Lawns Are What You Make Them

Our kids in Arizona have the same sort of lawn  all their neighbors keep. When a blade of grass springs up, it’s yanked out by the roots, along with other undisciplined seedlings that dare to show their heads. No one owns a mower, but occasionally people use a rake to tidy the yard. In some yards, you’ll even see signs like the one above.

Arizona son-in-law Steve weeding his “lawn.”

  Here in Washington, keeping one’s yard blanketed with velvety-smooth, emerald green grass can occupy hours each week. During warm winters, rain pours down and the grass keeps growing. So do moss and weeds. While it‘s still winter, the mowings begin. Then come applications of moss and weed killers. The grass must be fertilized, triggering even more frequent mowing. It’s a process that continues through summer and fall. Some neighbors are still cutting grass at Thanksgiving.

  That’s why we took out the largest part of our lawn several years ago. We installed native plants instead to cut back on upkeep and provide food and habitat for birds. It worked very well…too well, in fact. Now we have a “forest” in our front yard. Hank prunes back shrubs and digs out runaway plants instead of mowing lawn.
Son Rob and the native plants he planted for us a few years ago. Now trees hide the buildings behind him.

Planting a Native Garden

Just planted.

Hank and I love to garden, but landscapers we’re not. Our house is built into a hill, so the front yard slopes steeply. The upper part can be dry, but the lower corner stays damp. It grew grass too heavy to mow, and huge dandelions. The mostly sloping terrain gave us a number of micro-climates that we took into consideration when we decided to do away with the lawn and instead, plant a wild garden.

Son Rob began a new business in 2009, raising and installing native plants for civic projects as well as home landscapes. He offered to do the work for us.

With Rob’s help we chose the native plants. We wanted early bloomers for color and to attract hummingbirds, and plants that would produce berries for birds through the winter. We also wanted a few trees next to the roadside hedge to grow up and provide additional privacy should someone build across the street.

He started the project by clipping the grass as short as possible. Then the crew set the plants where they were to grow, dug out a circle of sod, and set each into the ground. Then they covered the remaining grass with cedar chips to a depth of several inches. That smothered the grass and made the few surviving weeds easy to root out. Daughter Carmen sawed a cedar log into 4-inch thick rounds with which we made a curving path through our forest-to-be.

In the lowest, wettest corner Rob planted moisture-loving red osier dogwood and sedge grasses. Vine maples, a mountain ash, and a couple of slow-growing evergreens provide the roadside screen. Along the lower driveway are twinberry and Pacific ninebark shrubs, as well as red flowering currant and snowberries. Plants like salal and low-growing Oregon grape love the shade of the hedge. Two kinds of wild honeysuckle twine up trellises beside the deck. Wild roses and tall, prickly-leaved Oregon grape occupy the center of the yard. Midsize plants include clumps of fern, various grasses, and evergreen huckleberry. Red-berried kinnikinnick, bearberry, and wild strawberries creep over the wood chips to form an evergreen ground cover.

The ground cover will eventually hide the wood chips.
Stems of red osier dogwood with snowberries

Berries of red flowering currant
Red flowering currant and Oregon grape in April
“Stinky Bob” geranium hitchhiked with salal.

Twinberry blossoms
Pacific ninebark

This is the 3rd spring for our native garden, and we’re delighted not only with the variety of plants in the yard, how healthy they are and how quickly they’ve grown, but also with the birds, butterflies, and other living creatures that stop by to enjoy its offerings. Other forest denizens such as wild mountain blackberries and tree seedlings that hitched rides with the other plants are now popping up to delight us.

Interesting. . .even in winter.

Hank says the best thing about our “front yard habitat” is no more grass to mow.

For help in planning your own native garden, explore Rob’s website at