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I Used to Have a Lawn … Now I Have Platform!

by germinatrix | September 16th, 2009

this is what you see in front of my house - lawn? never!

this is what you see in front of my house - lawn? never!

Well, actually I NEVER had a lawn, because the first thing I did fourteen years ago when Jan and I bought this little Spanish bungalow is set out to kill the front lawn. I didn’t even garden yet – I knew nothing about anything other than I didn’t want a lawn. I wanted plants!

where would I have my agave collection if I had lawn?

where would I have my agave collection if I had lawn?



This post is part of a call to arms by the new blog Lawn Reform, which is manned by some of the gardeners whose work, energy and commitment to a healthy environment inspire me to go further in my own practice. They are organizing to bring a larger awareness to the issue which is also a big passion of mine – removing or reducing lawns and replacing them with GARDENS! How great is that? Who can’t get behind a goal so simple and so important? My particular focus is the front yard lawn, so let me jump on my platform and hold forth, if you will indulge me!

Why have we chosen to mount an offensive against LAWNS, of all things? Well – I can only answer for myself – so I will. The social construct known as the American front lawn is a tool of conformity and control. The suburban ideal of neighborhoods – single family homes situated far from the city center, tied together by an emerald ribbon, one front lawn seamlessly connecting to the next, and so on, and so on … is woefully outdated. Back when these communities were planned, it was about the vision of everyone having their own piece of luxury; their own mini – estate complete with a greensward. This showed that the family who lived here no longer needed to grow their own food – they could waste formerly precious agricultural space without a worry. The front yard lawn is also the picture of equality; the status of everyone who lives in the neighborhood is essentially the same, says the ribbon of sod. On one hand, aspirational and elitist, on the other, democratic – the lawn is a complicated piece of the American dream! Everybody wanted to live in these houses, each one married to the next with bands of green – and most did.

agave weberi cuddles up to a cotinus 'purple robe' - in public view! gasp!

agave weberi cuddles up to a cotinus 'purple robe' - in public view! gasp!

Keeping a lawn healthy, lush, and weed-free is close to impossible for most of the country – the emerald acres of the mid-Atlantic and the lushness of the Northwest aren’t achievable in the hotter, drier parts of the country. A lawn is also a monoplanting, and insects find it easy pickings … as a result, lawns in some parts of the country relied on massive amounts of water, and others required huge doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Most needed all of the above, as well as mowing once a week. But we didn’t care about any of that back then – we wanted to create a the image of universal prosperity, and the lawn became a symbol. And symbols are very powerful.

when I say 'grass', I don't mean 'lawn'!

when I say 'grass', I don't mean 'lawn'!

Now, our environment is in crisis. Most of us have different priorities – we want to preserve the world that we have and its resources for future generations. We want to live healthier lives free of the threat of chemical contamination of our homes and our water supply. We want to know that the food we put in our bodies is wholesome and free of pesticides. The continuing dominance of the front yard lawn as a visual symbol and as a real horticultural problem impacts our world in a variety of ways, so my answer has always been – get rid of it! There are so many better things to DO with this space!

I am primarily an ornamental gardener, even though I do grow food (when allowed to by local wildlife -snif snif!), my heart belongs to my plants. I also REALLY believe in individualism as the very backbone of our American identity, which is why the ubiquitous lawn that makes every house look very much like the one next to it has always bothered me. Don’t we want this part of our home to give the world a clue as to who lives inside? I also love what a front yard garden does to a neighborhood – it brings people into the shared space. As we work in our front yards, we talk to the people who live around us – and in a city like Los Angeles, THAT is a luxury … knowing your neighbor. Front yards with lawns are not living spaces, they are basically hallways – spaces you pass through quickly on your way inside. When the front yard has been turned into a garden, the space suddenly becomes full of life – not only more birds, bees, and butterflies … but YOUR life. As I cut flowers and foliage in my front garden, my friends and neighbors often pass by on foot, or in their cars, and I get to spend a few minutes here and there catching up, making plans, petting dogs, laughing, gossiping – I’m living in my neighborhood in a way that I never would if my garden were confined to my back yard.

really, a lawn just can't compete with ... with all of THIS!

really, a lawn just can't compete with ... with all of THIS!

I am very concerned with water issues, and so removing all or a portion of front yard lawns as a drought tolerant practice is very important to me, but the change in the quality of life that accompanies the removal of a lawn and its replacement with garden is what really gets me going. It is a gift! A gift to yourself, to your neighborhood, and to the planet. Maybe I’m being a wide-eyed Utopian, but I SO look forward to the day when instead of seeing lawn, lawn, lawn, lawn while walking or driving in the cities where we live, we see the evidence of people’s hearts instead. I want to see what they love – whether it is succulents or mixed grasses or big swaths of daylilies, or a big crazy mishmash like what I have.

