Tidewater Gardening - May 2006

Lawn Alternatives


K. Marc Teffeau

   A lot of controversy has been generated of late by environmental groups about the American pastime of taking care of lawns. They cite the millions of dollars spent on establishing and maintaining turf areas with fertilizers and pesticides as bad for the environment and the ecology. Much of the information they publish on this subject is biased and selective in nature but the fact remains that our culture does have a fixation on lawn care.
    Virginia Scott Jenkins exposes the roots of our lawn fixation in her 1994 book entitled The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Jenkins details how millions of industry dollars are spent on developing turf that is both disease and pest-resistant—after all, lawn as we know it is not a native plant.
    There is a place for properly maintained turf in the landscape, however. The expanses of grass add oxygen to the atmosphere, provide erosion control and soften the look of an otherwise hard appearing, artificial outside appearance. But being properly maintained is the key issue. When I was the county Extension agent in Talbot County a number of years ago, it was always a challenge to help folks, especially those from the Western Shore, Baltimore and Pennsylvania north that they just could not grow here that beautiful bluegrass lawn they had at their other home. It just ain’t gone’ a happen. The Eastern Shore is the Twilight Zone of grass so I tried to encourage these turf-obsessed newcomers to lower their expectations and the amount of fertilizer water and herbicides they applied to the turf. And there is also a very good case that can be made that in some landscaping situations, low maintenance ground covers instead of turf would be more appropriate.
    That being said there are some other turf alternatives that homeowners can consider. The Ball Horticultural Company, through their Simply Beautiful® brand program has come up with a group of suggestions for homeowners to consider. First, ornamental grasses and foliage plants are a great alternative to lawn. Consider breaking up that big expanse of flat green with taller interesting plants.
    Ball suggests Wind Dancer Eragrostis, an airy, bluish-green grass features tan plumes late in summer. It grows 3 to 4 ft. (90-120 cm) and provides lovely winter interest as well. It’s hardy to USDA Zone 6 and because it’s drought-tolerant and native to North America, it is very low maintenance.
    Purple Majesty Ornamental Millet features deep purple foliage that develops in the sunshine on this tall corn-like plant. Large flower spikes reach above the foliage creating a wonderful backdrop for compact plants in front. It’s a beautiful fall plant with a harvest look and will take light frosts. This variety is an All-America Selections Gold Medal Winner – a testament to its outstanding garden performance.
    Also look for two other varieties of ornamental millet. Purple Baron and Jester are both more compact than Purple Majesty but share the same rich color changes over the growing season.
    Other alternative plants include Purple Knight Alternanthera and Black Pearl Ornamental Pepper. Purple Knight Alternanthera’s dark purple-leafed foliage grows about 18 in. (50 cm) tall and spreads about 3 ft. (90 cm). It is also very heat tolerant, and thrives through the hottest summers in full sun. You can keep it more compact with regular trimming.
    Black Pearl Ornamental Pepper is the first black-leafed ornamental pepper on the market, Black Pearl is also a recent All-America selections winner. It features glossy black foliage on a bushy plant. It loves heat, humidity and can tolerate drought, making it a super summer pick. Black Pearl features round, shiny black fruit that matures to dark red and is very hot to the taste.
    Another lawn-reducing option is to create mass plantings of colorful annuals. Along your driveway, beside the fence or in a newly created garden, colorful expanses of flowers always catch the eye. The Wave® Petunia introduced in 1995 by Ball made a huge splash with its vigorous trailing habit filling containers, hanging baskets, and even large masses as groundcover.
    Double Wave® offers the same spreading habit as the original, but with double blooms giving a particularly frilly and full effect. Wave Petunias spread quickly to fill large areas – up to 4 ft. (1.2 m)! Tidal Wave® Petunias will grow hedge-like so they work well along a fence or to create height in the back of a garden. Keep them evenly moist, but no need to deadhead. They can be used in large gardens or jumbo containers.
    For a unique petunia there is Madness® Yellow, a yellow petunia! A soft yellow bloom with white edges graces this more compact growing petunia. Other interesting options in this series including Plum Crazy with a lavender bloom and deep purple center as well as the new Lavender Glow with its intense pink bloom.
    Another alternative plant is the Landmark™ Lantana. The plant has vibrant blooms in yellows and pinks cover dark green foliage. This variety is bred especially for landscape uses, spreading up to 2 ft. (60 cm). With all-season color, this heat-tolerant variety also attracts butterflies.
    To get away from a lawn that looks like a big green square, create winding walkways with focal points that feature flowers along the way. The choices below are also suitable for home-grown cut flowers. Melody™ Dahlias are an excellent plant for this use. With gorgeous, long-lasting blooms, the Melody™ series varieties grow 18 to 24 in. (45 to 60 cm) and feature stunning colors like the coppery orange of Swing.
    Create a focal point by planting Melody Dahlias around a garden statue or sundial. Swan Aquilegia is a hybrid from the Columbine family. These flowers are excellent as cut flowers to make beautiful bouquets. A great range of colors is available from true blue to shades of red – and lots in between. They may look delicate, but these hardy plants grow as perennials to USDA Zone 3.
    Another alternative to reduce the overall area of your lawn is by creating large gardens under trees or oversized container gardens. Since these areas tend to be semi-shady, impatiens is a good choice. Fiesta™ Double Impatiens is a particularly vigorous variety with large double blooms, Fiesta Double Impatiens zap bursts of color in shadier locales. If it’s too difficult to plant close to the base of a tree, consider creating a 1-ft. (30 cm) perimeter of cedar mulch, then prepare a garden bed beyond that. For best results, plant impatiens 6 to 10 in. (15 to 25 cm) apart and fertilize every two weeks. Many people plant one solid color, but for something different, intermix groups of pinks, reds and corals. There’s a huge range of color in this series.
    While you are busy considering turf alternatives, don’t forget that May is a very busy month for our usual gardening activities. After the last frost, plant out all your warm season vegetable transplants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Make a seeding of green beans and sweet corn in the garden as well as squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and muskmelons. Keep an eye out for early season insect infestations that might occur and control accordingly.
    Make sure that your lawn mower blade is sharpened to achieve a clean cut. This reduces possible disease problems in the turn and avoids that brownish tinge on turf that a dull blade can produce.
    May is not the time to be fertilizing the lime. If you didn’t get it done in early March, wait until the fall. If the dry spell continues, lengthen the time between irrigating and combine this with deep, heavy watering. This encourages root growth while reducing top growth in lawns. This increases the root-to-shoot ratio and produces plants that are more resistant to wilting when exposed to infrequent watering.
    Letting a lawn grow too tall and then cutting it back to the recommended height is detrimental. Such extreme leaf removal stops the flow of food to the roots, weakens the plants, and opens the lawn to diseases. Never let it grow so tall that you have to cut off more than one third of the grass blade. Happy Gardening!!!