Gardening Matters

It has been a beautiful week. We’ve had days of warm spring weather after a week with good rain. My lawn has been lush green and begging for attention. I no longer dread the work of keeping a nice lawn. I just love the smell of freshly cut grass. I actually look forward to the first few lawn mowings of the year.

When we moved to Dunwoody in 1986 we had about 6,000 square feet of lawn. Maybe a little more. The front yard was fairly small, but I had an expansive swath of fescue in the back. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the beautiful green swath was a royal pain to keep mowed, watered, fertilized, weeded and raked. By the third year I was here I started my plan for a “mow no mo” yard. I let a few areas go to the ivy that was already encroaching. Other parts of the yard were given over to shrubs and flower beds. Right now I am down to 1,500 square feet (at most) of grass in both front and back. One of my proudest moments was when the lawn weed and feed service guy actually apologized to me for the fee he was charging by telling me that he wasn’t allowed to charge any lower amount even for such a small lawn.

I like to be able to tell you that I was on the cutting edge of the current environmental trend for reducing the size of home lawns. But actually, I was just channeling my inner sloth and looking for a way to reduce the weekend yard work drudgery. Nonetheless there is a good basis for the trend to reduce the size of our lawns.

One blogger that I have read, Carole Sevilla Brown, has put it this way, “Simple ecosystems, like monoculture lawns, support very few other species. In fact, lawns have been called biological deserts because of the paucity of other species they support. They are prone to disease, insect outbreaks, and invasive species. Nutrients are lost when clippings are removed, requiring large amounts of chemical inputs to sustain them. This type of system cannot sustain itself, but requires constant attention.”

While no one person’s large lawn is going to bring on an environmental apocalypse, it’s the suburbanite’s widespread - almost worshipful - approach to a well-tended green grass lawn that has moved us in this unsustainable direction. And I’m as guilty as the next person in this situation.

So what can you do if you reduce some of your lawn area? Patios, fire pits and play areas with permeable surfaces can be installed. Areas can be turned over to vegetable, herb or berry gardens. Ponds and water features can be installed that recirculate water and create attractive views with cool breezes. Perhaps some areas can be given over to less intensive management such as wildflower areas and small prairie-type fields to help support wildlife. Small home orchards can be established to give you and the family fresh fruit. Certainly, flower or shrub gardens can be developed to make your home look as cozy as you want it to.

And all of this does not have to be as burdensome as you might think. We are already spending lots of money on lawn seed, fertilizers, weed control and treatments for diseases and bugs. Many of us spend even further amounts of money to pay someone to do the cutting, cleaning, aerating, over-seeding and other maintenance chores on our lawns. Further, the cost of watering our lawns is going up dramatically almost every year.

If you add all of this up you will have a considerable amount of money. It comes to even more if you allow a consideration for the time you actually spend on your lawn yourself. Given these kinds of costs, it is not hard to imagine that an alternative to massive lawns and the use of sustainable practices can be carried out with little or no additional long-term costs in time or money.

It’s something worth thinking about, especially when you get one of those heart-stopping water bills in a summer of drought. And your smaller yard will still smell as sweet when mowed.

Jeff Coghill has been gardening in DeKalb County for more than 30 years and has probably killed at least one of each kind of plant he has tried before getting another one to thrive. He is a gardening volunteer at the Dunwoody Nature Center and works closely with members of the DeKalb Master Gardeners group. He can be reached at

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