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Instead of Lawn

By William Scheick
Contributing Editor

One of my nearby retired neighbors loves his lawn more than almost anything else — at least that’s what I am tempted to imagine sometimes. He tends his St. Augustine turf nearly every day. Starting early each morning, he addresses whatever it seems to need. He weeds, feeds, aerates, edges, mows, leaf-blows, sod-patches and waters (late at night). He is such a daily (and friendly) presence on his sizeable corner property that virtually all passersby and delivery persons know him by name — some expressing concern if they somehow missed seeing him outside caring for his lawn.

I have never met anyone else more devoted to lawn-keeping. He never wavers in his tasks despite nature’s utter disregard for his efforts. During 2018 (the third hottest summer in his region’s history), my neighbor’s lawn endured more than 50 days of triple-digit temperatures, topping out at 110 F. For numerous months, too, his Travis County property languished in “severe drought,” according to the U.S. National Integrated Drought Information System. Even so, his county was luckier than others. For instance, with less than half of its normal precipitation that same year, the Fredericksburg area (Gillespie County) fell into tree-damaging “extreme drought.” By mid-October, the Waco area (McLennan County) still officially remained in the “severe drought” category during that year, the driest in its recorded history. Overall, in fact, 78 percent of Texas experienced drought in 2018, which also saw a decline in bee populations and an increase in wildfires. Likewise that year, homeowners, farmers and ranchers with wells in Williamson and Bell Counties witnessed a shocking drop in water level in the outcrop regions of the Trinity Aquifer, which forecasters suggest will fail to sustain the future population growth in those locales.

Such droughty conditions challenge lawn-keeping, particularly in locales with mandatory restrictions limiting watering to certain hours of one day a week. No wonder that another of my nearby neighbors gave up on her lawn altogether after receiving fines for violating local watering restrictions.

Costly citations are easier to avoid than tiered water pricing. Tiered pricing reflects municipality efforts to reduce water consumption. In this system of regulation, the price per 100 gallons increases noticeably as a user moves from one stage of water usage to another. Fretting about crossing into the higher, costlier tiers, my turf-devoted neighbor closely monitors his water meter, jotting tallies in a notebook — for him, just one more lawn-keeper task.

Sadly, for all his endeavors, his front-yard grass never attains lushness or even an overall healthy look. Nature, at least in his and my neck of the woods, does not love conventional lawns.

Which is why I abandoned mine long ago. Without judging anyone who soldiers on as valiant lawn-keepers, I have simply turned my back on most of my homestead turf. Only remnants of these lawns remain at this point, and I rarely tend them in any way. Instead, I have focused on alternative landscaping options that (after an initial commitment of time and labor) now requires much less maintenance, especially water. Hopefully, too, my modifications look better than lawn.

Only once did I undertake a large-scale, total lawn-space replacement — an entire backyard (see Texas Gardener May-June 2015). That area is now covered by river rock, cut limestone, retaining-wall blocks, patio stones, pavers and pea gravel arranged into an overall, repeated pattern. The center of that backyard features a very large circular plant island of stacked, curved blocks, capped by a single layer of mortared pavers. Designed as pervious cover allowing rain to reach the soil, these combined materials have fostered the health of my trees, keeping their roots moister and cooler during the worst of summer.

So far, I have lacked the same courage to convert an entire front yard. I admire the bold conviction of those who have completely transformed their front home landscapes. Some people have worked wonders with their modified fronts, while some others have created eyesores. You know it when you see it, right? For me, backyard overhauls bring less aesthetic risk than total front-yard interventions.

Instead, I have timidly settled for limited, yet strategic front-yard lawn reductions — small steps and simple-designs with reasonably predictable outcomes. The required amount of time and effort were also far more predictable than any attempt at a complete transformation. Even so, before implementing these little changes, on a piece of paper I sketched an imagined overall design for the property. I thought it best to see how my planned reductions would look if or when I ever decide to go further with a water-thrifty, lawn-elimination project. Maybe I will never go much further, but I prefer at least the option of complete replacement. Some dreams do come true, and I certainly don’t want to have to undo any earlier work to make that happen.

