A Little Less Lawn

When we moved up to Connecticut, I had hoped we would get a big lawn so I could convert it to an amazing permaculture-inspired food forest. We ended up in a house that had almost no lawn at all. Directly behind our house is a huge boulder outcropping and woods. Most of the front “yard” is wetlands and driveway. There was just a small strip of muddy, mossy, struggling lawn bordered by shrubs along the top of a retaining wall, ending in a triangle by the driveway.

Front Yard
May 2013. The “before” shot.

I had heard the phrase “Food not lawns” a few times and thought it was a cool message, but had not realized it was the name of a book and a non-profit organization. I also did not know at that time that a whopping 20% of all the land in Connecticut is lawn, the largest “crop” grown in the state. I didn’t even know that more herbicides and pesticides are used on lawns than on farms that grow food! But I did know that lawns take a lot of maintenance, that lawn is equivalent to a desert in its ability to support wildlife, that this particular strip was too shady for a lawn, and that I didn’t want to waste any space growing something that I couldn’t eat. While I didn’t have a lot of lawn to replace, I was excited to take this small lawn and turn it into something awesome.

May 2013. The first apple tree gets planted in the lawn.
May 2013. The first apple tree gets planted in the lawn.

That first Spring, my son and I planted an heirloom apple tree and three blueberry bushes right into the lawn. We didn’t mow. We just let it grow to see what would come up.  White Clover started popping up so I encouraged that by pulling out clumps of grass to make room. I wanted the clover because it takes nitrogen from the air and adds it to the soil and helps other plants grow.

There were long metal strips marking off the lawn from flower beds. These had probably been in the ground about fifteen years. I decided to move them to enlarge the garden beds and mark a path down the center, thus eliminating the lawn entirely.

Moving those metal strips was probably one of the hardest jobs I’ve done in a long time! It surely did not help that I was a few months pregnant. This job took several full weekends as Jordan and I were not strong enough to move them without help from my husband, Chuck.

lawn to path conversion
June 2013. Cardboard layer under wood chips to form a path.

The “lawn” was more Indian Strawberry and moss than actual grass, so we laid down cardboard right on top the surface. Then we brought in wood chips for the path and layered up soil outside the path. The soil came from a drainage ditch on our property. We were told by a contractor that we were supposed to remove built up soil from the drainage area periodically so it wouldn’t go up higher than the drain pipe. This soil was a bit anaerobic (smelly and lacking oxygen) but we planned to give it time to improve. Most of the wood chips were moved by my son via toy dump truck and me using a wheelbarrow. But some of the other physical labor was done by Graham, who we hired to help out.

That summer we brought some Spearmint and Obedient Plant from our old house and put them in the lawn area, too. We also put in rhubarb, Arnica Montana, cabbages, a few cultivated strawberry plants, and a Chocolate Mint plant from a local organic nursery.

There was a funny moment that summer. I was out in the “lawn” doing something, probably pulling out grass. A neighbor drove in to the driveway and said hello. This was unusual. He was friendly but then commented that I’d need to be mowing the lawn soon. I tried to explain that I was trying to get rid of the grass. When he left I had the feeling that we were speaking two different languages to each other. It was also my first indication that in this neighborhood, I was going to have to raise the bar a little. My “wildflower meadow” approach was not meeting approval of the neighbors–or even my husband although he was being as nice as possible about it.  The rest of the summer and fall of 2013, as my pregnancy progressed, I was limited in my gardening capacity, and I put most of my efforts into the main garden at the top of the hill, so the front lawn did not get much more attention that season.

April 2014

In Spring of 2014, things started coming together in many parts of the yard but not much was happening in the front “lawn” because I didn’t yet have a clear vision of where to go with it. Other things that had more clarity were taking all my time. I no longer had a huge belly to work around, but I did have an infant to care for. I planted a few cabbages around the daffodils, and the strawberries and mint were spreading as expected. But the blueberries looked like they were dying, and the apple tree was not doing much of anything.

We put in a few Hyacinths along the path to brighten things up a bit. This was Jordan’s idea. I was a bit overly focused on plants that were edible or medicinal perennials. The guys in the family that want flowers. I’m glad they push for them because of course it makes everything look so much prettier with flowers mixed in, and it gives the bees much-needed pollen.

The next step was to put down a nice thick layer of straw mulch to prevent evaporation and suppress the Indian Strawberry and lawn grass, and leave a blank slate for planting edible perennials, medicinal plants, and other plants to support pollinators and other beneficial insects.

April 2014. Trial and error.

