Tinkering with Turf Grass


In Spring I did a couple of posts, Going Back to Grass,  and Grass Alternative – The Medieval Mead, one very good post for those gardeners facing continual drought or looking to pare down large gardens in part due to climate and/or hectic lifestyles, and the other a way to deal with or design around turf lawn. Both showed some great examples of how to deal with turf grass in a pleasing and ecologically sound way. It is just getting creative with plant materials, even turf grass. I would suggest you have a read.


I returned to Chanticleer this August…

and took a look at the same areas shown in the earlier post, “Going Back to Grass” to see how that beautiful example of Prairie Dropseed was doing. It was looking rather tired due to lack of rain, but in it I found they had planted pink-flowering Lycoris bulbs in the gently bending grass. The term “Tinkering With Grass” was penned by author Anna Pavord, author of Bulb and The Tulip.


There is no tinkering with the soil, no border creation, no annual wildflower meadow created year after year, it is all done with existing grass turf, especially turf that has been around for a while collecting wild borne clover and Rudbeckia.


What is wonderful about this type of lawn is a couple of late season mowings makes it spring-ready for the naturalized crocus, bluebells, and narcissus.

Primrose-in-GrassChanticleer planted turf shown above in spring.

And… anything you might add like primrose, Astilbe, myosotis, Camassia, iris ‘Yellow Flag’ and the list goes on. Bulbs are left to die back naturally in the tall, quickly growing grass. The key is having a rather anemic looking lawn with thin grass. You should not plant the bulbs in thick turf grass.


I also found a meadow planted right outside the rear of the mansion, adjacent to the very formal swimming pool gardens. I really was not expecting to see that meadow there, but hey, why not, it looked great. You can see Gaura, Verbena bonariensis, and Queen Anne’s Lace among other wildflowers above. It is quite the contrast to all the formality surrounding the mansion.


Another thing of interest at Longwood Gardens… look past the Mandevilla at the grass steps. Not an easy grass application to maintain, but it is a way to add interest through grading to a lawn.


Wind swept grass on a late summer day… it really lets one know the seasons are soon to change. Too bad this day was 95°. The grass and plants were begging for rain.

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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35 Responses to Tinkering with Turf Grass

  1. Lovely examples, Donna. I’ve often thought about converting to a “no mow” lawn–maybe at our next home/garden. 😉

    • You need a big garden to make it work though. On a small scale like I have, it would look like the lazy gardener forgets to mow.

      • Yes, with some turf grass that would be true. I’ve seen small patches and borders of native sedges, though, that look lovely. But perhaps that’s not what you’re talking about here. Even if we downsize the house, though, we likely won’t be downsizing the garden. 😉

  2. Your gardening knowledge and expertise, and your eye for beauty, never cease to amaze me, Donna. These ideas and these images are just beautiful, and I love the way you teach your readers about the historical context. Just fascinating.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. The area I am originally from in PA has a wealth of gardens and natural spaces. So does NY, but it is much different here being so flat in my area. Our wetlands are not quite as filled with bird life as in your area of FL.

  3. arlene says:

    What a lovely wild garden 🙂

  4. That’s an interesting idea.

  5. Loretta says:

    Great ideas Donna – it just goes to show doesn’t it? I wonder why folks just need to have that manicured, polished look? I’m glad I don’t have a blade of grass in my urban setting. Chanticleer is lovely, I’ve got plans to meet another fellow blogger there when the weather turns cooler. Oh, and I’ve been meaning to share this with you. Have you ever checked out the Frustrated Gardener’s posts from London. He has an urban garden, and his posts like yours are just so beautiful and full of useful information. Let me know if you’d like the link. Pretty sure you’d enjoy it.

    • I was surprised to see that meadow so close to the polished gardens. It looked a bit odd in its location, but was refreshing to see. Great you are meeting another blogger. My friend Carolyn, (also a blogger and GWGT reader) lives five minutes away from Chanticleer. You might know her nursery, Carolyn’s Shade Garden in Bryn Mar. carolynsshadegardens.com/
      I do know the Frustrated Gardener’s blog. He follows GWGT and I follow his blog as well.

  6. rogerbrook says:

    One of the problems over here in the UK is that folk with larger grass areas don’t have the technology for the two cuts a year and it is difficult to find for example a farmer or a contractor with suitable equipment. Perhaps strimmers might be the answer. ( I have never really got on with them but they are very popular).
    I am fascinated by the potential and possible techniques for growing plants in grass.
    Unfortunately dense grass is such a severe competitor for water, light and nutrient.

    • You are so right, dense grass is not very appropriate for good cultivation of bulbs.

