Garden Designers Roundtable: Lawn Reform Fun

– Posted in: Garden Design


Once again the bloggers at Garden Designers Roundtable bring you a series of networked bogs around a common theme and have asked members of the Lawn Reform Coalition to join forces.  As a member of LRC, I chose to blog on my home turf, here at Gardening Gone Wild.  Many more posts will be found linked at the bottom.


Retired Lawn

“Retired Lawn” brings a smile every time I drive by.  The front yard of a modest home on a busy street near my house, it is an art installation  worthy of space at Cornerstone Gardens.  Conceptual landscape architects might be more subtle but can do no better at expressing why lawns are not worth the effort:  too much work for too little pleasure.

I seriously  doubt that “Retired Lawn” is intending to make any statement about lawn reform but we can be sure that taking care of that lawn was boring work.  We in the Lawn Reform Coaltion can preach that lawns, as promoted by the lawn and turf industry are water guzzling, chemical dependent, excuses to beat down nature, that  lawns are monocultures that nature sees as sterile wastelands, and that lawn mowers pollute the atmosphere.

But “Retired Lawn” doesn’t care about all this, and besides, RL used a push mower.  Bottom line:  having a lawn was a boring chore.

Retired Lawn - Free At Last

Retired Lawn - Free At Last

Gardening is fun.  In this simple observation, obvious to all who read garden blogs, is the way to spread the word that lawn reform is not about a lot of holier-than-thou environmental goofballs laying a guilt trip on property owners.  From what I can tell reading garden blogs, the avid gardeners are already on board with lawn reform.  Many of us are already mostly organic and our lawns are already shrinking because our shrub and flower borders keep expanding; and now we can let our dandelions go to flower in our lawns and call them meadows.

Retired Lawn, Now a Meadow

Retired Lawn, Now a Meadow

We don’t need to have someone rattle off the stats about how many square miles of America are wasted on turf*.  (*Footnote of digression:  I was about to say wasted on grass, before I realized most of the square miles of agriculture lands in the world are devoted to grass – corn, wheat, oats, and rice are all grasses.)  Gardeners are all pretty much in agreement that if you want some lawn, it must satisfy some sort of design criteria.

New Mexico Drought Tolerant Lawn, Buffalo Grass

New Mexico Drought Tolerant Lawn, Buffalo Grass

Nor do we here need anyone to tell us that gardening is fun.  But I am not sure the rest of property owning America gets that.  Surely if they did, there would be much less lawn.

We can discuss amongst ourselves, as do East Coast vs. West Coast members of the Lawn Reform Coalition, about the practical functions of lawns and whether they are low maintenance or high maintenance, but to make an impact on those who have lawns because they don’t know what else to do, we need to appeal to their sense of fun, to our American sense of individuality, and our natural instinct to do the right thing.

Lawn Converted to Backyard Pond Habitat

Lawn Converted to Backyard Pond Habitat

No one wants to be boring.  So let’s take the dull lawn spaces surrounding most homes, express some creativity, and have fun doing it.  This is what gardening is all about and each of us here reading this takes quirky pride in our own interpretations, our own installations.  And when we garden organically and sustainably in harmony with nature, we have the deep satisfaction of contributing to the health of our neighborhoods and the planet itself.  This is big fun.

Gardens become extensions of ourselves; and a lawn with no purpose should be considered a crime against the planet, a sign the owner of such a sward is a repressed bore, and someone who needs to drink the gardening koolaid.  Wake up you doofus!  Make some art !  Have a garden!  Kill your lawn !

OK, maybe that approach won’t work on the door-to-door campaign for lawn reform, but you get the point.  We in the gardening media (that includes all you fellow bloggers) need to give the lawn owners permission to do something different with their lawn.  Whatever amount of time they spend working on their lawns can be re-directed onto actual gardening, which I will say, one … more … time:  it’s fun, its  fulfilling, it expresses your personality.

