Do you have a front…

Do you have a front lawn? Do you like it?

I ran across an interesting post and thread on front lawns at Apartment Therapy yesterday, particularly pertinent since I just mowed my lawn for the first time last night (see previous entry for newly-added photo). It starts off as a rant against front lawns, but the comments do a great job of delineating the broad range of reasons why people do or don't do front lawns. Lawns can be fun for kids to run around on, if you have the right kind of block; my parents had a huge lawn, and it hosted many games of kickball and capture-the-flag. Front lawns can be fun for hosting birthday parties and other celebrations, if you have the right cultural background (it's mostly Hispanic folk in Chicago who do that, it seems).

Neither really happens on our block, in part because we're mixed in with apartment buildings and condos, and in part because most of the front yards are fenced off. You can see the yard through the black metal fence, but you can't wander in. That makes me kind of sad; when I was raking grass clippings last night, I chatted both with Linus and Anne from across the street (who were walking their dog), and with the mother of the woman in the condo across the street (with two small twin boys), who seems nice, and whom I would make more of an effort to get to know if they weren't in the process of trying to sell their condo and buy a house somewhere else. Sad.

At one point, I'd planned to fence off our front yard too, but now I'm thinking I would lose some of these neighborly interactions if I did. You can talk over a fence, but it's a little more difficult. If we do anything now, I'm thinking it'll likely be a little low sitting wall, making it even easier to hang out in the front yard. It'll be a bit odd if we do that, though, since the three houses across the street and the ones on either side of us have (or are putting in), 4' wrought iron (or aluminum that looks like wrought iron) fences.

In thinking about what we wanted to do with our roughly 40x50 front rectangle, I was heavily influenced by a book I read, Liz Primeau's Front Yard Gardens, which I may have mentioned before, but which I'm going to recommend again. It's the only gardening book I've read cover-to-cover, because it's told in stories; one front yard after another, and how the owners came to their decision to move away from grass. Well-written, occasionally moving, beautifully photographed, and very convincing!

She argues against lawns for most of the reasons others do -- it's a non-bio-diverse monoculture, sort of a dead spot, comparatively speaking. They often require a lot of watering and/or chemicals in order to keep them looking lush. Powered mowers are noisy. Lawns are cheap to put in (compared to perennials), but often end up costing a lot more over time. Etc. and so on.

We ended up with what Primeau calls a hybrid garden -- a small piece of lawn is retained, mostly for negative space to rest the eye, although our children and dog do like it too. (They like the neighbors' lawn better -- because it's bigger? Because it's been better maintained up until now? Because it's sunnier? I'm not sure.) We're not using chemicals to maintain it -- if it gets brown, so be it. We're using a small non-powered mower. We're also not sticking to just grass in there -- any low green grass-like thing is allowed to stay, so clover is welcome, for example. I'm not sure about dandelions, though -- we don't have any so far, and they may not be permitted. That's mostly because I'm sticking to a blue/pink/red/purple/white palette in the front yard, though a bit because dandelions do look messy. I want my yard to be full of green things and flowers, but stilll look organized. Neat.

Eventually, I'd like to mix some attractive vegetables into the front yard too, if I can find ways to keep the overall effect ornamental. Like these gorgeous cabbages and herbs (photo from a visit to the Chicago Flower Show a few years ago):

There's one house a block over where they've turned their front yard into a classic vegetable garden -- screened with chicken wire, laid out in rows -- and I admit, I don't really approve. I'm sure it's very productive for their family, and thereby eco-friendly, but it's just not pretty. I feel something of a social obligation to keep the front of my house / yard looking attractive; I want the neighbors to enjoy walking past. If the entire neighborhood subscribes to that, front yard gardening becomes an exercise in collaborative creation of shared beauty.

But that said, I also resist the expanse of carefully manicured lawns, just because it seems to scream suburban conformity. The pressure to keep your lawn looking lush and neat because if you don't, it'll drive down your neighbors' property values. It starts feeling more about money and less about beauty and shared community. Although I couldn't tell you exactly where the boundary lies.