I want to receive that gift! I think it can happen, and I CAN’T WAIT!!!

23 Responses to “I Used to Have a Lawn … Now I Have Platform!”

  1. Those Agave’s!!! Ay, ay, ay! Wish we could have those more successfully here in the “damp” Northwest.
    My lawn strategy, due to mandatory lawn minimums from our association, is to create strips just wide enough for one pass of the mower. I secretly cut away about 6 inches all the way around every year. I getting close!
    Lovely yard.

  2. I agree! I agree! Away with the lawns and the wasting of our most precious resource, water!
    Your yard is so BEAUTIFUL!

  3. If seeing all these glorious wide shots of your garden won’t convince others to grow a front-yard garden, nothing will, Germi. You are right that a front yard of grass is just a pass-through space, but a garden makes it a living space. I’m also for smaller lawns surrounded by landscaping plants or a garden. That’s a big step for some people, and a small, defined lawn can be a beautiful part of a garden.

    Now I’m going to go back and drool over all your pictures again.

  4. Yes! Attack those front lawns! (to quote a book title)… Living in San Francisco, we don’t have a front yard (many don’t), but I plan on making my backyard over in the spirit of this lovely front yard. Love all your plant choices. It’s all just SO lush.

  5. Ivette, my darling, your posts NEVER fail to make me smile, and think, and even get a little teary-eyed. You speak passionately from the heart; that is one of your superpowers! Thank you for describing the reason we have lawns in the first place, democratic and egalitarian at the same time! Cool. Sometimes I think about gardens in terms of what would happen if they were abandoned. Yours and mine would become a survival-of-the-fittest jungle. A lawn would simply die. A landscape on life support, rather than one that supports life (ooh, I like that!!) Thank you for making my morning and sharing your platform. xoxo

  6. TOTALLY agree with you on this one. I thought your observation that a front lawn shows people evidence of one’s heart was really beautiful. Inspiring, as always dear sister! :)

  7. Well said, Germi! A friend of mine was hosting a missionary from Haiti. He picked the Haitian pastor up at Fort Lauderdale airport, and as they were driving from the airport, the missionary noticed all the lawns, “you don’t use your land to grow food here?” Broke my heart to experience his impression of American Greed. One more strike against sod… fertilizing sod can hurt our trees. Excess nitrogen causes potassium deficiency. Waiting for America to “get it”…

  8. Beautiful photos and I agree with you totally about lawns being an absolute waste of space. But here is my problem, I live in one of those dry climates you mentioned and the front of my property (1/2 acre) is planted with bermuda grass (which I hate and I’m allergic to and don’t water) so how do I get rid of it? I do get subversive in the spring and let all the wild flowers grow.

  9. Beautiful Germi…thanks for showing us more of your own private paradise! I really enjoyed your take on the lawn as symbol of universal prosperity and you are so right about it being a hallway/pass through space. Whenever I am out working in my front garden people always stoop to talk, ask advice on their plants or inquire as to the name of something. It’s a great opportunity to meet people. Oh…and since we have a gravel mulch there are always the little kids who really want to pick out a rock to take with them. Its fun watching them work up the courage to ask, or whisper to their mom “can I have a rock?” or watch them pick one out and put it in their pocket when they think nobody is looking. Some can’t decide between two so when I tell them to take both they look like they just won the lottery! Ya don’t get that with grass blades!

  10. Hello Rosey Pollen! Welcome! I’m glad you like my front garden – I NEVER regret ripping out the lawn that used to be there, although I did have to deal with neighbors thinking that I was ruining the neighborhood. And now, those same neighbors ask for cuttings! Love it!

    Pam, what a lovely thing to say! Of course, these are mostly shots of the garden is spring, when the euphorbias are blooming and everything looks fresh. Now, not so much freshness, but still more interesting than lawn! Your point is very correct about smaller lawns, as well – nobody can deny that that swath of emerald sets off plantings like nothing else, so I completely get that some people would rather reduce than totally rid themselves of lawn. It’s a very positive move, and allows for the best of both worlds! XOXO!

    Hi Blake! Wow – I’m so pleased that my garden tickled your pleasure bone! (wit – does that sound weird? You know what I mean…) San Francisco has so much public beauty it scarcely needs front yards! Lucky you, living in NoCal paradise! Keep me updated on the progress of your garden, okay?

