Revisioning the Garden: Losing the Lawn

Winter is a time to reimagine the garden. Deciduous trees and shrubs are bare, winter pruning is done, and the spaces in the garden open up visually. Winter is also dreamtime, when rainy days or weeks let the view of the garden through wet windows blur and run. It is easier to imagine now, what if we moved, removed, cut back, replanted, reshaped?

Winter visions at the GFE also involve moving the garden step-by-step closer to its goal of demonstrating sustainable gardening principles. Where can we improve, and make our walk match our talk more closely?

One winter renovation this year has been somewhat drastic. We removed the small lawn in the outdoor classroom area.

 Hilary teaching at the former lawn in the North Classroom at GFE.

Hilary teaching at the former lawn in the North Classroom at GFE.

We did this because mowed turf is not a sustainable choice for most garden situations in our arid state. Turf areas in the west are reported to absorb “as much as half of outdoor residential water use” (Sunset Magazine’s Water-Wise Gardening for California). In most garden settings, there are more sustainable alternatives to turf.

But blocking this much-needed change is an outdated aesthetic which equates stretches of neatly mowed, uniformly green lawns with suburban civilized living. In our imaginations lawns are associated with healthy outdoor lifestyles, although in reality they may be an indicator of weekends spent with gas fumes, noise and chemical fertilizers and weed killers.

Lawns are also associated with the safety and discipline of conformity. But now even in the more conservative neighborhoods of San Francisco the little scalped lawns in front of the Marina style row houses are being replanted one by one with mixed, drought-tolerant borders. These borders can delight the heart, offering a seasonally changing show of beauty, attracting birds, honeybees, and butterflies. People who dare to make this change also benefit by saving on their water bills and on gas for the lawnmower, as well as reducing the use of commercial fertilizers and weed killers. 

So what were we doing with a lawn at the GFE?

 Lawn removal underway!

Lawn removal underway!

The toughest decisions about lawn areas are when kids and adults actually play, lie, and picnic on them. It’s hard to wean ourselves away in those cases, and the lawn in the outdoor classroom area was the lunch and snack picnic area for many a school field trip.

Nevertheless, part of our job is to experiment with and demonstrate alternatives. So right now, students from the Fall GCETP class are studying our choices. We’re looking forward to an exciting new experiment in urban sustainability when they redesign this area with boulders? Native bunch grasses? Walk-on ground covers? Permeable hardscape? Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion.