stone, the structure was low, but that helped blend it into the surroundings. Country-style accent lighting, a really incredible dining area, and just behind the sliding barn door, an outdoor pub? They had me long before that, but that clinched it. If you had this in your yard, you would have nonstop garden parties, because …..why not show it off? It is by far, one of the coolest outdoor living designs I have ever seen.

 

I saw some interesting creations from  Westside Pro Landscapes, who used moss, woven sticks and flowers to create ladybugs, a giant dragonfly and a magical looking mushroom.

 

Next was the Fairy Land display. Fairies were snuck into displays, and while this didn’t have any, it was like you were walking down a long unused path in some old forest, and just stumbled upon this scene i a clearing.

 

As I finished my loop of the outside, the last display was the local Bonsai Society. The first part of the display was just a collection of Bonsai creations against a stark white back drop. It wasn’t exactly eye catching. But as you rounds the wall, it got much more interesting. Here under a stone and wood arbor, two gentlemen were working on some very cool looking specimens, and around them among the garden beds were displayed some incredible specimens. Comparing the first part of the display with the second part, really shows you why presentation is everything.

 

There was still more to see, and I have skipped over more than a few of the displays. I could write for days, and still not cover all of it. But I my intent is to just hit the high points.  So I will close with what was my second favorite display. A company I have never heard of called simply JOSH Landscape Company. Their scene titled simply Transcend was breathtakingly cool. High stone walls on the outside allowed them to slope down towards the stone path that led through the display. Huge trunks made of woven sticks and vines lighted on the inside immediately draw your gaze, and it gave it a very fantasy forest type of feel. But as incredible as it was, you couldn’t let that distract you from all the little details. Small deer topiary were hidden here and there, beautiful plant selection, and what I liked best, were the open books blooming from the landscape like flowers. It made the display like some literary dream world. Inviting you to come in and read in the garden. It was fantastic. I walked through it several times and every time  found something new.

 

After all that, I must admit feeling a little drained. It was a lot to take in. I wandered over to the vendor area and just cruised through that. Stopping to buy some variegated Caladium bulbs, a hydrangea and some spicy pickles from one of the food vendors. You can;t have an event without food, that just won’t do. It was everything I thought it would be and a little more. The awesome displays, the scent of new mulch and blooming hyacinth, and color everywhere you look sent me home with a smile. Something you don’t get much of this time of year.

I hope I could convey through word and picture just how excellent of a show this was, ad I look forward to next years being even better. My wildest dream is that somehow this inspires someone to start something similar in their community. Until next time…..

The Basics of Garden Design

Design can be intimidating. A lot of people try it, a lot of people fail. Many aspirants overlook the simplicity of it and try and get all fancy. In the end,  they often wind up with an unintentional, eclectic mess in the front yard. Mostly because they fail to heed the rules. Rules you say?  Yes, rules. There are rules to designing almost anything. Just because they change over time, doesn’t mean that design using growing things is the exception.

What’s that you say? You don’t like rules? You’re unconventional, a mold breaker, an innovator……you refuse to have your rampant creativity restrained by stuffy old conventions. To that I say “go for it”. Have at it. Please send me pictures. In the end, you will see what I mean. In this case rules are not absolutes. So stop thinking of them like a straight jacket. Think of them more as handrails, or a safety net. That by no means gets you off the hook for designing something so eye-shattering that the local town council deems it a public menace. Guidelines…just guidelines.

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You can follow the rules and still be creative and artistic. There are an infinite number of combinations of textures, colors, hardscape elements, specimen plants, and the like that you can incorporate. So think of these rules as the glue that holds all that together. Now you may finish reading this and decide that it’s not for you. You would rather leave it to a professional. That’s generally a safe move and can be much less aggravating. Then you are only responsible for whatever grand vision you tried to get them to translate into a drawing. But for those brave souls who want to try it themselves, or maybe you just want to have a finer appreciation  of how green spaces are intentionally put together, this may be for you.  You will also have a much greater appreciation when you tour horticultural attractions and you can sound super smart when you flippantly comment about how “the conflicting textures of the foundation plantings really anchor the structure to the landscape”.

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WELL, YES…

These rules can be broken down into two basic major parts. First, on a larger (think macro) scale are the design principles: balance, focalization, simplicity, rhythm and line,proportion and unity. You consider design principles when looking at the bigger picture, such as a large garden or an entire property. On the smaller (micro) , yet no less important scale are the elements of design: line, color, texture, form and scale. If these sound somewhat familiar to you, think back to any art classes you took in school. These attributes are not unique to landscaping and gardens. They are somewhat general artistic principles. You could just as easily apply them to a painting or a sculpture as you could to a cottage garden.

Now I could discuss each separate point in depth. and give you a complete informal education in one sitting. But that would require me to wear my fingers down to nubs typing. I have no wish to do that because I have a garden to plant soon. So, dear reader, this becomes a series. I will work through each of the design elements in more detail since each is worthy of it’s own post. Then I will move on to the design elements. Each of them deserves their 15 minutes of fame as well. I will keep it as interesting as possible and practical enough that anyone can follow along. I hope you will stay with me through this journey.

To be continued…….