    Wonderful Laura, isn’t it funny that we chose to be twitter sisters? We are so similar in out sentiments, because I feel exactly the same about you! Your post was such a fabulous way to start the Lawn Reform movement off with a bang – you got me so excited to follow suit. I love the idea of the abandoned garden, it is actually one of my favorite design motifs – and I agree … you and I have created spaces that will continue to grow and change and host all kinds of life – a lawn would take a long time to go feral enough to do the same. I am so proud to be on the side of the wild and diverse! And from the way you design, write, and live your life, I know you are, too! XO!

    My wonderful sister (this is my real sister, everyone!) Tina! I can’t wait until YOU attack your front yard! I know you’re itching to do it, but please, rest up! I am already super impressed at the triathalon you just did, to totally re-do all of your outdoor spaces in a year would be superhuman! Love you so much…

    Eastflaud, that is an amazing and moving story. It gives me a lump in my throat. We have so much, and waste so much of it! And good point about the trees! I can’t STAND seeing trees popped into lawns – the most unhealthy environment for them! Too much nitrogen, water on the trunk, buried crowns … ACK! When will we learn????

    Thanks for the thumbs up, Katharine! I have to say first off, I feel for you. Bermuda grass SUCKS! Don’t even try solarizing it (an organic method of killing sod by smothering it under plastic in the hot sun), it will take forever and won’t work well. In this one thing, I say do the glyphosate – Round-up. I know, I know … many will say that Round up isn’t organic, and it is a product I would rather not use, but when you need to kill a large area of sod there isn’t a more effective method. After the kill, when a garden is in place, I never use glyphosates – I use my hands or vinegar or boiling water. But you want to set yourself up for a successful garden, and bermuda grass is a bear. Apply Roundup and let it do it’s job. Once the sod is dead, throw it in your compost pile (or start one with it!) and cook it forever – in a sunny area covered with a tarp (solarizing will work – eventually)!
    Now you can plant yourself a native grass meadow that can go as wild as you want and will need just enough water to get it established and to see it through the hottest times. Best of luck and let me know what you decided to do, okay?

    Loree! I’m loving the image of you in your neighborhood, and the kids taking away their little treasure pebbles! It’s true – if you had lawn there, how long would you spend in your front yard? I love my public garden! I love YOUR public garden! I think even getting people to reduce their lawn, like Pam says, and plant a little more garden, would get them hooked. Once you become the neighborhood front yard plant diva, you want more! I would LOVE a neighborhood full of front yard garden activity – can you imagine how lively that would be? Do you think it can happen? Let’s cross our fingers! XO!

  11. Jean Prescott says:

    I look at the images of your glorious garden and imagine such beauty when I would look out my front window (from which I see pavement, parked cars and the gallery across the front of the building opposite mine). Oh, poor me? No, not really, though I would love a little spot, even to put out pots. I’m thinking of moving, and then, dear Germi, I may screw up the courage to plant. Love you for showing me beauty till that can happen.

  12. Katharine, if you do use Round-up, be aware that it may kill anything within 10-15 feet of the spray line – so if you have specimen trees, shrubs, or anything you want to keep, be very conservative. If you can wait a few months you can try several layers of newspaper and cardboard covered with mulch – eventually it turns into soil and you can plant right through the layers. Not foolproof/weedproof, though.

    I do have a small lawn in the backyard but last fall I did something radical – I quit mowing it. I’ve enjoyed watching its “cycle” – growing and going to seed and now yellowing. The morning doves enjoy the seeds, and it’s really nice blowing in the breeze. It’s about three feet tall, but most of it is flopping around prettily. It needs less water because the soil stays shaded, versus artificially clipped grass that lets water evaporate.

  13. Germi, I can’t believe I missed this when you first posted! You make so many wonderful points in your usual passionate way. We designers and gardeners are so hung up lately on the environmental aspects of lawn (which of course is important) that we keep shoving lifestyle issues to the back of the bus. Your beautiful garden shows not only how much more beautiful, exciting and PERSONAL a garden is than a lawn, but your thoughts – and those of other commenters – on how a front yard garden connects one to the community are so true. (Not to mention a good way for we designers to get clients, heehee)

    Makes you wonder how a country that used to be defined by Rugged Individualism morphed into the land of Turf Grass Confirmists. Thanks for linking! You are an inspiration!