14 thoughts on “Do you have a front…”

  1. Oh, do I have a lot of thoughts on this one. Background: we live in a hilly neighborhood, and our yard slopes steeply to the sidewalk. Years ago, my husband declared war on lawns for many of the reasons you outline above, and we gradually eliminated the grass. There is one strip left that is continuous with the neighbor’s grass. It would look weird if we naturalized it, and also for the sake of neighborly peace it seems better to leave it to match his yard.

    The area we replaced with myrtle has been most successful, but even after years we still get grass and weeds growing through, so it’s a constant game of whackamole to maintain. Other areas with perennials are even more work. Again, after years of planting flowers and pulling weeds, I am still not satisfied with the flower bed areas. They constantly look weedy and poorly maintained. I often wish maintenance was as simple as running a mower over it once a week.

    In the back, we have replaced most of the grass with mulch, because we can’t maintain grass with the dogs. I really would like to have a lawn in the back for kids and dogs to play on, but it won’t grow. The mulch is ok, but it’s not as nice as grass. There’s a lot of weeding to maintain that area. We fight a constant losing battle against the weeds.

    We don’t have any usable vegetable garden space in the back, so we are planning a renovation of the sunniest fronts flower bed to include a sizable vegetable patch. It’s the only way we can garden. We do intend to make it pretty. It is quite common in our shady neighborhood for people to put vegetable beds in the front yard, and I’ve grown accustomed to them, to the point that I don’t mind seeing even a very plain, unornamental vegetable garden in the front yard. In fact, I think it’s fun to check out how their gardens are doing as we walk the dogs. I think there is something inherently beautiful about a well-maintained veg garden, especially late in the summer when you have a gorgeous abundance of tomatoes and squash and maybe some sunflowers and marigolds.

    In summary, I would say that if you want a naturalized yard, go for it, but be realistic about the time investment. I think for young working families, it is always going to be hard to keep up with those darn weeds. The only people I know that really pull it off are either fanatics or retired.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Oh, no, Catherine, you’re scaring me. Everyone promised me that a perennial garden would be less maintenance than grass!

    Do you mulch a lot where the perennials are? Is the garden heavily planted? I’m confused as to where all your weeds are coming up — the photos I’ve seen of established perennial gardens look so full, there doesn’t seem to be room for weeds. (Mine, of course, is mostly mulch at the moment, since perennials are expensive.)

    So far, I’m putting in about half an hour half the mornings of the week on the garden, and it’s a really nice way to start my day — a little light exercise outdoors. I do it around 6, before the kids get up. It does mean I’m not writing then, but honestly, I have trouble diving into writing first thing. Whereas diving into gardening is lovely.

    It may be that this is particularly well-suited to the academic, since I generally have little to no teaching over the summer and a much lighter schedule overall. On the other hand, once the kids are older, we may go over for a month or two over the summer, and I don’t know what happens to the yard then.

  3. We gave this a lot of thought when we redid our front and back gardens a few years ago. I grew up in a neighborhood of the Oakland hills that is so hilly that nobody has lawns, so they are very exotic to me. Lawns have long been controversial in California because they are so very thirsty; a lot of people have them, but there are also a lot of very vocal lawn-haters. These days I don’t see a lot of big lawns except for soccer fields and at institutions like universities. We wanted a good play surface for Alice, though, and after doing some research we decided that a small lawn was the best option. It’s in the back yard. One way to help with weed problems is to put in containers. We have raised beds in our back yard that were built from chunks of the old concrete patio. Yes, we still get weeds, but they are manageable. We have a lot of food in our yard: two artichokes, grape vines, lemon, orange, apple, and plum trees, blueberries, and raspberries, as well as a lot of herbs and the raised beds where we grow annuals. That’s all in the back, though — we don’t have any edibles in the front. In the front, we put in all California natives, so the only non-natives are a couple of large trees that were already there (including a bottle brush tree, which I hate and am hoping someday to replace with a buckeye or something like that).