I had been reading The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips. So after planting the apple tree in the lawn, and other trees in other parts of the yard, we mulched them with wood chips. According to Phillips, I also needed some white rocks to put around the tree trunk to discourage mice, decomposers, and other plants from growing too closely. Luckily during the winter, a neighbor’s snow plow driver had sent many white rocks from their driveway onto our side of the road. We swept some of the rocks back to the driveway but we gathered enough by hand from the ground to circle about eight inches around each of the tiny tree trunks.

We bought some potted daffodils and planted them in a circle around the apple tree. We thought it would look pretty, but I also had the idea to throw deer off from the scent of the presumably delicious apple sapling. We put in some stepping stones to prevent our feet from compacting the soil more than it already was.

At this point Graham taught me that the yellowing leaves with spots on some of our Boxwoods were signs of Boxwood Blight, a horrible plant disease that was killing Boxwoods all around town. I jumped on what I saw as an opportunity to get rid of them. My husband was reluctant to remove any of the mature landscape plantings. I could understand his perspective because they did create a grounding and structure for the space, but I was looking at those square feet as valuable real estate. These boxwoods were big! I could put a lot of other things there.

Boxwoods out!
May 2014. Two large Boxwoods removed.

Despite Chuck’s hesitation, the two big boxwoods came out from the front bordering the triangle of lawn. The empty spaces were quickly filled with American Beautyberry purchased through Etsy, Monarda from a local nursery, and some Echinacea from my friend Lindsay. Around the front border I transplanted a few of the Wild Violets I found along the roadsides while going for walks with the baby.

Most importantly, Chuck liked the openness created by the absence of the two big Boxwoods. So at that moment I realized it was time to suggest we get rid of the shrubs that were the remaining tall plants in the border. I had tried to identify these without success, but they didn’t seem to be anything useful. They hadn’t flowered and didn’t have any other evident uses. They were also casting shade on one of the only fairly sunny spots on the property. So Chuck agreed reluctantly. Again, once they were gone, Chuck was really pleased with the openness and being able to see the house from the street. I promptly planted two plum trees that had been waiting in 5 gallon buckets since the previous spring. Then we moved the struggling blueberries out of the lawn into the border, and bought another one for good measure. Then Jordan planted some pumpkin seeds. A couple of pumpkin vines grew but the conditions were so poor that they produced only a few blossoms.

In progress shot of the lawn replacement project which became a replacement of all the border landscaping as well.
May 2015. Tall shrubs cut down to stubs. Testing the new path idea

Things were still a bit of a hodge-podge and I was not happy with it. I worried I was making people think my methods were messy and ugly. Then, my garden gave me a good idea. Strawberries that I’d planted in the back along the stone steps the previous summer, a gift from my friend Monica, were starting to send out runners to form new plants. I needed to find a place to transplant them. Well! Creating a uniform bed of strawberries in the “lawn” would satisfy the many functions that I wanted this area to perform. I wanted it to look nice because it was the front entrance to our home. I wanted it to be filled with edibles and easily enjoyed by my children. I wanted it to be easy to protect from wildlife during times of harvest, which meant all the plants needed to be the same height.  I wanted it to be easy to maintain. I also wanted it to look good enough to be an inspiration to other people to reduce their lawns and grow some of their own food.

I gave up on the apple tree, which was dead above the graft line, and cut it down. I removed all the white stones. I moved the stepping stones to begin a solid path that would provide easy footing for a toddler to walk along and pick strawberries. I transplanted the daffodils and chocolate mint to other spots. Then I brought the strawberry plants from the backyard and put them densely to join the others. In the fall, I mulched them well with straw and waited.

July 2015 progress on Belgian Block path
July 2015 progress on Belgian Block path to match existing driveway border.

In the Spring of 2015, I decided that the Chocolate Mint was going to become troublesome among the strawberries due to its spreading habit, so I moved it to a section along the walkway, replacing some of the abundant Lemon Balm. I purchased twenty tiny strawberry plants from the Greenwich Garden Education Center to fill in gaps. I also decided to upgrade the cheap stepping stones that I had been using, and went to a professional masonry supply and purchased Belgian Blocks that would match the stonework all around in the driveway and the front steps. These were expensive investments but would make the work look professional and match the existing hardscaping.

These Belgian Blocks were much heavier than I expected. All the stone work I’ve done before had been with recycled bricks or small pavers or local stones. It was slow going so the amount of time I had only allowed me to do about two stones every few days.

The photo to the right shows the Spearmint is growing very well and would need to be moved for the second path and strawberry bed.