First up: Balance

Killing Time (Things to do this winter)

Winter is here! No this is not a wink to all you Game of Thrones fans, rather the reality of the situation here in upstate New York. We had snow on the ground from Thanksgiving right up to before Christmas, then it warmed just enough to melt the beautiful holiday carpet and reveal all the dead brown grass, dirt, and dormant stuff just to remind us how dismal that season can be here. Personally, I think its a conspiracy enacted to show the neighbors how lazy I am, by exposing all the leaves I didn’t rake up. Either way, there will be no meaningful outdoor activity here until at least the beginning of April. One hundred days of “what to do now”?.

So what can I do? In order to not remain a tortured green soul, pacing endlessly while looking at the weather, trying to determine if this will be an early spring, cursing with each scoop of the snow shovel….you get the picture. I have to do something all winter. As it turns out, there is always a lot to do. And we as people who appreciate the time we spend outdoors, can spend this time wisely to help ensure next seasons success. So with all the time on my hands, here is what I am planning to do with all this winter down time.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Now is the time to be deliberate, while I have the luxury of easily changing my mind. So rather than rip something out and start over in the limited time we have in our growing season, I intend to plan very deliberately. Measure twice, cut once if you know what I mean. Planning stuff now will help keep me focused and ensure all the little projects I want to do don’t become huge time and money wasting boondoggles. Not every little thing mind you, just the bigger stuff. Usually the expensive or meaningful stuff.

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First and foremost, I need to map out what I want to accomplish next year. Last year I intended to do way too much, and as a result I accomplished very little. My vegetable gardening efforts sucked up a lot of free time which meant other stuff didn’t get done. Also, the front of the house needs some help in the landscaping department. We bought this house in the summer of 2016. It was sound, but neglected in many ways. The landscaping being one of them. So I ripped out everything in front of the house except a Japanese Maple and a mature Blue Star Juniper. I installed a foundation planting of some variegated red-twig dogwoods, but it still needs a lot more. I also removed a very large Burning Bush Euonymus right next to the driveway because it blocked the view  and was right where i need to push snow. Nice plant and very large, but bad location. So I have another empty bed. So right now at a minimum:

  • map out a lower-maintenance vegetable garden in my existing beds
  • design the beds in the front of the house, keeping the dogwoods and using the Japanese maple and juniper as specimen plants
  • design the bed by the driveway

That’s enough to keep my brain going for a while.

I get to buy stuff!

Mid winter is when I do my seed shopping. Last year my wife was distressed at the amount of packages that showed up from Greenhouse Mega-store and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I set up a growing area in the basement, hung grow lights, and germinated a ton of plants for the garden. This year, I just needs some seeds and some more seed starter mix. My vegetable garden plan will tell me what I need to buy. How much planning can a veggie garden take? Tons if you want continuous crops. This year I plan to scale it back a lot, but I still want to keep harvesting stuff as the season goes.

I have a pretty good stash of seeds leftover from last year.  I also discovered a local company, Fruition Seeds, that sells regionally adapted cultivars of some pretty interesting stuff. northern hardy peanuts….need I say more. So I may be picking a few choice selections from them as well. I try to grow at least a few exotic items each year. So after planning will come shopping.

Indoor Growing Area

Last winter, I set up a space in my basement to germinate seedlings for transfer into the garden in May. I had a few accordion-style door panels laying around and some sawhorses. Combine that with a trip to Home Depot for light fixtures and grow bulbs, and an online order for trays and cells and I was off and running.  I had corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, chard, zucchini and a host of others ready by the time May rolled around. But that was it. Everything sat idle after that. 

Until the Great Romaine Recall of 2018. After weeks of jonesing for a proper salad ( I prefer romaine over iceberg), an idea struck. Why am I not growing my own? 

So two weeks ago I dusted everything off and today I have little romaine seedlings. Emboldened by my success, I now intend to turn my temporary  setup into something a little more permanent, organized and productive. I need some shelving, heat mats, a new timer and a proper potting bench instead of the cabinet that was left in the basement when we bought the house. That will be the subject of another post I think. 

My friend Herb

I love to cook. But I am forever buying fresh herbs during the winter. I intend to start a few inside so I will have the more frequently used ones around when I need them Plus, herbs are generally attractive looking houseplants. Currently I am attempting to root some Italian parsley. I will add basil, oregano, cilantro, dill and rosemary and that should keep me busy for a while. 

I still intend to grow more outside, such as: lemon thyme, mint, and sage. I like to keep mine in pots when possible because herbs can really run away from you and take over an area if you don’t keep on them. 

Learn

Winter is the best time to learn. I will spend a lot of time reading blogs, magazines, books, and watching YouTube videos. There is so much more material available now with the internet, that even a novice gardener or landscaper can really get an education just with online resources. And if a class here or there at the extension service pops up, I may just do that too. Just like plants never really stop growing, you never really stop learning. 

All this learning helps not only kill time and improve my craft, but it helps foster new ideas. New design ideas, plant combinations, growing tips, technical knowledge, you name it I will try and stuff it in the old brain and see what comes out the other side. 

Well, It think that’s enough for now. That should keep me sane in the coming months. I am starting to get catalogs in the mail already, and some raised eyebrow looks from the wife. Keep yourselves busy and the winter will fly by. If you are one of those people fortunate enough to have year round growing conditions, well….I am just jealous. 

Green dreams to all. 

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