Unsolicited Advice, pt IV: Kill Your Lawn Before It Kills You

OK, so obviously everyone who has ever had a yard or garden before has probably gotten the message: your lawn is trying to kill you. Well, not you specifically. But our cultural obsession with immaculate green grass wastes water; makes life harder for bees, especially native bees; and requires a bizarre ritual whereby we water and fertilize the lawn to make it grow, then expend our energy and leisure time to trim it back, then water and fertilize it again to make it grow. (And, in some cases, collect the grass clippings in plastic bags and put them into our cities’ landfills. WHAT.) Also, lots of people use very harsh pesticides and herbicides on their lawn that are leaching all kinds of chemicals into the ground.

“[O]ne of the best ways to do something about conservation and climate change is to change how you take care of your own land.”
Ecological Gardening: The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer

So I won’t beleaguer the point about how lawns = bad. But what to do instead of a lawn?

  • Replace part of your grass with: flower beds, vegetable gardens, perennials, rocks or mulch. Native plants, in particular, tend to be well-adapted to the climate and the amount of rainfall they will receive, and will be a good habitat for insects.


I replaced half my front yard with mulch and stones, with a native plant bed we pretentiously call the “urban alpine meadow” in the middle. Also visible in the foreground: quack grass windbreak.

  • Allow other plant species to grow in your lawn. Clover has become a common choice for lawns, often sown on top of an existing lawn. It is a great choice because it fixes nitrogen, making the soil more fertile for other surrounding plants. My lawn is full of strawberries along the edges, which have pretty white flowers, berries for the birds), and will bounce back from a mowing.
  • If there’s a part of your yard that doesn’t get walked on much, plant it with creeping groundcover plants that won’t need to be watered as often, or at all. In Edmonton, sempervivums (hen and chicks), creeping jenny, and wooly thyme will all do well in the sun. (Be careful of creeping jenny. It’s a pretty plant, but it needs to be grown in an area where it’s contained – by a sidewalk, for example – because it will spread. You can use edging to prevent it from spreading, since it spreads by sending out runners along the ground.) In a shady area, hostas, wild ginger, snow on the mountain and lamium are all good choices.

And even without making these substantial changes, you could still:

  • Leave the clippings on the lawn when you mow.
  • Leave the leaves (or some of them) on the ground in the fall, but run over them with the mower to chop them into pieces that can break down more easily. (If I’m not supposed to LEAVE them, then why are they called LEAVES?)
  • Hand-weed instead of using a herbicide — a small change that might take a bit more time but will reduce your chemical impact.
  • When you do water your lawn, do it efficiently. Even if you do have your heart set on a grass lawn, you can still take steps to reduce your water usage. See the CMHC – Water-Saving Tips for Your Lawn and Garden

Changes you make don’t have to be huge. One little area with native plants will provide a habitat for insects and birds, especially if there’s a little pond (or a place for water to puddle) there. (You can find a good list of Edmonton native plants from the Edmonton Naturalization Group).

IMG_1188Replacing part of your lawn with fruit shrubs will require very little work from you (probably less work than caring for a lawn!) and will produce food you can eat. Making a patio area with stone or mulch (or both) could make a difference, especially if you put it in an area that always requires extra effort from you to keep grass healthy – because it’s in the bright sun and it dries out, because it always gets weedy, or whatever.

<< I replaced part of my lawn with this area: more stone and mulch, clay tiles planted with succulents, and a fruit area, with raspberries, honeyberries and a cherry tree. This was also a perfect spot to cover up, because it had the most dandelions of anywhere in our yard. Don't mind the giant piles of debris.

We also have a push reel mower, which makes mowing the grass a pretty good workout and motivates us to reduce the amount of lawn we have. (Using our laziness to ecological advantage!) Since buying our house, we’ve probably reduced the amount of “lawn” (really quack grass and other weeds thanks to the home’s previous owner) by two-thirds, and we’re not quite done.

