There’s a relatively recent new trend of “greening” one’s front yard. This means removing a “traditional” grass lawn, and replacing it with something more environmentally appropriate based on the specific geographic region. For example in New Orleans, you would plant things that love a lot of water, and create a new landscape using good storm water management practices (i.e. able to soak up water and prevent runoff). If you were in Phoenix, you would chose plants that are native to the area requiring little water.
It seems pretty intuitive that a home’s front yard should support native vegetation and materials. Native vegetation would naturally fare better and would require less upkeep by the homeowner. So why is it customary across all geographic regions in the United States to have a large grass yard in the front of a house? While a small percentage of the country has a climate that supports grass lawns (somewhat mild temperatures most of the year, and sufficient rain), most of the country does not.
The Origin of the Lawn
Try to imagine a place that never gets bitterly cold or scorchingly hot, and it rains throughout the entire year. If you’re picturing the United Kingdom and/or Ireland, then you’re correct. Expansive grass lawns began centuries ago in Europe, first as a means of protection. Owners of large estates could see their enemies coming from far distances across open lawns. This idea travelled across the Atlantic ocean and over time grass lawns became a sample in all American front yards.
While a grass lawn may be more “natural” in the United Kingdom, it is completely unnatural in most of the United States. Michael Pollan dives into the American love of lawns in his 1989 article “Why Mow? A Case Against Lawns” in the New York Times. I recently learned a great deal more about lawn replacement at a community class put on by my local water district.
According to the presentation, if Santa Cruz County (my county which struggles with water issues, like most of California) removed all it’s grass lawns, there would cease to be a water issue. The water district representative noted that this statistic also includes golf courses. This is because grass lawns require a TON of water to keep them green and alive (not to mention all the chemicals that get poured onto golf courses).
Other potential benefits to removing your grass lawn:
- Less maintenance
- Less pesticide and herbicide use
- More curb appeal
- Growing your own food in garden beds
- New space to entertain guests and dine outdoors
- Creating a biodiverse ecosystem, supporting native plants
- Creating a home for bees, butterflies, birds, and more.
Removing Your Grass Lawn
If you’re interesting in removing your grass lawn and replacing it with a landscape more suited to your region, you can begin by sheet mulching. Marin county’s water district has a helpful page here that details the sheet mulching process. Essentially you are killing the grass lawn over time by cutting off its oxygen supply (no chemicals used!), and you’re left with a whole lot of good compost. As you’ll see on the water district’s page, you’ll need a biodegradable weed barrier (i.e. cardboard). Visit your local furniture store and ask for cardboard sheets. They always have some leftover, and it will save you a bit of money.
Creating a New Landscape
There is an endless world of possibilities for what a front yard can be. You’ll first want to figure out what types of vegetation are best suited for your geographic region. Next decide how you want your front yard to function. Do you want it to be a dining space? A barrier of privacy between the street and your home? A vegetable garden?
The lawn replacement class I went to had numerous photos of incredible before and after shots of transformed yards. While I unfortunately don’t have access to them to share, I would encourage you to search the internet and books at your library for yard inspiration. The website watersmartgarden.com offers tips and recommendations by region throughout California, and in other states including Oregon, Arizona, and Utah.
Depending on where you live, you may even be eligible for expense reimbursement for replacing your lawn. Check with your city and county about lawn replacement programs before you get started.
Online articles about lawn replacement:
- “Replacing Your Lawn with Landscaping”
- “Lose Your Lawn with Sheet Mulching”
- “8 Options for Replacing Your Lawn”
Books recommended for revitalizing your front yard:
- “The New American Frontyard” by Sarah Sutton
- “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway