For a lot of people, there is only one kind of lawn, the pampered golf green turf the lawn industry endlessly promotes, with its closely cropped fine grasses. But it requires a lot of maintenance… and costs a lot to keep going. Do you really want pay a fortune for sod, lawn fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and all the other treatments that go with a lawn so perfectly manicured it looks like a green plastic carpet?
Why not opt for a more natural lawn, one composed of a wide varieties of plants… including several that more meticulous gardeners would consider weeds?
Here’s a simple natural lawn replacement for golf green turf: the “just-mow lawn”. And here’s how to create one.
If You’re Starting from Scratch
Suppose your home is surrounded by a field of tall forbs (I’m being polite here: a lot of people would call them weeds) and grasses? That’s easy enough to fix. Just starting mowing!
The first time through will be a hassle: the average lawnmower is not designed for cutting tall plants, but push hard enough and you’ll manage to chop them all down. For larger surfaces, or if the site contains a lot of small shrubs, rent a brush mower: it’s designed to hack through even woody stems. Just chop everything back to about 3 inches (7.5 cm).
Once the initial run through is done, simply start mowing regularly with a mulching mower, whenever the grass gets too tall for your taste. (I leave that decision up to you: some people like short grass and are willing to mow more often; others figure 12 inches (30 cm) is just fine, and that usually spaces out mowings to about once a month.) Cut it back to about 3 inches (7.5 cm) each time, in both cases. If a mulching mower is best, that’s because it returns finely chopped leaves to the soil, feeding the plants.
This lawn will look pretty rough hewn at first. Not much sun has been reaching the soil under all that tall grass and forb growth and there’ll be bare spots. Plus some plants won’t take kindly to being hacked down repeatedly and will die out, leaving more bare spots. But others will thrive and move in to fill in the blanks. Grasses are especially tolerant of frequent mowing (which is why people began using them as turf in the first place!), but so are white clover, plantain, ground ivy, dandelions, etc.
Also, some plants will probably move in from nearby flower gardens: creeping bugleweed, gold moss stonecrop, moneywort, thyme, violets, etc. Some of these will bloom and add color to your lawn. Who, after all, says a lawn must always be green?
What actually grows will depend largely on your climate and conditions. Each just-mow lawn is pretty much unique in its compositi0n.
If you want faster coverage, after you’ve hacked down the field plants, oversow with grass or white clover seeds. That will give you a fuller look more rapidly. Slower-growing grasses like Eco-Lawn as well as eco-friendly mixtures, that contain flowers as well as grass, are good choices for oversowing.
Just scatter the seed over the lawn, especially over thin patches. If you do this at a fairly rainy season, or when nights are cool, you won’t even have to water. In most climates, oversowing is best done in the fall (late August or September), with spring being a good second choice.
Converting An Established Lawn
Converting an established lawn to a natural lawn is even simpler: just keep mowing it!
There are probably already so-called “weeds” growing in your lawn. Well, from now on, think of them not as weeds but as adding variety to your lawn. And as soon as you stop spraying herbicides and overfeeding your lawn, other plants adapted to mowing and lesser fertility will move in.
If you needed to oversow in order to densify this kind of lawn (and that can be possible under certain conditions), I’d suggest using white clover seed. It’s widely available and helps enrich the soil in nitrogen, which will make a greater range of interesting lawn plants happy.
Maintaining A Just-Mow Lawn
Maintaining a just-mow lawn is easy enough: like the name says, just mow! Again, to about 3 inches (7.5 cm) from the ground.
That’s all you need to do. There is no need to fertilize, water, spray with pesticides (and certainly not herbicides!), aerate, or whatever else you used to do to your manicured lawn. Leave all that to lawn perfectionists. By eliminating fastidious care, you’ll gradually see weaker, less well-adjusted plants thin out and disappear and better-adapted ones settle in. Maybe that will be grasses and clover, maybe plantains and ground ivy. It all depends on your conditions. The important thing is that benign neglect and occasional mowing will create a nice green carpet of mixed plants that no one could deny is a lawn.
If I were you, I would still remove any prickly plants, like thistles, from your just-mow lawn. A lawn should be a place where you can walk barefoot, so anything with thorns is just not acceptable. Just dig them up or cut them to the ground: if you keep at it, you’ll get them all pretty quickly.
And if you have young children who will be playing on your natural lawn, you’ll probably want to remove any rocks or woody stems that jut out of the soil, thus anything they could trip over, then fill any depressions that result with soil. You can sow grass seed or white clover over the filled-in-spots to make them green up more quickly… or wait for Mother Nature to cover the space with her own choice of plants.
But please, don’t laugh too much when see your neighbors knocking themselves out as they struggle vainly to maintain their perfect grass lawns. They deserve our pity, not our derision. Obsessive-compulsive lawn care is an unfortunate disease that really should require psychiatric help. The poor people who suffer from it just haven’t learned to work with Mother Nature rather than fighting her. And any laidback gardener knows that Mother knows best!