Everybody loves a gorgeous green lawn until it's time for mowing, watering, fertilizing and weeding — or paying those hefty bills every month to a lawn care company. Or perhaps you're trying to grow grass in a shady area, but it's just barely hanging in there.
If you've had enough of the green stuff, it may be time to cut back on the amount of lawn in your yard. Spring is a great time to get started.
We're not talking a front yard covered in nothing more than rocks or gravel. Some people used to think that was the meaning of "xeriscaping" (it wasn't), but that short-sighted approach contributes little to the environment.
Removing lawn should be done for the right reasons — to reduce maintenance and use of chemicals, lower costs, diversify your landscape and attract birds, butterflies and other wildlife.
Before you dig up every square inch of turfgrass, it's a better idea to begin with a plan. Experts recommend reducing your lawn gradually, especially if you are doing the work yourself. Choose logical areas, such as increasing the size of existing plant beds and creating garden beds around the foundation of your home.
Other good places include wet or dry spots, areas where grass is doing poorly and at the edges of your property. Or perhaps you have a sunny location perfect for a vegetable and herb garden.
There are several non-chemical ways to remove lawn. You can dig it up with a shovel, which is back-breaking work but provides immediate results. Or you can smother the lawn with newspaper or landscape fabric topped with mulch, which is sometimes called the "lasagna" method (think of those layers of noodles, cheese and sauce).
Lesslawn.com recommends placing a layer of newspapers 10 to 12 pages thick on top of the lawn, overlapping newspaper pages where they meet. Next, cover the papers with a thick layer of mulch. You can plant right away if you dig planting holes through the paper, remove that sod, then replace the papers up to the edge of the hole. Then top with mulch. It takes several months to completely choke out the lawn.
Mulch will help your new garden bed retain moisture, plus it helps feed the soil as it breaks down over time. Let Mother Nature help out by using fallen leaves and pine needles for free mulch. Rake them from under trees, on sidewalks and even along the street and you'll have a never-ending supply.
Florida soils are naturally loaded with all kinds of insects, from beneficial nematodes to roaches to subterranean termites, and most are attracted to moisture. Using mulch, newspaper and other soil barriers doesn't attract new bugs to your yard, but it does help to retain moisture, which plants need to thrive, says Pinellas County horticulturist Cindy Peacock. That's fine out in the yard, but it's important to keep moisture (and insects) away from your home's foundation.
When making garden beds around the foundation of your house, place the newspaper or other layering and mulch at least 18 inches away from the foundation to prevent moisture against the structure, advises Peacock. Place plants at least 3 feet away from the foundation to reduce moisture (you'll be watering those plants, after all) and to provide ample space for house projects, such as painting and termite treatments.
Michael Manlowe, co-owner of Twigs & Leaves Nursery in St. Petersburg, uses commercial-grade landscape fabric over lawn, then cuts holes for individual plants. After plants are in, the entire area is heavily mulched. Most of his customers, frustrated with water restrictions and high maintenance, are replacing lawn with Florida natives, he says.
"They are tired of the battle," says Manlowe. "We're offering a habitat solution. Let's get wildlife back in the yard."
What you plant depends on your growing conditions, so make a site analysis (see accompanying box). The Florida Yards & Neighborhoods program recommends testing your soil's pH and nutrient content (contact your local county extension for testing instructions). How much sun does the area receive each day? (Six hours of direct sunlight is considered "full sun.") Is the site in a protected location or is it vulnerable to wind? Will it receive salt spray? Is moisture an issue, either wet or dry? Will the area be irrigated?
Don't forget to plan for how the area will be used: for recreation, raising vegetables or creating privacy. Is the area irrigated? You may need to adjust the irrigation system from a wide spray, which is used on lawns, to more targeted or low-volume irrigation. If the area has no irrigation system, no problem. Planting Florida natives and drought-tolerant plants is the perfect solution.
There are plants galore to choose from, but keep your original goals in mind: to reduce maintenance and water use, and contribute to a more healthful environment. That's best achieved with Florida-friendly and native plants that are drought- and pest-resistant.
The University of Florida has a terrific Web site for homeowners (www.floridayards.org). There's a plant database of 380 trees, palms, shrubs, flowers, groundcovers, grasses and vines that you can use to choose the right Florida-friendly and native plants for areas of your yard. Complete the online questionnaire about your specific growing conditions (location, light and soil) and you'll get a list of recommended plants with photos and detailed plant information. You can keep a running list of the plants, then print it out like a shopping list.
You can also use the site's interactive landscaping function ("Landscaping 101") to transform a lawn-only yard into one with planting beds filled with the plants of your choice, good practice for the real thing.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.