Going Back to Grass?


I was asked about popular gardening trends a week ago for a local newspaper article and I mentioned how gardeners across the nation are replacing turf grass with perennials and how traditional garden beds are partnering with edibles. While that is true in many respects, a few other current trends are emerging here and abroad.


Red Poppy

One is reducing some of the most resource-intensive areas due to changing weather patterns. Drought has become a major concern for gardeners and having too many plants to maintain is being taken into consideration. Gardens are facing diminishing water supplies and warming climates. In addition, gardener’s time constraints don’t permit hour upon hour of watering, pruning, dividing or plant pampering.

Gardeners are looking to pare down large gardens in part due to climate and/or hectic lifestyles. Installing native plants has been both a fix for drier climates, but has created a problem for overly ambitious older gardeners as they cut bed after bed to add a bevy of rambunctious native plants.


The other developing trend is older gardeners have begun reducing gardens they have currently down to a more manageable number.  Too many gardeners were quick to follow the “eliminate the grass” trend without thinking to all the work that was to follow. I would not be surprised to see many more gardeners backpedaling on all the turf they removed.


While the current trend encourages using native plants to cut back on natural resources, native plants still need water as well. I mentioned that many times on GWGT because if for the only reason to water them in times of drought, is to provide for the pollinators. Having too little water, even native plants go dormant or die. More on this next post.


Annual Larkspur and Chrysanthemum leucanthemum

This current trend on garden bed reduction has shifted to adding trees and shrubs. Both have less maintenance and their water needs are generally met naturally. I am a big fan of trees and shrubs.


White Snapdragons

Having the garden layers starting with trees, is both esthetically pleasing and very needed for wildlife. See below that all grass does not need to be mowed. Keeping it longer with succession plants within has all the benefits for wildlife and the environment.

Notice too that there is no real downside to having trees within this unmoved area either. Mowing turf between for paths is very appealing to people and wildlife. It is just getting creative with plant materials, even turf grass.


Having a garden alive with birds and insect life which is only occasionally irrigated to sustain plants for wildlife is what a garden should be. If it does not pollute the environment with unnecessary chemicals and will replenish the underground aquifer, that is even much better.

Go Native Grasses

While turf grass is a poor choice for all of the above in many cases, there are native grasses that can be used as lawn alternatives if you select ones that grow well in your area. Most grow tall, but some like Prairie Dropseed stay a bit shorter at 15″ and while in bloom, 36″. It is a soft grass that lays over in nice clumps so it makes an interesting ground cover. I love this grass for estate gardens.


Prairie Dropseed Grass at Chanticleer

Estate gardens have huge expanses to fill and this grass makes a beautiful application in large areas.


Carex plantaginea is a native sedge on the East coast and will reach only 10 inches high with flowers in May. Carex siderosticha ‘Lemon Zest’ is another low grower at 9 inches.


Carex ‘Ice Dance’

I grew Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ on my own property and it would have covered the entire property if I let it, both in sun and shade. It stayed less than one foot high, but spread by runners. I started with three plugs. Carex although nice, has a hard appearance and feel, not one on which you would want to walk. I removed it because it required too much dividing.

Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem is a nice native prairie grass that stays upright rather than drooping like other grasses of the prairie. It too is a bit taller at 2-4 feet. I can list many more but you see a pattern forming. These grasses will not meet many city ordinances because of their height and somewhat unorthodox appearance. Coming up,  I talk about another grass and garden bed substitute that is trending. Then we look at “less offensive” ways to have turf grass in the garden along with more images using native grasses. I am not going to preach to you like so many others. There is a place in gardens for almost any plant.


Yarrow and Salvia

Gardens are becoming more and more about reducing maintenance, managing gardens better and conserving resources. It may be less out of choice than necessity in some areas around the country. Next post, we look at gardens that seem effortless, but are anything but. A close look at my own garden through the seasons too.

Would you not want this wonderful summer garden below regardless of the work?


Or this one mid-May? Maybe with a team of gardeners, no?



About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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19 Responses to Going Back to Grass?

  1. swo8 says:

    It does look lovely, but I always appreciate a little help in the garden. Have you tried a Yucca plant? It is good for a dry episode.

  2. Love your ideas for native grasses. I am always admiring the stand at Chanticleer. I have many large swathes of native perennials, and I never water them even in drought. They are fine and just require one annual clean out of the area and in some cases none. Traditional lawn grass is the most maintenance intensive thing there is. it is just that you can easily hire someone else to maintain it whereas it is much more difficult and expensive to hire someone knowledgeable to maintain perennial beds.

  3. I have a piece of grass land is artificial planting, and we only use a sickle mower, some people will use herbicides, but the land is very bad, so weeds and planting of grass has been together a few years after my land, I think the grass is grass to prevention, it means that we should ponder what kind of plant to plant in order to get the best protection and then let the land and protect small animals have beautiful environment.