Speaking of work, I am reluctant to recommend stone pathways and meandering dry creeks as highly effective lawn-reduction decisions. Yes, they replace some lawn, but mowing along their edges and particularly keeping them free from air-sown weeds can result in more toil than not having them in the first place. My well-intentioned neighbors with dry creeks seem to have given up on them, and now their previous modifications showcase unattractive weed-strewn rock beds. I am sure some people can manage these better than I have witnessed, but neither stone pathways nor dry creeks stir my imagination.

On the other hand, I have been more impressed by homeowners who have converted part of their backyard into a playscape. The huge quantity of blocked-in sand they have placed beneath swing-sets and other play equipment eliminates grass and weeds without preventing rainwater from seeping into the ground and refreshing nearby shade trees and shrubs. The sand also considerably softens the impact of a child’s fall. When the children outgrow this space, it easily converts into an already level, weedless site for raised garden beds. However, I have heard of one drawback: a neighborhood cat routinely scaling a backyard fence in search of a very large litter box.

Another and still easier turf reduction can be performed around the base of trees. If you ever troweled dirt close to a tree trunk, you already know that our trees extend countless small, life-sustaining roots near the soil surface and well inside the drip line. A five-foot radius of mulch, river rock or pea gravel — bordered and retained by edging blocks — not only eliminates lawn but also helps retain soil moisture benefitting these trees. Such circles also safeguard trees from damage inflicted by weed trimmers and lawn mowers. Just be careful to curb any encroachment of mulch or stones onto tree trunks.

When thinking about turf reduction, landscape areas separated from the main lawn become choice targets for better options. An isolated grass-strip between a driveway and a fence, or between a walkway and a house, begs for a low-watering, law-care makeover. My understory driveway edge came with grass, but now is covered by Asian jasmine (Trachelospermum spp.). This tough, take-charge plant asks little from me while vigorously blanketing the ground and completely “wallpapering” an otherwise ugly privacy fence. It is so resilient that I never even properly planted it. I simply tossed numerous cuttings onto the ground and then loosely covered them with dirt. While the amazing vigor of this groundcover proves a plus in an isolated area such as a property boundary or fence line, it (like equally tough wintercreeper [Euonymus fortune]) becomes unwelcome and too invasive when included in any modified segment of the main lawn. With some shade, periwinkle (Vinca spp.), purple-heart (Tradescanthia pallida) and cat’s-foot (Antennaria dioica) provide more easily managed perennial groundcovers.

Retaining-wall blocks can also be deployed to create water-thrifty plant-island features. Between two front-yard escarpment live oaks, for example, I fashioned a faux well — a circlet of stacked blocks. I also embedded a ring of pavers into the ground to form a foot-wide bedding arc around one side of this structure. Once the “well” was filled with good dirt, various herbs thrived there in the “broken” light beneath the live oaks. The understory perimeter halo around the “well” became a beautiful bed of so-called spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum), a drought-tolerant, tuberous houseplant that also happens to thrive as a groundcover in my yard.

Since plant islands are basically elevated garden beds, they are hardly restricted to circle formations. They can be shaped in any manner that results in a pleasing aesthetic design. The more of these you create, the less lawn you must tend and the more your trees receive targeted water. The trees actually and abundantly mass small roots beneath these islands.

Planting native perennials remains a good option for these beds, if you keep in mind that some (such as lantanas and salvias) require more than understory sun exposure. Adding various huge rocks and creating substantial dirt-mounds present possibilities, depending on your desired effect. Water features, including birdbaths, can be artfully positioned among these perennials. For birds and other pollinators, a plant island becomes an oasis during the desertification impact of a Texas summer.

A wide and long windbreak became my biggest front-yard, lawn-reduction project. Designed to pleasingly vary between 10 and 15 feet wide, this plant oasis runs parallel to the sidewalk and spans across the entire front of my property line. Its dense foliage filters street noise and ensures home privacy, so much so that the Google photo for my house shows only the ample windbreak. As a Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) on one edge of this windbreak matured over many years, some of the original plantings (such as Italian primrose and rose of Sharon) became too shaded and had to be replaced by better understory options (such as holly and viburnum). The lush environment of the windbreak has found favor with local wildlife, especially tufted titmice and other birds. It also provides protective shelter for vixens with kits during their twilight forays — not that my huskies approve of any left-behind fox scent.

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