More info:

lawngoneLawn Gone!: Low Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard – Pam Penick*
[amazon | library]
The Edible Front Yard: The Mow-less, Grow-more Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden – Ivette Soler
[amazon | library]

Ferris Jabr – Outgrowing the Traditional Grass Lawn (Scientific American)
City of Edmonton – Greening up your yard

Unsolicited Advice, Pt III: Grow What You Like To Eat

This is another one that seems obvious, except SO MANY OF US AREN’T DOING IT. I think many gardeners are guilty of the occasional rote-planting of something because it always grew in family gardens growing up, and we feel like it’s not a garden without it. This is silly. I choose vegetables based on a complex and ever-shifting array of considerations, including food yield compared to how much space it takes up (SORRY CABBAGE, YOU’RE OUT), how good the garden-grown variety is compared to what you buy at the store (Hello tomatoes! Hi, strawberries! You guys are awesome) and how expensive the same vegetable is when bought elsewhere (when you consider this, growing potatoes feels like a losing proposition compared to the farmer’s market, but that’s just my opinion).

But most importantly: What will you actually eat? What will you get excited about going outside to grab right before dinner? What is the easiest to pick and snack on? What can go in your lunch bag easily, and better yet, what will you be happy to find in there? If you love homemade salsa, then you should grow nothing but peppers, tomatoes and cilantro. If making pickles is your jam (little food preservation joke there!), then grow a football field’s worth of cucumbers. If you’re a superhero and you only eat superfoods (that is how that works, right?), then grow acai berries and kale. It doesn’t matter. There’s no final gardening exam, and you can’t flunk if you don’t have all the categories represented.

So I grow: tomatoes, greens, peppers, pumpkins
Not: cabbage, beets, turnips, or squash

Unsolicited Advice, pt IIb: Your garden should be working for you

morninggloryI think we’ve probably all been guilty of buying an enticing-looking plant at a garden centre because it was in bloom and giving us a come-hither look.

< I bought these morning glories because of the way they were looking at me across the bar.

But, I firmly believe that garden plants should be working hard for me in addition to looking pretty, especially if they’re taking up a coveted full-sun position in my yard. The main way plants work for me is by letting me eat them, but there are other ways plants can be advantageous: they can fix nitrogen from the air and put it in the ground where other plants can use it (some perennials do this, as do peas and beans); they can attract pollinators like bees and butterflies; they can have a nice smell that you catch a whiff of every time you walk by, or that helps keep cats and other pests out of your garden, or that repels mosquitoes*; or they can be good companions to other plants (by confusing bugs that might otherwise eat their companions, for example). Plants that are only doing one thing are lazy, and by encouraging them and babying them, we’re just going to make them live in our garden-basements forever.

*Is there such thing as a plant that repels mosquitoes? I kind of don’t believe it, but if we all believe it, maybe the placebo effect will keep the mosquitoes away.

Unsolicited Advice, pt II: Grow the good stuff

The positive version of my “if it bails on you, bail on it” rule: Grow the plants that work here.

They might not be the plants you’re used to buying at the grocery store, or even the plants that you find at your local big-box gardening centre. They might be weird, or have a taste that people describe as “herby,” and you might not see them in any gardening magazine. But there are plenty of plants that will take cold winters (plus whatever other climate issues you have) in stride.

These are perennial greens like good king henry, sorrel and bloody dock; fruits that grow on canes or bushes like saskatoons and raspberries; and self-sowing leafy greens like orach and arugula.

I wrote about this issue in more depth on my previous blog: pt 1 | pt 2

Unsolicited advice, Pt I: If it bails on you, bail on it

Some of my classic unsolicited garden advice. Part of a continuing series, with no definite end point.

june5 (3)I’ve experienced a lot of gardening failures over the years. I’ve probably lost more perennials than I have currently alive in my garden. (If you find yourself asking, do the dead outnumber the living? This article from BBC News has the answer for planet Earth. In my garden, it’s yes.)

< These asparagus are all dead now. All, all dead. Like in this poem:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.”
-Mary Elizabeth Frye

In the first few years of my garden, when a plant died, I would then go out and buy another one of that plant and plant it in the same spot, like some kind of glutton for punishment. In recent years, I’ve realized this is crazy behaviour. A plant that can’t survive in your garden is not the plant for you. Whatever the spot, something will grow there. But if you keep trying the same crappy plant in that spot, you’ll never find the amazing one that will stun you every [season] with its [attribute]. And in the meantime, the dead plant will not have its chance to fully become diamond glints on the snow (see poem, above), because you’re forcing it to keep re-living its failure.

The exception is if you have a passion for rare orchids or fancy hybrid roses or something; or if, like me, you’re trying to collect seemingly every hardy succulent variety under the sun. If the plant in question is something you’re passionate about, then go ahead and re-plant it. Otherwise, move on. There are lots of plant-fish in the garden-sea.