Rethinking the lawn

A bee pollinates a plant in the Jones' front yard. About 300 square feet of lawn was turned into a garden with plants that draw bees, butterflies and birds.

We in the Lowcountry and across the United States pay a high price for our grass lawns, but is it worth the time and money spent mowing, edging, watering, and applying fertilizers and pesticides, some of which washes into our waterways?

Some are starting to say it's not, for both practical and environmental reasons, and are converting a part or all of their lawns to a combination of gravel, "green" ground cover and food or flower gardens.

When Eric Shine's mother moved to Mount Pleasant last year, he thought the grass lawn between the driveway and front entrance was, well, "ugly" and wanted to re-create the gardens from their former house in Columbia.

Shine, who is studying sculpture and mechanical engineering at Brown University, had worked with a gardener who had expertise in feng shui, an ancient Chinese philosophy of balancing the energies of any given space to assure health and good fortune of those inhabiting it.

"I wanted not only to make the house look pretty but make sure the chi (universal energy) was right," says Shine.

They tapped into feng shui to convert about 300 square feet of lawn into a garden filled with plants that draw bees, butterflies and birds. The plants are mostly natives, including milkweed plants.

Others just seek to find green ground cover alternatives.

Landscape architect Bill Eubanks, creative director of Urban Edge Studio, lives in the Byrnes Downs neighborhood in West Ashley and has struggled to grow a conventional lawn because of the shade of gorgeous live oak trees.

A few years ago, he planted Palmetto St. Augustine grass but refused to water it and "dump chemicals on it." As a result, it slowly declined.

Earlier this year, he planted 1,000 bare root plants, including mondo grass, liriope and pachysandra, in his front yard and put down mulch - first a layer of wetted cardboard and then pine straw - in his backyard.

"The front yard will take about three years to fill in," admits Eubanks, adding "The first year it sleeps. The second year it creeps. And the third year it leaps."

Kim Eierman, a New York-based environmental horticulturist who founded EcoBeneficial, says the great American love affair with lawns has a long tradition.

"The funny thing is (that) it's not even our tradition - we adopted the idea from Europe where turf grasses are native," says Eierman in her article, "Replacing the Green Desert: Meadowscaping and other native alternatives."

Eierman, a nationally recognized advocate and expert for converting lawns to gardens with variety of native plants, describes turf grass as being "like a demanding child: always hungry, always needy and incapable of being left alone."

Local environmental consultant Jeff Jackson of Lowcountry Roots says the deep emotional tie to lawns stems from the Victorian times when having a lawn was a sign of wealth.

"But even before then, this sense of needing to see our surroundings is hard-wired into us," says Jackson, who also is president of the Lowcountry chapter of the South Carolina Native Plant Society.

Both Eierman and Jackson and others say that recent movements, such as the "locavore" (local food) movement and people responding to the bee and monarch butterfly crises, are motivating people to carve up parts of their lawns for food and native flower gardens.

Native plants, they add, tend to be more hardy, require less water and fertilizer and have evolved with the local wildlife.

Jackson says he's been getting more requests for people want to establish gardens to attract bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife.

But while individuals may want a change, he adds some municipalities, homeowners associations and neighbors may "still frown upon the idea of lawn-less front yards."

As for the neighbors, Eierman suggests keeping a "some remnant" of the front lawn, defining the garden area with "hardscape" such as stones, and using signs that explain what you are doing, such a bee and butterfly garden.

The National Wildlife Federation will provide signs to homeowners who get certified as a wildlife garden after putting in plants that provide wildlife food, such as seeds, nuts and berries; water sources, such as a birdbath or water garden; and cover.

"The value of a sign is that it is a cue to neighbors that I'm doing this for a reason," says Eierman.

Converting large areas of lawn takes effort and homeowners may need to seek the help of a professional, not to mention a tiller.

Before starting, Jackson highly recommends having a clear of idea of what you want to replace the lawn with and what will work best considering your yard's various characteristics, including sun exposure, moisture levels and soil conditions.

Another reason to replace lawns with native plants is to protect one of the Lowcountry's greatest assets: its waterways.

Guinn Garrett, a water resources agent with Clemson Extension, says that homeowners with turf grass should practice safe fertilizer application, namely by getting a soil test and following fertilizer label instructions, to prevent excess nutrients from getting into downstream waterways.

Clemson Extension and other water quality agencies and nonprofits have long promoted creating planted buffer zones in yards bordering waterways to help filter runoff before it reaches creeks and ponds.

"Buffers can be planted to maintain your view shed and be aesthetically pleasing and wildlife friendly, while also reducing the amount of nutrients, bacteria and other pollutants in runoff," says Garrett, adding that the South Carolina Waterways fact sheet at provides advice on establishing a backyard buffer.

While some suburban communities make it difficult for homeowners to get rid of turf grass, one of the most exclusive communities in the Charleston area, Kiawah Island, tries to minimize lawns and have yards that protect the maritime forest atmosphere of the barrier island.

Justin Core, the land preservation coordinator for the Kiawah Conservancy, says Kiawah starts with preserving the natural state of undeveloped lots from early stages of development during the architectural review process.

Core admits that keeping lawns the exception, and not the rule, is easier on Kiawah because it's the predominant landscape feature in the first place.

"We're not anti-turf. We want the grandkids to have a place to play in the yard, but it (lawns) just shouldn't comprise the majority of the yard," says Core.

Regardless, it's still a continual educational process that includes using demonstration gardens on Kiawah to give property owners a living example of how the landscape should look.

"A fair number of property owners come from the Midwest and Northeast and the lawn is what they are used to," says Core.

If the idea of downsizing your lawn may seem un-Southern, consider that even Clemson Extension has created a certification program, Carolina Yards, which gives big points toward minimizing turf grass.

According to Extension Consumer Horticulture Agent Sara G. Pachota, Carolina Yards recognizes homeowners who make positive changes in the environmental quality of their yards, neighborhoods and surrounding waterways.

Among those changes are determining how much open lawn area is ideal for children, pets and recreation, and where possible, using low-maintenance ground covers, shrubs, mulch, or other porous surfaces that allow water to infiltrate.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.