Backyard Meadow, Grass Garden with Rustic Chair

Backyard Meadow, Grass Garden with Rustic Chair

All this less lawn means re-imagining what we do with the space that lawns occupy, and that is exactly what the media needs to do.  Let’s show some alternatives.  And that is where I find inspiration for the work I do as a garden photographer.  I want to show actual alternatives in practice.  Seeing is believing, though all who read my posts here at Gardening Gone Wild know “The Camera Always Lies”.  It lies to tell the story the photographer wants to tell.

I have been fortunate to work with publishers who want to tell the same story and am exceedingly proud of three books (and one about to come) that make a point of promoting lawn alternatives.  Since this entire concept of networking with the garden designers roundtable is to promote lawn alternatives, and I can’t exactly show all the alternatives I have seen, I will point to: Plants and Landscapes of Summer-Dry Climates (543 photos – only one with lawn)  The American Meadow Garden (with meadow guru John Greenlee), and Re-Imagining the California Lawn (I have less than 50% of the photos).  And coming soon Beautiful No Mow Lawns, fellow LRC member Evelyn Haddens’s new book.

All these books show real examples of lawn alternatives, but if you are to study these (or any garden book) you are led to believe success in gardening is easy and maintenance is low.  We all know gardens are work, that sustainability has a direct relationship to the labor we put in.  Photographs in books do not often come from truly low maintenance gardens.

Ros Creasy Edible Landscape with Veggies, Herbs, Flowers

Ros Creasy Edible Landscape with Veggies, Herbs, Flowers

But life is work, friendships are work, art is work, work is work.  Why would anyone not expect gardens to be work too ?  But ahhh !  if you are a gardener it is not work alone, it is fun.  “Retired Lawn” got no fun from gardening, the lawn was a boring chore.   If gardening were fun for RT we would see something living covering that ground.

The choices to replace lawn are nearly endless but first it is our job to convince those that see gardens as boring, that gardens are fun and fulfilling.  We need to prove that the pleasures outweigh the work.

As that happens, as we unleash the creative spirit of future gardeners, we will see more and more creative uses of lawn space, more habitat and the creatures who need it, more local food, more community, as we share our stories with neighbors, and more overall good health.

Minnesota Backyard Permaculture Garden

Minnesota Backyard Permaculture Garden

Let’s do all we can to encourage new gardeners to have fun with whatever time they have, be it in the veggie garden, the balcony, in front yards, or just a few simple flowers.  Small successes are to be congratulated.  It is all good.  You don’t need an estate and every garden counts in the sum total of improving our collective lives.  So to encourage actual gardening, as alternatives to the boring lawns that too many folk “think” is gardening, the following photos are all examples of lawn alternatives in properties not much different than the one Retired Lawn left behind.

And all are a lot more fun:

California Front Yard Patio and Entry Garden

California Front Yard Patio and Entry Garden

Entry into Front Yard with Native Grass Meadow

Entry into Front Yard with Native Grass Meadow

Jen Carlson's Backyard Farm Garden

Jen Carlson's Backyard Farm Garden

Geranium Biokova as Groundcover Lawn Alternative

Geranium Biokova as Groundcover Lawn Alternative

Sedge Lawn After Mowing

Sedge Lawn After Mowing

Small Lawn Converted to Flowering Meadow

Small Lawn Converted to Flowering Meadow

Retired Lawn - The Golden Years

Retired Lawn - The Golden Years

And now the blogfest fun continues.  Please continue on and read more perspectives and design ideas from the Lawn Reform Coalition and the members of Garden Designers Roundtable.

Susan Harris : Garden Rant : Takoma Park, MD

Susan Harris : Gardener Susan’s Blog : Takoma Park, MD

Billy Goodnick : Cool Green Gardens : Santa Barbara, CA

Evelyn Hadden : Lawn Reform.Org : Saint Paul, MN

Ginny Stibolt : Florida Native Plant Society : Green Cove Springs, FL

Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold: Garden, Life, Home : Atlanta, GA

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT



Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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Flâneur Gardener August 23, 2011, 5:31 am

I will always want to have a lawn, because I love croquet and from a rainwater perspective a lawn is also a better terrace than a paved area. However, a lawn the size of a croquet pitch will easily be large enough for me. (And my lawn is never – EVER – watered. If it dries out, so be it.)

Welcome Flaneur – A croquet pitch is most certainly a conscious design reason to have a lawn. You are approved 🙂
As to paved areas there are now many great materials to use that are porous. – Saxon

DAY August 23, 2011, 8:31 am

All too often the lawn is a reflection of the interior. Wall to wall carpeting, slipcovers on the furniture, motel art on the walls.
let Nature be Nature- with an occasional nudge, here and there. Watering? That comes from the sky. Or not. . .

Steve – Often those reflections of the interior are a great design consideration – a panel of minimalist green for instance. Those outdoor panels just don’t have to be turf. – Saxon

Susan in the Pink Hat August 23, 2011, 9:35 am

I think the key in all of this is that you have to convince people to garden before you can convince them to lose the lawn. When I drive through older areas, I see so many older homes with wood detailing, siding, and roofing that is failing and lament that people don’t even take time anymore to keep their homes from falling apart. These people care even less about their property. Everything about new construction in the west is about making owning a home and your property as “low-maintenance” as possible. For the average individual, in a garden that means a lawn that you weed and feed, run an automatic sprinkler system on, and pay someone else to mow. I think that this new movement for growing your own veg should be pushed more heavily among new gardeners than one that promotes losing the lawn. Those people who already garden and who are likely to be reading this blog are the perfect group to talk to about losing the lawn. I plan to lose mine!

Susan – You got my point, thanks. The folks who are not going to garden are not going to care about lawn. Those who do garden are already getting the message, and those who are beginning just need to start somewhere. They will not long want to waste their creative gardening pleasure time on a lawn. – Saxon

Gloria August 23, 2011, 12:12 pm

Beautiful pictures with great ideas for those looking to go with less lawn.
I love your art, your sense of humor,and everthing you write.
A fan from even though I’m a…
“holier-than-thou environmental goofballs laying a guilt trip on property owners.”

Thanks Gloria. I guess we have a lot in common… Saxon

Genevieve August 23, 2011, 12:22 pm

Excellent points, and of course, gorgeous photos, Saxon.
I find the easiest clients to sell on getting rid of lawns are the ones who come home with armloads of new plants every time they hit the nursery, and no place to put them.
Just taking out a bit more lawn is generally the easy answer! And such a beautiful option it is.
Thanks for a thought-provoking and beautiful post.

Thanks Gen. Those who “get” gardening are usually pretty quickly converted away from lawns. – Saxon

Pam/Digging August 23, 2011, 12:45 pm

Ripping out a lawn, a front lawn in particular, is an act of liberation and creativity. Is there anything more satisfying than transforming a green “desert” of a lawn into a welcoming, interesting, lively mix of plants and hardscaping? Fun? Oh, you bet!

Pam – Keep spreading the fun. Thanks for stopping by – Saxon

Cathy August 23, 2011, 1:13 pm

A topic after my own heart. We “lost our lawn” in 2004 and have not regretted it for a single second. In fact, we both agree that the extensive flower gardens (that take many more hours weekly than a lawn would to maintain) that we’ve built are our most favorite place to pass a couple of hours a day. As for our low maintenance siding (cement fiber clapboards), and bamboo and ceramic tile floors… it’s not a reflection of our attitude about the outside” of our home…. it just means we have more time to spend weeding. 😉

Cathy – Sounds like you have figured out your time management to sustain a glorious garden. Flower maintenance vs.lawn maintenance ? Fun vs. boredom ? Time well spent – Saxon

Jocelyn/the art garden August 23, 2011, 1:41 pm

Brilliant! I love your main point here – we need to convert more homeowners into gardeners! Perhaps we should all strike the word “maintain” from vocabulary and replace it with the word “garden.” Thanks for participating today, Saxon – I thoroughly enjoyed your post!

Thanks for stopping by Jocelyn, and yes, if we get more folks into gardening, by whatever trick or revelation, the world will be a better place. – Saxon

Debbie/GardenofPossibilities August 23, 2011, 3:00 pm

Saxon, I think you’ve touched on a very important point, those of us who advocate for lawn reform are often preaching to the choir. Many gardeners already understand the ecological implications of having so much lawn. But for those who don’t, or don’t care, highlighting the fun aspects of gardening may be just the ticket. Thanks for joining us on GDRT this month, it’s a real treat for us to join forces with you and the other members of the Lawn Reform Coalition to explore such an important topic.

Debbie – Glad to part of the group, thanks for stopping by. Highlighting the fun is easier said than done to busy people who aren’t inclined to garden. But I also think appealing to their higher sense of responsibility with their own piece of ground can be a motivator. In a different way it is “fun” to feel connected to the earth and believe every tree, shrub, and flower we plant is a net plus for us all. – Saxon

rebecca sweet August 23, 2011, 4:34 pm

Such a wonderful and thought provoking post, Saxon. Well said! And it comes as no surprise to me that your photos are drool-worthy as well. Thanks for joining the group today!

Thanks Rebecca, glad to join you guys in this important work. – Saxon

Susan Morrison August 23, 2011, 6:51 pm

Saxon, you would really enjoy reading Christopher Grampp’s “From Yard to Garden: The Domestication of Americas Home Grounds.” He does an excellent job not just chronicling the factors that led to our devotion to our lawns, but posits that this is changing as we begin to define what a garden can be by our lifestyles and our regional culture – rather than just recreating the giant lawns we grew up with. You seem to be hitting on some of the same themes. Terrific post.

Susan- Thank a lot for the recommendation. I know Grampp’s name and now I will know why. – Saxon

Linda Lehmusvirta August 23, 2011, 7:51 pm

I’m bookmarking this one for your philosophy and outstanding pictures that make me want to run out and work in my garden. Guess I’ll wait until it’s not 105 but this inspiration is truly glorious.

Hey Linda – thanks for stopping by. What ?! 105 is no fun for gardening ? – Saxon

Donna August 24, 2011, 8:10 am

I enjoyed your post on retired lawns, especially your little Photoshop markers. I get really tired of those that preach and am glad that was not your forum here. Like Susan said it is garden first. In Buffalo, gardens have barely a blade of grass and no one calls it their meadow. Leave meadows where they belong, not in city front yards, thank you. But you can intentionally design a facsimile attracting all kinds of wildlife to the garden. I design using a limited lawn but it is very purposeful. It is a design element, not an after thought or something to be coveted by the weekend warrior.

Have you ever visited Buffalo gardens? There are more than 350 of them on display that have very little, if any grass. I highlighted many on my two blogs this year after Garden Walk. Here at GA and also Garden Walk Garden Talk.

I have been refraining doing a post on lawns for the reason of the insanity of it all. There are a few folks out there that really are spouting and being very misleading about it all. Like you said, The Camera Lies and I can not agree more. It is easy to take a tight shot and make all the yard weeds, excuse me wildflowers, beautiful, but show it in context and it is often another story. In fact there is an abandoned house in my area with thigh-high weeds that is beautiful if you crop the image to make it so. Like I mentioned, and your images show, design it with intent. Some harken the beauty of just letting the grass ‘become’ and I always think wait and see what you got in 95° weather and show us that image. You can readily see why I have not made a post on this yet. It is too easily a subject to get hearts a racing.

Donna – Thanks for your thought provoking reply, and I will take on your challenge to “leave meadows where they belong, not in city front yards”. Sounds like you have seen some poor excuses of meadows, perhaps neglected ‘meadow in a can’ abominations, or lawns retired by neglect. I have never been to Buffalo but have certainly heard of Garden Walk and the wonderful community of gardeners who care and share. I only wish a few of them knew how to use meadows as a garden design, a conscious garden design, where the plant material is as carefully chosen as a mixed border.

I have seen many urban meadows, in front yards, that I think are beautiful, regardless of how I communicate that with my camera. There are several in this very post: the third image is a tiny front yard in St Louis for instance. Sure this garden looks different in the heat of August than when I photographed it in May, but I can assure you the owner still loves the look and will have kept out any thigh high “weeds” that do not contribute to the aesthetic he wants.

