Landscaping alternatives for your Florida lawn
Story and Photos by Lynette L. Walther
Our luscious, spacious, green, and greedy lawns – those aristocratic symbols of conspicuous consumption, are beginning to appear so “Downton Abbey.” In other words, grand and appealing but perplexingly dramatic and dated as dinosaurs.
Many now find themselves questioning their practicality. After all, we feed them, water them, and marinate them in all sorts of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides; we mow them, edge them, rake or blow them. And then we bag up and cart off those chemical-laden grass clippings to the landfill – in short, we pamper great expanses of turf that no one uses. Lawns are one of the biggest and costliest of “crops” in this country – and they don’t produce anything edible for anything, unless perhaps you have farm animals to graze.
Picture your lawn evolving (or devolving) into a series of grassy paths or swaths to maintain and mow.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying lawns are ugly. I’m just saying they are useless, old-fashioned, and, quite frankly, are gluttons, making us slaves, greedily demanding our time and resources. Their every sneeze and hiccup can throw us into a panic. And what do they do for us in return for all that expense and labor? Americans spend an average of $40 billion every year on their lawns. That includes chemicals to smother them, seed to sow them, sod to cover them, mowers, blowers, edgers and fuel to power them, irrigation systems to water them, lawn services, and on and on.
And about those chemicals – the numbers are staggering. American gardeners use some 78 million pounds of pesticides every year; some 60 million pounds of herbicides, with fungicides coming in slightly lower. The amount of water required to maintain a luscious lawn varies according to the locale, but according to an article in the Scientific American, America’s “lawns require the equivalent of 200 gallons of drinking water per person per day.”
Anyone who has a power mower knows that all gasoline engines must be regularly maintained to run efficiently and reliably. Some folks can do the work themselves. But for others, a mower breakdown means either hauling that mower to the repair shop or having someone come get it. Those who employ a lawn service pay these costs when they have someone else mow for them.
Now consider the CO2 emissions emanating from all those powered yard maintenance machines.
Then there’s the noise. Lawn mowers produce approximately 90-106 decibels (dB), earsplitting enough to cause major hearing damage over time. Leaf blowers expose those operating them to 95-115 dB and 70-75 dB at 50 feet. Obviously ear protection is advised for anyone using any gas-powered equipment.
In addition, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports some 80,000 lawn mower injuries every year. These range from serious cuts to amputations, to carbon monoxide issues to fires. All told, these factors add up to the “costs” of maintaining a lawn.
But on the plus side, your lawn can give you an aerobic workout. While pushing that mower, you could burn anywhere from 135 to 200 calories in 30 minutes depending on your weight. Rake that grass yourself and in another 30 minutes you can burn another 120 to 178 calories, also depending on your weight. Both of these activities are considered good cardiovascular exercise. Sore muscles are just part of the process. However, if you use a riding mower, you receive neither benefit – the only thing you burn is gasoline.
Even with all of this information, there are still those folks who adore their lawn and wouldn’t consider giving up an inch of turf, whether or not they even actually use it. But if you are one of many who has started to think about the time, expense, and energy required to maintain that perfect lawn and have realized that, other than the hours you spend pushing that mower, you never set foot on it – this could be a turning point for you and your turf.
Now might be a good time to consider shrinking that lawn or maybe even doing away with it altogether. No matter the amount of property the lawn occupies – be it a small patch or an expanse of acreage – you do have options. What this all boils down to is that you have two choices – pave or plant. No matter which you choose, either option offers numerous choices, are often colorful, and always an environmentally beneficial exchange.
Before you make any decisions, do a simple survey: calculate the traffic patterns through your lawn, look at the overall setting, and determine how much lawn you actually use.
Do you enjoy backyard games, such as badminton or croquet? If so, you’ll need enough room for a “playing court” and space for spectators to gather or be seated comfortably. Do you need room for children to play or for pets to exercise? Or is your lawn basically a path to the garage, storage, or garden shed?
Picture your lawn evolving (or devolving) into a series of grassy paths or swaths to maintain and mow. Or imagine those pathways paved, connecting islands of wooded areas, ornamental bed or structures with no grass to mow ever again.
There is no better place to find examples and inspiration than a botanical garden. Visit any one of the many public gardens in the state and you’ll find unique approaches to paths and walkways, creative uses of ground covers, and thickly planted areas. So, what’s it going to be? Pave it, plant it, or even a combination of both?
PLANTING TO REDUCE THE LAWN
The larger your lawn, all the better reason to plant it with natives and non-invasive ornamentals that will provide color and wildlife habitat – a living kaleidoscope. When planting large areas, it is best to first destroy all grass, cultivate the soil, and then amend it with well-rotted compost. A thick layer of mulch (3 inches) will help reduce the invasion of unwanted plants. Eventually, thickly planted areas will fill in if provided regular irrigation and nutrition, reducing, if not eliminating the need for frequent weeding.
Ground cover plants can carpet areas in either full sun or shade. Many of these low-growing plants have colorful flowers or variegated foliage, such as Melampodium or purslane (Portulaca spp.), perennial peanut (Arachis glabrata), purple passion (Gynura aurantiaca), ‘Tricolor’ rhoeo (Tradescantia spathacea ‘Tricolor’), sunshine mimosa (M. strigillosa), peacock ginger (Kaempferia spp.), society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), variegated Liriope, mondo grass (Ophiopogon spp.), or creeping fig (Ficus pumila).