  14. Lawn as a status symbol? Boo, hiss. BUT — sometimes lawns are more than a “pass through”…as a child, we PLAYED on the lawn — tumbling, running, falling, playing croquet, etc. The lawn was not perfect (I certainly don’t remember my folks using fertilizers on it, and we did spend time pulling up dandelions), but it was open space and relatively soft, with no CARS running through it.
    Just wanted to point out that sometimes lawns serve a useful function (and they don’t have to be unfriendly to the environment).
    Though, of course you’re right — they don’t suit ALL geographical areas (here in Yucatan…you might be amazed at how ubiquitous lawns are — and probably for some of the reasons you outlined in your post).

  15. Susa, thank you for always adding to the dialog! I LOVE cross talk on blogs … I should encourage more of it here. Okay all, let’s CROSS TALK more!
    I love the idea of letting your lawn go feral, especially if it is a classic fescue mix – but if you have bermuda, like Katharine … AAARRRGGGGHHHH!!! Don’t let those bermuda grass seeds out into the world where they become more impossible to eradicate sod weed! Kill Kill Kill!!!

    Sweet Susan, one of the OG Lawn Reformers! We have the real deal here, people! YOU are the inspiration! From my first lurking on your blog, to my first comment, to our twitter chats, your work helps me to organize my thoughts and spur me forward. I am really lucky to have come into a community of energetic, spirited gardeners and designers who are ALSO thinkers and stewards of the environment / culture! Thank you so much for your lovely words, I feel the same about you … Big MWAH! to you!

    Hi MCM – I’m in Merida next week! And I’m going through all of your back comments to visit the viveros you suggested!
    It’s true, lawns ARE wonderful play spaces – but in the cities, back yards are where the play lawns usually are. Parents don’t like the idea of their little kids playing in the front yard, close to the street, closer to other perceived dangers. That is why when clients MUST have lawn for their kids, it is always in the back. There really is nothing like playing on turf, and I understand that kids need that, so I’d never begrudge the family play space. But the FRONT lawn is another story!
    Funny, I have noticed lawns and topiary as the dominant horticultural forms in Merida – both symbols of high maintenance, European-style or North American garden imperialism! Break Free, wonderful Merida! Let your inner Tropical Deciduous Jungle run free!

  16. You garden is so lovely. It makes me wish that I don’t like lawn. But I do! My lawn love makes me feel guilty so I’m slowly chipping away at it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get rid of my lawn completely. I like to lay on it in and wrestle on it with the dog. My lawn is organic though and I let it go dormant in summer…so my garden sin is not as bad as it could be!

  17. I’m all for lawns that serve some purpose (mixed broadleaves, please!) but so often they are just unused sterile swards (or dog s*** runs, as I call them. I have nothing against dogs, just the people who don’t clean up after them.)

    I wish I remembered the authors of all my favorite comments against lawns. One was (to paraphrase), the lawn is a plant community devoid of sex. Another was, the lawn is antisocial. It requires lawnmowers and weed-whackers which inhibit conversation. A garden, though, is tended. One can talk with one’s neighbors whilst pulling the weeds.

    I do all my gardening on a slab of concrete three stories up and facing a westward parking lot. (Long live the agaves!) But a day may come where I find myself gardening in the ground, and it heartens me to read that you’ve converted some neighbors. I don’t *want* to do battle with HOAs but I envision it.

    I see you’ve got some fluffy daisy-ish plant creeping amongst the agaves… told you it could work! ;)

  18. I really like your transformation. Your combination of plants is great, and I especially love the color contrasts.

  19. Beautiful yard! What is that amazing plant over your front entry?

  20. Your garden is so beautiful and inspiring. I feel I’ve so far to go in tackling this gigantic yard we have — bit by bit though we are seeing change. I can’t wait for the Bermuda and St. Augustine to be gone, gone, gone. But we have a lot of yard to fill in. Your agave are so beautiful — I’m getting three in the ground this weekend!

  21. your front-yard garden is my constant inspiration. unfortunately mine is easily 4x the size of yours and all of that space is overwhelming…so i have made fits and starts of planting areas, but alas it is woefully LACKING. guidance is needed. do you freelance for fellow neighborhood bloggers? if so you’re hired! I’m not kidding Germie. someone needs to boss around and take charge of my front yard ungarden. think of it as the extra room you don’t have in your own platform.

    -mary ann who is getting outside right now to prune my smoke tree which you instructed me to do in the fall (to encourage branching) i mean as soon as i finish catching up over here. hee

    p.s. i’m going to merida for 10 days in january!!!!

  22. Just ran in to your sweet agave post while trying to identifying one. I think it’s a weberi.

  23. You have several, well thought out ideas. I also tore out my front lawn but my reasoning was more meme than altruistic. I just needed more space. Isn’t it wonderful when being a meme turns out to be a good thing.

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