    • There’s an opening here for someone enterprising. When I was a child in Germany in the 60s, a local shepherd would come around once or twice a year and graze meadows with his small flock of sheep. I believe it’s still done to maintain them as wild-grass areas with wildflowers. Not as destructive of small wildlife as mowing and it spreads all-natural fertiliser at the same time! We are soon moving to 5 acres in the country here in Tasmania and I plan to keep most of the area as grass/moss. The wildlife will keep it short. https://thesnughaus.wordpress.com/

  7. bittster says:

    Of course you know this is a topic close to my heart 🙂
    I love my little meadow in the back of the yard and for three months of the year I takes on the shaggy, flower filled look of a meadow… and then it starts to get messy and I give it all a mow just before the colchicums start to think about blooming.
    It quickly goes back to the look of a respectable lawn once I begin to mow again but no one would guess at the bulbs and wildflowers mixed in, even in my relatively small suburban garden.
    I just visited chanticleer last week and the meadow of surprise lilies is now beginning to fill with the blooms of colchicums. I love the look, but would rather have finer grasses such as fescues rather than so much of the coarse ryegrass. Though I suppose not everyone has the patience to weed grass out of lawn like I do 🙂

    • I do know! Your meadow at the rear of your property is quite stunning and well cared for. Nice you got to visit Chanticleer. After seeing it in August, I have visited now most months. I was thinking the tufts of dropseed must help keep weeds at bay. I am pretty sure they are on diligent weed removal in spring though. I was talking to the head gardener I know, and should have asked about the weeding in those fields. Next visit, I will.

      • bittster says:

        We saw them weeding a meadow area near the entrance last week. I guess it does happen!
        My visits all seem to happen in the August/September timeframe. I need to break out of that 🙂

  8. Indie says:

    Those swaths of beautiful grass look so great, but it makes me wonder how much weeding they do. How do they avoid end up with a ton of crabgrass or other weeds in it? Does the turf they plant crowd out the weeds that effectively? How gorgeous. I would love to visit Chanticleer some day!

  9. This wonderful posting convinces me I have to plan another trip to Longwood and Chanticleer SOON! I’m sure both have changed, as gardens do, in the past year. Love this posting, Donna, as always. P. x

  10. alesiablogs says:

    The south where I lived for a lot of my young life was always into manicured lawns especially in well off neighborhoods. I like it, but not like the wildflowers I see in other areas. I suppose to each his own, but the wild stuff seems to be my thing. : ) Thank you for sharing such great posts Donna. Be encouraged your “stuff” is wonderful you write.

  11. Loved the suggestions, this is so outside my experience here in the urban gardens in the PNW. Your post gave me a lot to consider and think about.

  12. I imagine Prairie Dropseed would combine well with spring bulbs because it grows in clumps, but I am a bit surprised it does well with the Lycoris. I use lawn for paths and other areas where people might want to walk. I basically take a relaxed approach to grass, clover, violets, and most weeds with the exception of creeping charlie, which drives me crazy because of the way it spreads. Have you ever read “Suburban Safari” by Hannah Holmes? I more or less follow the approach she advocates which she calls the Freedom Lawn.

    • I am pretty sure they plants bulbs in groups in among the bunching grasses. Other areas have thin grass (I am not sure the variety) and are heavily planted with bulbs and perennial plants. My own garden allows the clover, violets and dandelions, mostly because I like seeing them in the grass in spring. Creeping Charlie is one I dislike too. I never did read that book. Thanks for the suggestion. I did hear of the term freedom lawn though.

  13. debsgarden says:

    I am reminded of the lawn in an empty house, not yet on the market, in a nearby neighborhood. All the adjacent lawns are perfectly manicured. In stark contrast, this particular lawn is at least a foot high. All it needs to be beautiful are some swaths of lovely flowers and, of course, a different location!

  14. debsgarden says:

    Oops! Used an awkward preposition. Truly, the lawn is not growing inside that house, at least not that I know of!

  15. Chanticleer and Longwood are gardens that, one day, I hope to see. Would love to have enough land to plant a meadow — or would I? The weather this week has been so hot, I’m challenged to mind my tiny city garden.

    • Me, no meadow at my place ever unless it grew on its own. Too much to maintain over time. Meadows go against the succession plan of nature over the long term. My tiny city garden is all I want too, especially after this year of constant drought in my part of Niagara. Funny thing, gardeners have called my garden an urban meadow and I just resist this term. Meadows are habitats and unfortunately, a city garden like mine does not meet that size requirement no matter how many native plants I cram in. 😀

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