Another option is to transform a portion of the lawn into a seasonal swath of wildflowers by cultivating the soil and sowing wildflower seeds appropriate for your zone. These wildflower patches are usually mowed after the flowers have gone to seed in late spring, mowed throughout the summer and fall, and then allowed to grow up the following winter. Wildflower gardens attract and provide habitat for pollinators. Wildflower gardens should not be planted near vegetable gardens, as they often attract butterflies, which will eventually produce plant-chomping caterpillars.
Mixing perennials, shrubs, and trees to create areas or even landscape islands is a time-honored way to reduce turf. Think of perennials as mid-level plants, many providing colorful and sometimes-fragrant blooms. Options for these areas are nearly endless – gingers, Salvia, Louisiana irises (I. brevicaulis, I. fulva, I. giganticaerulea, I. hexagona, I. nelsonii), African iris (Dietes spp.), daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), Colocasia, Crinum, Cordyline, Alocasia, Justicia, Lantana, bromeliads, and ornamental grasses as well. Visit local independent nursery to get an idea of plants that do well in your zone.
Shrubs are essentially the “bones” of any landscape, often growing slowly and reliably. Most are suitable for full sun to partial shade (two to four hours of full sun a day) and include azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), Camellia, Hydrangea, colorful crotons (Codiaeum variegatum), Hibiscus, cycads, hollies (Ilex spp.), and Loropetalum. Before planting any shrubs, decide if you want neatly trimmed shrubs or if you prefer more natural growth patterns and select your shrubs accordingly.
Trees provide a point around which to establish a landscape, or they can be grouped to create a free-form wooded area, or shelter your home from a busy street and create an oasis of calm and quiet. Most trees prefer full sun and a combination of native and exotic trees can create a color-filled background for other plants. Anything from deciduous or evergreen trees to palms is fair game for a Florida woodland or tropical jungle.
Yet another option is simply allowing a portion of your property to naturally fill in with native species. A somewhat “messy” approach, it is surprising how many seeds already exist in the soil or are brought in by birds or other wildlife. And something amazing happens when you provide habitat and food for wildlife: They show up. Your once-barren lawn can become a wildlife haven, adding color and life to the once sea of green.
PAVING TO REDUCE THE LAWN
Whether it is a pathway, a large area, or patio, paving is another way to get rid of turf while also provide areas for seating or vehicles. While at one time the term “paving” meant concrete or asphalt, today’s paved areas are far more varied, colorful, and just plain creative. Not only that, they don’t have to cost a king’s ransom if you think outside the box and look at “paving” in a different light.
One trend that is sweeping through Florida landscapes is the “backyard beach,” a sandy area that need not lead to water. Instead these backyard “beaches” provide comfortable seating options, perhaps a fire pit, and maybe even a volleyball court. Establishment is simple: remove the grass and replace with sand. Maintenance includes raking to remove leaves or other debris and occasional weeding. No water necessary!
Nothing says “Florida” like using shells as mulch. This permanent mulch is unlike other organic materials that have to be replaced over time. Shell mulch should be underlaid with a tough landscape fabric to prevent grass or weeds from creeping in and colonizing.
Shell-mulched areas should have a sturdy border to keep the shells in place. Rock mulch is another permanent choice for covering bare ground or pathways, with choices ranging from pea-sized gravel to smooth river rocks the size of walnuts. The pebbles can even be fashioned into a mosaic and cemented into place, providing an intriguing focal point.
Pavers are the current “stars” of patios, walkways, driveways, and parking areas. Easy to handle and install, paver projects require a perfectly smooth, level, and compacted foundation, and a sturdy border or framework to keep them in place without the need to cement them in. Pavers are available in a variety of shapes, materials, and colors – and don’t forget timeworn bricks – and make pleasing surfaces that can be be swept and washed when necessary. Pavers are available in almost any size and some of the more ornate pavers have smooth, polished surfaces with imbedded shells or other embellishments.
Wood chips are the old standby and an all-around great choice for mulching beds, covering pathways, or as a foundation for play spaces or seating areas. Commercially available in a variety of colors, sizes, and materials, wood chips are easy to install and replace when they break down – which they eventually will. Often a layer of landscape fabric is placed under wood chip mulch to keep weeds out.
Leaves and other mulch can usually be gathered from our own yards. I have even seen folks stopping by the curb to pick up plastic bags left out for waste collection, though I would first ask the resident if it was okay to take them. Larger leaves should be shredded before used as mulch. If not, they may form impervious mats that will not allow water to penetrate. Pine needles and even Spanish moss can be used to mulch planted areas or to create mulched paths or walkways. When used as mulch, these organic materials should be about 3 inches thick for the best coverage and benefits. Organic mulches can moderate soil temperatures, retain moisture, and suppress weeds. Even better, as they break down, organic mulches add trace amounts of nutrients, and unlike impervious paved surfaces, organic mulch also allows rainwater to percolate through the soil, which helps replenish our aquifers.