Converting lawn into usable garden space

By J.D. Willoughby

Lawns are integral to suburban homescapes, but their origins actually go back to wealthy British or French landowners, depending on which references are used. Lawns provide uniformity, a sense of security, and a well-manicured facade, but there are many other creative ways to landscape.

‘John Clayton’ honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens f. sulphurea ‘John Clayton’) winds around the porch post with stairs leading to a small garden of black-eyed Susan, Cosmos, and a colorful Zinnia mix.

The wealthy aristocracy initially grew lawns to show they did not need to use their vast space for growing vegetables and fruits, as did the lower classes. Lawns also were proof that the wealthy could afford enough servants to hand-cut their vast swaths of grass with scythes. That’s something to consider as the average homeowner spends about 40 hours per year mowing the lawn.

It was not until just after World War II that lawns really became an achievable part of the American dream. Before that, the average homeowner used the yard for grazing chickens and growing vegetables and herbs. 

This path is just wide enough to allow a mower and space to weed and work in the gardens. Cosmos ‘Cosmic Orange’ and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) create a sunny opening to the path. The purple flower heads of Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.) lean over the path offering an excellent late summer stop for pollinators.

The most common response when asked why a homeowner has a lawn is usually, “It came with the house.” We’re willing to change the layout of rooms, knock down walls, and add man caves to make our homes just right for us, but we’re reluctant to change the yard. Sometimes, having a lawn is a requirement of a homeowners’ association, but more often, the yard is simply an afterthought and homeowners aren’t sure what else they can do with the space. If kids regularly play soccer or you host croquet parties, then a lawn is an excellent use of your outdoor space. And yards do serve certain purposes, such as creating transition spaces beween different garden areas and, more importantly they slow water movement and reduce erosion. However, if it simply came with the house, perhaps treating it like any other room would result in a more usable space.

The pebble and walking stone path leads to a garden shed, surrounded by woodland understory plants like New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.), and white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata).

The first step is to determine where any desired hardscaping will go. If you’d like to build paths, retaining walls, ponds, or patios, now is the time to plan for them. Even if you won’t be installing them right away, plan them in advance so you won’t have to move plants around to accommodate them later. 

Consider if you want pockets of deep shade or bright sun, places for furniture, or just somewhere to watch the birds. These choices will all determine the mix of trees and shrubs you plant. 

Converted landscapes will need paths. Paths can be made using flagstone, pavers, bricks, mulch, rock, etc. Fill the spaces between stones with soil and “steppable” plants, such as ‘Pink Chintz’ creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink Chintz’). This thyme has leaves that are quite close together to fill those spaces and can withstand foot traffic and dry conditions.

Black-eyed Susan, mixed zinnias, Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (also sold as ‘Herbstfreude’) surround the garden gate that opens to the path between homes.

Alternatively, leaving grass walkways is another simple, yet elegant approach to reducing lawn area. Be sure to leave enough room for a lawn mower to get through. Installing a low fence or trench edging might help guide the mower and prevent beds from spilling into the lawn path space. 

Now you can plan a new garden area. Choose plants with a variety of textures and heights. A simple design for full-sun area might include May Night sage (Salvia x sylvestris ‘Mainacht’), a patch of blazing star (Liatris spicata) for upright structure against an adjacent patch of pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and a ‘Rose Creek’ abelia (Abelia x grandiflora ‘Rose Creek’) to anchor a back corner. 

This mulched path leads to the garden shed and compost bin. Wood poppies, also called celandine poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) are planted on both sides of the path along with sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), shaded by flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and Norway spruce (Picea abies).

A simple garden in full shade might include a mix of Heuchera ‘Marmalade’ and ‘Polkadot Polly’ foxglove (Digitalis ‘Polkadot Polly’) along the path. Add height to the back of the garden and fill the space with northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). Several hardy ‘Apricot Surprise’ azaleas (Rhododendron ‘Apricot Surprise’) can add a pop of color in front of the sea oats. Though deciduous azaleas, they fare quite well during harsh winters. If there is space, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) can serve as an anchor. Witch hazel will add four seasons of interest and should be pruned to maintain a reasonable size, unless there is enough space in the garden to accommodate its full height and width.

Be sure to water the garden throughout the season so that the plants will become well established, thus requiring less care later. Mulch in spring and touch up the mulch in fall. If the mulch has become a clingy mat, be sure to break it up with a garden fork or compost the old mulch and replace with new.

A few stems of white turtlehead (Chelone glabra), zinnia, and black-eyed Susans are on the sunny side of the pebble path, while wood poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) and small patches of sea oats are on the shady side.

A palette with only one or two colors will lend simplicity and calmness to the new landscape that even the most strict HOA cannot argue against. As the season progresses and the new plants fill in, remove and replace more small patches of lawn. Remember that the new gardens will need to be weeded and watered until the plants fill in the spaces so don’t take on more gardens than there is time to maintain.  

Updated landscapes with an appealing blend of colors and textures with a small touch of lawn can add to the character and charm of any home.



Winged Friends

Birds and butterflies are an excellent reason to convert lawn to garden spaces. With just a few species of perennials and shrubs, your new garden spaces will be inviting to many species of birds and butterflies.

The best perennials are those that have long flowering periods and offer seeds in the fall. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), bee balm (Monarda spp.), and goldenrod (Solidago spp.) are among the top perennials for food. Coneflowers, bee balm, and goldenrod are covered with butterflies and other pollinators throughout the growing season. Coneflower, black-eyed Susan, and goldenrod are significant seed sources for birds in the fall. Goldenrod, in particular, is a star attraction for finches. 

Many shrubs provide seasonal interest and food or habitat for birds and butterflies. Female cultivars of winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) will produce berries that are an important food source in late winter. Be sure to plant a mix of males, such as ‘Southern Gentleman’ and females, such as ‘Winter Red’. All species of viburnum produce berries – though some do requre cross-pollinating – but American cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum) and Blue Muffin arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum ‘Christom’) will serve as stalwart anchors in the garden.

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is by far one of the best habitat and food trees in the region. The female forms produce small blue berries that are favored by cedar waxwings and thick foliage that protects from harsh winter winds, this tree is a great way to replace lawn with a more valuable species.

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