Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
July, 2011
Regional Report

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Take back the lawn! This shady garden was once a seedy looking lawn.

Taking Back The Lawn

It's no secret that I am not a fan of turf grass. I feel that lawns use too much water for the amount of punch they give to a landscape. Not to mention the fact that they need constant maintenance in the form of mowing, fertilizing, edging, and dethatching. Ugly brown spots are common during the summer months due to faulty irrigation systems or fungal disease. I just don't think that the look of a green lawn merits all the misery and fuss it presents to already overworked homeowners.

Artificial Substitutes
There are artificial substitutes for lawns, but they are expensive; trap heat, making a hot summer day even hotter; the color fades over time; and the vertical blades eventually lay down on the job. I don't feel that an artificial lawn is the answer for our dry climate.

However, reclaiming all or a portion of a turf grass area is an easy way to give your garden some color, enhance the landscape, and provide the gardener with less lawn to deal with or even better, none at all.

We reclaimed a large section on lawn on the Henry's Garden television show in season five, show # 13. We called it "The Show From Hell." That said, the project was completed by three people in one shooting day and now, five years later, that section of the garden has matured to become a focal point which provides color, texture, and habitat for butterflies, hummingbirds and beneficial insects.

Here's How
Here's how we did it. First, we defined the area we wanted to reclaim by laying down thick pads of newspaper. The newspaper mats were whole sections -- think Sunday New York Times. It's important to cover every inch of soil by overlapping the paper mats or lawn will quickly grow in the exposed areas. The purpose of the paper is to kill the existing lawn by restricting sunlight. When we ran out of newspaper, we used cardboard. The sprinklers were left uncovered, for obvious reasons. I like curved lines and so we made the edges wavy to add movement and interest to the landscape.

Since the area we were working was shaded by the deck, we selected plants that thrive in low light conditions. We also looked for plants that would not need much water. Astilbe, hellebores, loropetalum, hydrangea (for Mrs. Henry who LOVES this particular plant), clivia, lilies (which didn't do well), azaleas, and aquilegia were purchased and then planted by cutting holes in the newspaper and digging up the old turf grass. We amended the planting holes with fresh potting soil and removed the sod to prevent grass from growing around our desired perennial plants. It was hard digging, but eventually everything was planted. We watered the new landscape by hand to make sure the soil was settled around the roots.

Once planting was complete, and I admit that we were all dog-tired by this time, a 4-inch layer of decorative mulch was applied to the entire area. The new landscape looked fabulous, but the eventual success of our endeavor was the real surprise. Not only did the lawn not grow back, but the plants seemed to thrive with the existing turf grass irrigation system. Henry has pop risers that are on an automatic timer. He reset the timer to irrigate less frequently but for a longer period of time to accommodate the deep rooted perennials. The newspaper was a superior mulch, holding in moisture and preventing the old lawn from re-emerging. The area of lawn that we left intact also responded well to the new irrigation schedule.

If you are tired of mowing and have a few friends who would be willing accomplices, I recommend taking back the lawn.

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