Boulder H&G: Lawn Be Gone

What to put in now that grass is out
By Kate Jonuska

This article was originally published in the Winter 2022/2023 edition of Boulder Home & Garden Magazine.

Thanks to growing nationwide awareness of climate change and acceptance locally of the West’s water limitations, the ideal of owning a mowed monoculture of grass lawn — once considered part of the American Dream — is finally tarnishing

“People have been doing low-water gardening for forty years, it’s not a new idea, but more and more people are asking about getting away from grass,” says Mikl Brawner, co-owner of Harlequin’s Gardens (4795 N. 26th St., Boulder) with partner Eve Reshetnik Brawner. “It’s a happening thing, and it’s very welcome.”

Water conservation and respect for gardening within the native habitat are driving the trend, which is a clear shift away from the idea of a lawn as status symbol.

“We’re not just trying to look good for the neighbor across the street anymore,” says Brawner, who says folks who low-water garden and/or use local plants are creating pockets of wild land among acres of bluegrass and concrete to be home for bugs, birds and wildlife. “Now we’re having a garden to be a part of nature and function as nature. That’s helping our pollinators, helping support other insects.”

After ripping out the grass at her property in Longmont in favor of a garden of native grasses, shrubs, and other plants, Mary Polk loves the look more than any green lawn. “I love the grasses and apache plume and slightly Western look,” says Polk, a member of the Hope & Hoe Garden Club. “It’s like a moving picture, watching the bugs go by, bees and butterflies all the time. The plants are always moving and bopping in the air.”

Start small.

Replacing grass doesn’t need to be a huge project. “Find a place to start,” he says, recommending replacing one section of grass at a time, taking your time. “Once you’re successful with one piece, you’ll have more confidence and you’ll know what you’re getting into.”

Less is More.

It’s not a crime to keep some grass if your kids or dogs enjoy playing on it. You can always scale down rather than replacing the entire lawn. A 50 percent reduction can make a huge difference to the planet and your water bill.

Grease up those elbows.

It’s important to note that a natural garden will be more work than turf, Brawner says. Grassy meadows require little water but still need weeding and attention.

Grow some clover.

Another waterwise alternative to bluegrass that prevents monoculture and reduces maintenance is a clover lawn. Mixing clover with grass helps lock in moisture, prevents weeds and attracts pollinators, and thanks to less fertilization and mowing, can be less effort than bluegrass.

Lay down mulch.

To reduce maintenance while also reducing grass, Brawner first suggests replacing grassy areas or covering areas under larger plants with mulch, either wood chips (which are more fire safe than shredded) or rock. Shading the ground provides less sun to feed weeds.

Plant ground covers and native shrubs.

Organic ground covers provide similar shade and weed minimization, and native options — even flowering ground cover like Veronicas and Sedums. Also, don’t minimize the value of native shrubs, which in addition to being hardy, can create volume and even color when they bloom.

Give it a little structure.

Putting a path through and mowing around the edge of a meadow space makes it look intentional and “not like a weed patch,” says Brawner.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2022/2023 edition of Boulder Home & Garden Magazine.

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