Beautiful No Mow Yards – A Book Review

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This book has suddenly become of great interest to me.  Why is my interest now piqued? Because my back ‘lawn’ is nothing more than a quagmire.  Due to the seemingly never-ending rain last year it has become very muddy and very compacted.  It slopes, quite a bit which makes mowing really hard work and it is just a green space that I cross to get around the garden.  I haven’t been happy with it for a while and feel the time has come to really consider an alternative.

Beautiful No Mow Lawns is written by a US author and has been written on the back of the growing movement in the US to move away from immaculate lawned front yards to something more sustainable and pleasing.  I was surprised to learn that in some states in the US there are laws about the appearance of your front yard and as the author, Eveyln J Hadden, states “in some places, it is nothing less than unpatriotic to think of removing your front lawn”.  Luckily we don’t have that problem here in the UK, although there are some gardens where it might be helpful if there were some laws that could be invoked!  However, I do think that there is still a feeling that if you have a front lawn, as opposed to having paved it over for parking, it should be kept well.

The book sets out to show that there is a wealth of alternatives to the mown lawn all of which will be more sustainable, environmental, interesting and enjoyable.  I was pleased to see that from the start the book sets out  to address the lack of advice and information of moving away from lawns.  The book is championed by Susan Harris, of GardenRant fame who found that her search for “‘lawn replacement’ usually yield just one solution: a big meadow.”  I have tried this approach on the back lawn last year and it was awful and just didn’t work.  Admittedly I only lasted six months before the lawn mower came out – it just looked messy and jarred with the rest of the garden.

Beautiful no-mow lawns is set out in three sections: Design Inspiration; How to get there; and Choice Ground-Layer Plants.  The first section, for me, was the most inspirational.  Most of the ideas were obvious but  only when someone points them out to you.  It is strange how replacing a lawn seems so much harder than it actually is; it’s all about changing your mindset.  The alternatives are wide-ranging from patios, ponds, xeric gardens, the inevitable meadow and prairie garden.  There is a section on play areas and as the author points out a large lawn will never provide the same stimulation and play opportunities as a garden full of plants, hidden corners, ponds, structures for a child – something worth considering when you feel wedded to that football pitch.

I looked at the ‘smarter lawns’ section in detail.  This section provides a range of alternatives to the standard grass we have in lawns and the idea is that you accept that your lawn will be more fulsome, longer, with maybe seed heads, or scented if you choose something like thyme, chamomile.  I have to be honest that this idea is just a non-starter for me, I have been conditioned from an early age that lawns need to be cut and maintained and look like lawns – a distinct difference to the borders.  This has been my stumbling block.

However, the sections on shade gardens and stroll gardens have really got me thinking.  Instead of a back lawn I could lift the grass and plant up a large border but  run paths around the edge so that the various sections of the garden are linked by a network of paths, maybe with a seating area.  Basically, it is obvious I  don’t want a lawn that always looks awful when I can dig it up and replace it with another border maybe with a new focus.

The remaining two sections of the book are on ‘How to get there’ providing advice on the stages of removing a lawn, improving the soil and drainage, how  to plant eco-friendly lawns and how to maintain it.  The last section gives a wealth of plants that can be used to replace your lawn divided into: mounding plants, mat-forming plants, fill-in plants, minglers.

I found this book an eye-opener and wished that some of my neighbours who have replaced their front lawns with gravel and a few pots would consider a different approach.  They might not have water hungry lawns but the replacement isn’t any better. As I have said there is nothing particularly revolutionary in the ideas, aside from the idea of ‘living carpets’, but what it does is bring all the alternatives together.  They are presented with a range of case-studies, some acknowledging that the first attempt at replacing the lawn didn’t quite work, but all of them showing how much better the space could be used.

When you consider how much water we use to irrigate our lawns, “‘lawn’ is now recognised as the “largest irrigated crop” in the US” and the way our climates are so variable with extremes of rain, leading to flooding, and drought, leading to wasteful use of water in irrigating surely it is time for us to reconsider the everyday lawn.  I suspect it will take a generation or two before we break the prejudices about a well-maintained lawn but I do think here in the UK we are well on the way and I hope the ‘Lawn Reform Coalition’ in the US proves to be successful.

If you are tired of maintaining your lawn or feel that you have a large wasted unused space covered in turf this is the book to get you thinking about the alternatives and maybe even encourage you to break with convention and dig up the turf.

Note: this book was provided as a review copy by Timberpress.

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24 Comments Add yours

  1. Holleygarden says:

    I think more and more people are questioning their lawns. Of course, the question of what to put in place of it is probably one of the first questions they ask when thinking about taking out their lawn. This seems like a great book to get some good information, as well as inspiration. Your idea of linking up sections with pathways sounds like a great plan. I hope you will go for it!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Holleygarden – I feel that I will go for it as I have been heading in this direction for a while.

