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Native Gardening with Jimmy: In defense of yardens

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Posted on: May 30, 2024

By JIMMY ROGERS

Along my little stretch of road in Laurel, my front yard turns heads. Motorists and pedestrians see a uniform series of mown lawns and specimen trees, and then suddenly, a meadow. If they take a closer look this time of year, they’ll see a winding path around a bubbling birdbath and over 100 species of native plants. Birds and bees dance in and out of my narrow front yarden all morning.

When I speak to other interested homeowners about lawn reduction, before revealing that I have done it myself, they often react with fear, uncertainty and doubt. They fear what the neighbors might think, feel uncertainty about carrying out such a project and doubt whether they will somehow break a rule or law. When I share pictures and stories of my experience, it helps defuse their anxiety, as it shows what is possible. But hesitation can linger, so let’s examine what’s driving those fears.

From the moment of its arrival on the North American continent, the turf grass lawn has been a status symbol. The colonial elite planted expansive lawns to emulate those kept by the European nobility. Sometimes animals were used to graze down those lawns, but often they were hand cut by enslaved people. The subtext was clear: The larger your lawn, the more wealthy and powerful you must be. Only after the invention of affordable mowing machines did residential lawns become popular with the broader population, eventually defining membership in a growing post-WWII middle class. Nonnative turf grass became not only a hallmark of residential spaces, but the default ground covering for every shopping plaza, roadside edge and house of worship.

As the footprint of lawns grew, an opportunity for business grew as well. A perfect lawn requires watering, fertilizing, pesticide spraying, seeding, aeration and above all, cutting. The resulting lawn care industry works hard to play up the benefits of this costly crop and downplay the erosion, pollution, stormwater runoff and harm to insect life that lawns promote. In some cases, lawns serve a purpose, such as for sports fields and picnic areas. However, most front lawns never see a game of tag or frisbee.

This lawn tradition has become difficult to uproot, if you’ll excuse the pun. In my time on the  city’s environmental affairs committee, I’ve heard the city advocate for gardens in the backyard but subtly push back against front yard gardens. Corporately controlled homeowners associations (HOAs) notoriously harass their residents about grass height and so-called weedy gardens. The Maryland legislature passed a law in 2022 to give HOA residents the right to plant eco-friendly gardens; many residents don’t yet know their rights, though, and HOA boards often send notices until threatened with a lawsuit.

Are homeowners right to fear reprisal for reducing or eliminating their front lawn? Let us look at some common concerns.

Municipalities and HOAs try to regulate front yard conformity in the belief that property values will suffer if each plot has a unique or unconventional look. Indeed, newly built communities are often haunted by their builders to ensure the landscape remains unchanged and that it’s populated only by an approved list of Asian shrubs and groundcovers. How then does Takoma Park remain such a desirable community (with a median home price north of $750k), when its front yards rarely display grass or conformity? I suspect the answer lies in the appeal of a community with a sense of place.

Perhaps not everyone thinks they would fit the vibe in Takoma Park. Do you need to identify as a nonconformist to reimagine your property? Is it revolutionary to envision a row of gorgeous tomatoes or a patch of summer squash in your treeless front yard? How about a spiraling raised bed full of herbs along the walk to your car? Could the scraggly grass beneath your oaks become a quiet park full of bluebells, ferns and wood aster? Who might visit your pocket of native plants if you added a birdbath or other water feature?

Feed your creative side, don’t police it. Add in a native gardening sign and break up the area with paths and borders to help the untrained eye follow your design. You might be surprised how many neighbors will want to know more about your project and thank you for taking the leap. 

If you look out on the amount of lawn you currently have and think it would be too much to convert all at once, you’re probably right. Unless you have maintained a large garden before, start small, perhaps converting a short strip along the sidewalk. That will be easy enough to manage and give you time to learn — in a year, you’ll know if you want to continue expanding. Embracing native plants makes it easier, too, as they will probably love the compacted clay under your former lawn, so no need to replace the soil or even amend it (though a little compost on top never hurts). Plan to water in your new garden after planting and during droughts, and weed it thoroughly a couple of times in the spring and fall.

Laurel for the Patuxent is currently taking applications for their Laurel Native Habitats program; if you live in any part of Laurel, you can apply through the end of June to have our team help you replace a small piece of lawn with native plants. This year, we have a grant in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation to fund five of these gardens in Laurel. You can find more details at tinyurl.com/4hwsv4cf.

If you need inspiration, consider attending the Laurel Historical Society’s garden tour on June 22. There will be several front-yard gardens on display, including the one at my own humble home. You can register for the tour at tinyurl.com/y3cvs5at.

At the end of the day, homeowners should get enjoyment out of every square inch of their property. If you have a lawn, consider trading in that changeless, flat landscape for a private park where each day you can see new blooms and new visitors. I predict we’ll experience only a few more decades of climate change before a lawn owner wonders, “What will the neighbors think?”

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