As this was coming along, I was thinking that I needed to order more wood chips to replenish the path. I was also thinking about how I wanted this landscaping to be low-maintenance to appeal to any potential buyers in the future if we move, and that most people would not want to be bringing in loads of wood chips annually to replenish the path. Besides that as they wood chips were decomposing they were greatly improving the soil–which was causing a lot of plants to want to grow in the path. I certainly did not want to create a situation that required constant weeding! So I came up with the idea of making the walkway out of Bluestone pavers that would match the existing sidewalk. Then I would fill in the spaces between the stones with thyme or some other very low-laying plants that would not require much maintenance, and ideally, serve some additional purpose as well, perhaps food or medicinal plants for teas, or at least a mosquito repellent.

Bluestone path in progress
August 2015. Bluestone pavers laid down to create a path.

It took three car trips to bring home the Bluestone pavers and three more for the Belgian Blocks. The kids liked watching the big loaders and forklifts so it was a bit of an adventure! We were very lucky that the distance between the two metal edgers was exactly wide enough for the standard size Bluestone pavers. This is why planning ahead is so important… and I need to improve in that respect as I won’t always be so lucky!

Laying down the Bluestones was pretty easy as the path was already prepared and there was no new digging needed, just a little smoothing. With my husband’s help we got the stones down in about fifteen minutes after each car load (this was spread over about a week.) Strawberries are filling in nicely on the left side of the path.

On the retaining wall side of the path, I asked my husband to thin out some of the landscaping bushes. Earlier this summer I purchased a carload of native edible shrubs through Greenwich Audubon. By the end of August, I still had a few that were not planted. One bush had already died so I felt it was urgent to get the rest in the ground. I had three Highbush Bluebery bushes remaining that needed enough time to settle in before winter. I also had three currant bushes that were given to me by my friend Dennis who I met through our Community Garden. This was a good opportunity to take out some of the non-edible, non-useful, ornamental landscaping plants which were now considered problematic as they were becoming naturalized in the region.

Two symmetrical paths allow access to harvest the strawberries
Mid Sept 2015. The Belgian Block path is completed

I had wanted to replace this row of Wayfaring Viburnum and Morrow’s Honeysuckle since we bought the place, in order to have room for really useful and wildlife-friendly plants that I wanted, but taking them all out at once felt too drastic. So, taking out a few each year seemed like a good plan for us. This ended up being a bit of a challenge due to some yellow jackets, which I will write about in a future post. But it did get accomplished and it feels like a big improvement.

I purchased more strawberry plants from the GEC and I also potted up a bunch of the runners that were coming from the established strawberry plants to take root, to fill in the space created by the spearmint removal. But they were languishing in pots because getting the path in was taking too long. I wanted to get the path finished so I could plant the strawberries with enough time for their roots to get established before winter. The Belgian Blocks were too heavy for the kids to be able to help me. It had taken me weeks to complete the smaller semi-circle and the larger one was going to take even longer. I was going to have to get some professional help. Graham, who had worked for me in previous years was no longer available.

Nov 2015. Progress on the pathway.
Nov 2015. Progress on the pathway.

Luckily just at that time, I met Dylan, who was interested in permaculture and organic gardening, and has a new organic landscaping business that he is starting up, and he had some time available. He knocked out the second path in a few hours. Jordan got right in there and helped. I helped a little. But mostly I kept Lauren out of the way. It turned out great. Dylan moved the Spearmint and Obedient Plants to the garden on the other side of the driveway (the story of that area’s transformation will be coming in a future post). After that I was able to plant the whole bed with strawberries and mulch around them –with straw, of course. I can’t wait to see how this area looks in the spring!

Last week, I put in smaller Belgian Blocks at the bottom of the path where it was too steep and odd-shaped for a bluestone paver. I will have to do a similar project and add more bluestones at the back end of the path but that will have to wait until Spring.

Nov 2015. Stone wall repairs ongoing.
Nov 2015. Stone wall repairs ongoing.

I was very pleased with Dylan’s work and I then thought of a hundred other projects I wanted him to do. But the most urgent was to repair the retaining wall all along this front area. Yellow Forsythia and Porcelainberry were growing out of the wall and some of the stones had fallen down. Sometimes we walked on the wall to avoid compacting the soil, so this was becoming a safety issue. This was a project that we’d been avoiding dealing with, but it really needs to be done, and it needs to be done before planting out the area. I’m really glad Dylan is taking this on.

As of right now, Dylan has replaced the stones in the front part of the wall where the damage was the worst and started cementing them. Its coming together great and I’ll post another update of that when its finished.

So, that is the entire backstory of my lawn replacement project so far. It was fun writing about this to review how much we have done. I’ll be filling in the history on other areas of our property in the next few posts.

In the meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you if you have reduced or replaced your lawn. What did you grow and how well is it working?


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