  2. wifemothergardener says:

    Wonderful post about this book, Helen! It is so true that the “lawn” is venerated in the US to a great fault. I have had many outsiders make comments to me about planting too many flowers instead of keeping the grass! And I still have grass paths all around our house. Most people as just too afraid to learn how to maintain other plants; they are most comfortable with turf.

    Thinking of your backyard as a complete garden design, instead of discrete compartments of lawn and borders, will free you to build something that you can truly enjoy. Your ideas of paths leading around the plants with a seating area sounds wonderful! I look forward to seeing it!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi WMG – it is interesting how peeople are condition to a particular mindset isnt it. I am only hesitating now because of the work involved but I think once I get an image in my head of how it will look I will be well on my way

  3. I’d like to read this book. I’m especially interested in ground covers that can take light foot traffic. I am also skeptical about ‘meadows’ as an alternative to lawn. I think it takes a lot of work to keep a meadow from turning into a patch of shrubs. And establishing a meadow is anything but easy. However, there are other good alternatives to lawns.

    1. Christina says:

      You might be interested in Olivier Fillipi’s book about alternatives to lawns using plants for dry climates that can be walked on a little. The book is in French but many English magazines have articles about it so I’m sure you’ll find something helpful. Christina

    2. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Jason
      Totally agree meadows are a lot harder than people let on. The book does have a good selection of ground cover plants so might be useful

  4. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Sounds interesting – there are quite a few New Zealand natives that are ground huggers – sculanthus (wrong spelling!!) etc. Look up NZ plants and get some ideas – my brain not working very well on the names – sorry.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Yvonne – thanks but I think I am going to avoid ground huggers and go for another border if I take the plunge

  5. djdfr says:

    I like ground covers. They need some weeding but I would rather weed than mow.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi djdfr – weeding for me over mowing everyday. In fact its my son who does the mowing but even he had enough of it

  6. Christina says:

    A good review as always Helen. Neither of my last two gardens has had a lawn and I have always been pleased with my decision. For your own garden I think it will be ideal and easier for you, mowing a slope is horrible! Had you thought of a spiral garden, with a path maybe ending in a seat possible under an arbour? You might be interested in looking at PBM garde. http://pbmgarden.wordpress.com/ garden who has a meditation circle and Garden in the west. http://lindachilton.wordpress.com/ (she’s not posting much at the moment but look back at her spiral garden posts to see what she did, she’s a friend of Karen so you may have met her. Christina

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Christina – I have seen photos of PBMs garden with the spiral, it looks lovely. I am toying with a real foliage border with lots of textures and interest maybe hostas, hellebores, ferns, cyclamen, some sort of leafy evergreen shrub for height maybe. The trouble is I just cant bring myself to face another large area of bare soil when I still feel the rest of the garden needs work. Part of me thinks I should concentrate on the rest but then the other part says but you need to be looking at the whole together. I am sure a light bulb will go off soon!

  7. Mark and Gaz says:

    Lawns are actually high maintenance (but have to say well kept ones looks really good and enhances borders adjacent to it) and many people are starting to question the necessity of having one (maybe essential when you have small children as space for play?). This books seems to come in handy to help explore options and possibilities, and perhaps convince sceptics that yes, other options could be just as good, if not better, and would suit their lifestyles more more easily. The idea of having a big border instead, with paths sounds good, which is something we went for when we removed ours many years ago.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi guys – well lawns are high maintenance is you maintain them properly which I dont!! Which is telling in its self as I just cant get interested in all that scarifying, feeding, mowing, edging. I think I am nearly there with saying good bye to the back lawn

  8. Cathy says:

    As you say, you will suddenly have a lightbulb moment when all these thoughts will come together and you will have a flah of inspiration and know exactly what you want to do. It’s not something to rush into, anyway

  9. catharinehoward says:

    I will definitely have to check this book out. Now that we have a small gardener there is a big? over any lawn at all.

  10. catharinehoward says:

    Oh woooooooops there is no small gardener at all, alas. just a small garden.

  11. Helen I love this book and am slowing working at reducing my lawn and adding more garden…and yes you have to check the laws and ordinances in your area to make sure you are not breaking the law or you will be fined and have to remove the garden…sad really.

  12. Hi, Helen, and thanks for your kind feedback about my book. I admit I am very interested to read how these ideas and techniques are viewed by UK gardeners. I have not yet been to visit “across the pond” (do people still say that?) and am aware that your long gardening tradition has produced a much different landscape (and maintenance skillset) than our USA lawn-dominated suburbs and acreages. Best of luck transforming your lawn into an explore-a-garden! -Evelyn Hadden

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Evelyn
      I am so glad you liked the review. I found the book fascinating and it sort of gave me permission to think the unthinkable and dig up the back lawn.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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