A meadow garden is a garden not a native meadow in the wild where its unkempt habit fits into the ecosystem. They are also at heart a grass ecology, only using carefully chosen flowers to “sweeten” the look of carefully chosen mix of grasses, or more increasingly the sedges.

Such a meadow is more time consuming to start than a simple lawn but need not be more time consuming to maintain once established. I have seen it. I do it myself. In Buffalo, where the climax ecology is forest, any sort of garden meadow is going to look a bit out of place, but if someone wants to try and put one in a city front yard I hope you will enjoy their expression and not worry if it fits into the neighborhood.

Turf lawns can be fabulous, when as you say, are a design element. As too are the meadow grasses. Not simply relegated to habitat or wildlife, but for the humans – as a designed relief from turf. – Saxon

Kathy Fitzgerald August 24, 2011, 10:36 am

Timely article. The drought plaguing the southeastern U.S. has done for most of the grass in my front yard. Have ordered berry bushes and dwarf fruit trees to fill some voids, and am planning raised beds for vegetables. By spring, most lawn will be gone.
Am writing a post about the experiment, and would love to use some of your pictures of alternatives to boring expanses of green. May I?
Cheers, Kathy

Kathy – At one time or another drought plagues all gardeners and lawn is always the first to suffer the consequence, so any design that depends upon it will quickly suffer too. By all means do experiment and try new things and encourage others to do the same. If you want to use my pictures, please link your readers to my post (and the others in the lawn reform coalition and garden designers roundtable) but do not move photos to your own post without paying a license. Web use is a very modest fee but none-the-less I must establish monetary value when others use my work. I hope you understand and contact me directly to arrange a license. – Saxon

Scott Hokunson August 24, 2011, 11:24 am


I am a member of the choir, but enjoyed your sermon!

Amen to this statement – “Nor do we here need anyone to tell us that gardening is fun. But I am not sure the rest of property owning America gets that. Surely if they did, there would be much less lawn.” Most of my clients are unaware as to how much fun can be had with their outdoor spaces or how beautiful they can be without, or with less lawn.

Thanks for keeping the choir in tune here, now it’s off to inspire the congregation!

BTW, I loved “The American Meadow Garden”!

Scott – I daresay you are a fellow preacher not just the choir. Thanks for stopping by to comment. – Saxon

Tara dillard August 25, 2011, 4:54 pm

Your pics tell the story.

BEAUTIFULLY. And humor in a serious topic.

XO Tara

Thanks Tara – and after all gardening *should* be fun – Saxon

Mamaholt August 26, 2011, 10:27 am

What a wonderful post! You’re such a wonderful voice for “the cause.”

I took out my entire lawn, front and back, here in Austin, TX. We LOVE it and get so many wonderful comments from neighbors. It’s not unusual at all to find someone at my front fence taking pictures!

If you’d like to see my mulch haven, you can check it out here:

Thanks for all you do.

Hmmm – are we distant Holt cousins of some sort ? I do like your mulch haven and reminds me of the natural look under Western trees; and SO much better than some tatty lawn. – Saxon

Rare Cactus August 26, 2011, 7:12 pm

Wow, that first pic with the SnowWhite and lava rocks is just sad, lol, but further down I see some great ideas!
I would love to replace my lawn with cactus and succulents or something that requires little water… hmmm maybe some of that fake grass?

Yeah … I can just see some of that lime green astroturf under those cactus – a photo opp to be sure. – Saxon

Marianne August 28, 2011, 1:09 pm

Great article – I am with all the way. I have been losing the lawn for years…almost there. Pictures are good – hope my finished product looks half as good.

Marianne – Thanks for stopping by. Sounds like you are one of those gardeners who is losing their lawn because you are probably running out of space for the real garden. – Saxon

Town Mouse August 28, 2011, 10:03 pm

Great post – and I so agree that it just won’t work to let the lawn die and the natives move in. It’s a common hope, but all you get are aggressive non-native weeds…

Wonderful photos, as always.

Thanks for stopping by Town. I guess we won’t be talking b-ball this season. – Saxon

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