“Lawn” is not a four-letter word.
Okay, maybe technically it is a four-letter word. But it’s a four-letter word you don’t want to mention in conversation with eco-purists and sustainability warriors. Mention “lawn” to the True Believer and you’ll get the same horrified reaction as if you’d dropped an f-bomb at a tea.
The thing is, while broad, estate-style sweeps of lawn are going the way of the dinosaur, there are good reasons why you might not want to eliminate your lawn entirely: Kids and pets appreciate a spot to roll and play; there’s the cooling effect; maybe you hail from an area which is lush and green, and home is not home to you without your small patch of grass. Maybe it’s now a smaller patch of grass, but darn it, you still want it.
When we were first trying to figure out what should anchor our big, front-yard beds of perennial shrubs, we considered, and vetoed, many ideas—more shrubs, decomposed granite, gravel, ground covers like dymondia and myporoum. Each one of these, though, while water-wise, had drawbacks. I wanted to be able to walk across it barefoot (you can take the girl out of the country . . . ); we wanted a flat area so neighbors and visitors didn’t have to wade through knee-high shrubs; I’d seen a lot of lawn substitutes in my walks that just didn’t quite work. So I was pretty sure that little circular area surrounded by shrubs was going to be occupied by grass.
Spending the amount of time we did in the company of sustainably-minded people, we were pretty cowed about even asking how we might go about this. We knew we wouldn’t be using Marathon sod; even a small patch of the supposedly more drought-tolerant Marathon II is extremely demanding when it comes to water. But just try to move on from there, to see what else might work. We consulted with the usually-friendly Theodore Payne folks, and got the suspicious reply “Why d’ya want a lawn?” (No one who asks you this is really interested in your response, by the way. They just want to tell you why you’re wrong.)
The TP people finally allowed as how we might use buffalo grass “If you have to have a lawn.” Other professionals concurred that buffalo grass was the new turf substitute. We really clung to that gleam of hope for a short while, but then our local Armstrong nursery made the mistake of actually bringing in a demo flat of it. Yikes. It’s a prairie grass, and after seeing it up close and personal, I decided that’s where it belongs. (I should mention in the interests of fairness that it apparently behaves more like lawn in northern California.)
So after a lot of resource- and soul-searching, we took the step (which was advised against at almost every turn) of buying two $8 flats of St. Augustine plugs at Home Depot. St. Augustine has a bad reputation, some of which is deserved: It spreads by stolons (runners), which can get away from you. It goes dormant in the winter, which offends some homeowners’ personal design aesthetic.
two months later our little circle was completely filled.
Two years later, the lawn (Yes! I said it! Lawn lawn lawn!) does send out runners, which we alternately weedwhack or pull to keep within its borders. It does go dormant, though it turns kind of a drab green, rather than the winter-white of Bermuda grass. Which doesn’t bother me—coming from a four-season climate as I do, I expect grass to go dormant in winter. And, the best part—it requires about 75% less water than the previous Marathon lawn.
So don’t be cowed by eco-purists. You can be sustainable and have a lawn. You can make it quite a bit smaller; you can replace parts of it with other things; you can use a different type of grass or even a ground cover. Sustainability doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach; we can find some middle ground, and—who knows?—it might even be green.