  4. Cathy says:

    It’s all about maintaining a happy medium… beauty, work (even low maintenance gardens didn’t just drop from the sky), resources (water), and providing a natural habitat for the pollinators, birds, squirrels, and other wild life that share our space. And I’m finding that what constitutes a “happy” medium depends on many factors that change over time.

  5. Yes, a team of gardeners would be nice. 😉 Actually, I’d like an unlimited budget, some help planting and designing, and then I’d take it from there. But, that’s not going to happen, so I make do with what I have. You’ve made some very good points. I’m glad you brought up the grasses and sedges. Prairie Dropseed is a workhorse at the Arboretum here in Madison. That’s a beautiful example of Prairie Dropseed that you show at Chanticleer. We have many sedges and mosses naturally filling in our grassy areas back by our woodland garden. It’s looking more and more “natural” back there, and I like it!

  6. David says:

    I like your idea of creative mowing. I can see that it could really add interest to an otherwise relatively boring large area while encouraging insect and animal diversity.

  7. lucindalines says:

    There are some patches here and there in the area around my mother’s house that has a native grass we call buffalo grass. It thins and slows in growth at the heat of summer. It is soft to walk on and a very pretty teal green. I so wish I could get rid of the weeds and fill in with that plant. I may have to watch for seeds of it this summer.

  8. alesiablogs says:

    Gardeners and what they do to maintain beautiful areas with landscape amazes me. I look at what I have done to my property and I decreased maintenance due to health and so forth because I knew I could not maintain it, but every spring—I do get the most beautiful of plants from the nursery and just overflow the windows with color from plants. Call me the cheater. I suppose. : ) But I do get the benefit of looking at others work if not my own.

  9. There are a lot of good ideas here. I hadn’t thought of mowing a path and keeping the rest of the grass high.

  10. Well, you know I would always take more and bigger perennial beds, but I am atypical – and I do think about a less labor intensive approach for some time in the future. I like the approach of shrubs (especially compact or dwarf shrubs) with ornamental grasses and sedges. To this I would add perennial groundcovers.

  11. Reblogged this on Happiness Cards and commented:
    I’m in the process of replacing many of the thirsty plants in my garden with low-maintenance, drought tolerant ones I found this article helpful and inspiring, and it has some lovely garden photos as well. Take a look.

  12. foguth says:

    We have had edible landscaping for decades.
    First, we draw where we want the garden paths, then we plant trees and shrubs. Next we put in bedding plants. Last is mulch – we prefer rock and shell.
    In some areas, the only grass is in our paths. In other areas, we have paving stone paths. While this sort of garden is a lot of work and expense (mulch and pavers) to set up, it is relatively easy to maintain.

  13. bittster says:

    When we first moved in to our home I saw no point in mowing the back lawn. I let it grow tall and only mowed a few paths through it. It was one of my favorite things about the garden and I miss it. Over the years I’ve been shamed into having smaller and smaller sections of ‘meadow’ but at least my perennial beds have become more interesting to make up for it.
    I guess I’m bucking another trend since I have a few more flower bed expansions planned for this year, but I’m also adding shrubs. Too much blooming is great but last year I thought it looked a little busy, so the shrubs should give the eyes a spot to rest while looking around.

  14. Roger Brook says:

    A couple of years ago at the height of trendy advice to grow drought tolerant plants we had the wettest Summer in England for nearly a century!
    i appreciate your thoughtful article which covers a lot of interesting ground (Pun not intended when the words hit the screen!)
    I have some unmown areas of fine fescue grass – although I don’t think you will approve Donna that I spray out coarse grasses.

  15. I loved all the garden areas you featured in your photos. Very good information on the various grasses. I’m at the point where I no longer am interested in expanding any of my gardens, but just maintaining what I have.
    Thanks for sharing.

  16. johnvic8 says:

    One of my prime motivations in changing my garden is that I’m getting older and want less stoop labor. I still love my garden and love puttering about, but I am slowly replacing high maintenance plants with ones that mostly let me just look and enjoy. Having rebloomers, for example, has been a delight, particularly the reblooming azaleas and, once in the ground, require almost no maintenance at all.

  17. Like Carolyn, my natives have never required watering even when we have had a few droughts or dry summers. I have been looking to replace more turf grass but reluctant due to resale of the house. And I am familiar with the native grasses to replace turf grass. I would like to add more native grasses especially to the back beds and some key areas on the sides. I love the look when they are growing together.

  18. Lula says:

    You are right, that before making any changes one has to take into account all possibilities. Your proposals look really appealing and I would definitely consider grasses as an alternative to lawns, maybe a good design would be to contemplate a mix of different water resistant.

  19. Great minds think alike. I have reduced my lawn by letting about half of it go to meadow, bush-hogging it just a few times per growing season. I’ve also experimented with perennial wildflowers with varying success. Your pictures are superb. Thanks.

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