    My friend Maria has an absolutely beautiful front vegetable garden. I will see if I can get you a picture. But she is a much more serious gardener than I am!!!

  4. Almost forgot: I have heard some people argue that lawns are our attempt to recreate the grasslands of East Africa, where our species evolved. I think this is far-fetched, but amusing.

  5. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Funny. I think it’s much more likely that lawns are our attempts to ape the estates of our betters — historically, I think that’s where lawns came from, although I can’t remember the name of the garden designer who created them. Here’s some history of lawns, though:

  6. As far as conscious motivation goes, that’s clearly correct. I think the grasslands idea is based on an evolutionary psychology argument, which is that because we evolved on the plains, we are physically and psychologically most comfortable in a grassland setting, and that all of the cultural business follows from that. This is a dumb argument for a number of reasons, the primary one being that humans have colonized every type of environment where it is remotely possible for us to make a living, generally by means of cultural, rather than physical, adaptation. The idea that there is one type of environment that we subconsciously seek out doesn’t hold much water. But I still think it’s an amusing idea.

  7. I wouldn’t be too fond of the chicken-wire look either, but I do like it when people do something non-grassy with their front yard. Some neighbors down the block just took up all the grass in the yard and parkway and put down mulch, and planted a bunch of hostas and other pretty, low-maintenance plants.

    There’s also a cute Cape Cod on Harvey and Harvard where the whole front yard and parkway are covered with flowers, which all bloom at different times of the year so that it’s always flowery there. That probably takes a lot of maintenance, but I always admire it when I pass by.

  8. I saw that AT post, too. I like a little grassy patch, too, but in general the less lawn the better. I have no tolerance for spending time mowing (I just don’t enjoy it). I don’t have a huge lawn, but it’s fairly weedy with crabgrass and dandelions, and I found that my little reel mower just would not cut the weeds. So I finally just started paying my neighbor to do my lawn when he does his. I am slowly getting rid of lawn, but it can be a pretty big financial commitment to get enough plants to fill in large areas. I try to get as much as I can from plant swaps and such, but I essentially took up all the grass outside my hedge to create an 8′ x 66′ front bed, and it will be bare in spots for years. I do find that garden beds require some pretty intense weeding commitment in the spring, but once I get through them all once with a good weeding and mulching, the maintenance is almost nothing the rest of the summer. Some quick and easy weeding just as I walk around the yard, and that’s it. Because I had bare spots in the front bed, I added some veggies in there like zucchini, beans and melons. They are in with the flowers and really just fit in, I think. Not sure you’ll be able to get away with no dandelions if you don’t want to spray. I have tried to dig them all up by hand, spent hours and finally gave up.

  9. Oh do we ever mulch! And we put down landscape cloth, too. The weeds laugh at it. I think the weeds come straight from Satan. We do not have much time to work in the yard at all. Certainly not even five minutes a day. We just had our FIRST yard work day of the year on July 4, and it was hours of backbreaking labor, to barely make a dent in the weeds. Someone who has time to go at it a bit each day might have better luck, but I do think the common belief that perennial beds are less labor intensive than lawns is a dirty lie. 🙂 I also must add that gardening is very low on my list of enjoyable liesure activities. I think I enjoy clipping my toenails more. If you enjoy working in your garden, you may not find it as onerous as I.

  10. Oh, I forgot to say that my naturalized landscape tried to KILL me last summer by popping up with poison ivy all over, so my one big attempt to get control of the weeds ended with a month of misery, two courses of prednisone, and a ten pound weight gain. Yeah, I have issues. LOL.

  11. I was thinking about this and wondering if that saying about naturalized/gardened yards being easier to maintain than lawns may be more true in semi-arid, mediterranean climates than in the upper midwest where we have rich black dirt, copious rainfall, and a short growing season (which favors highly aggressive plants). It seems like once the frost passes, things grow absolutely out of control here. Even the plants we put here on purpose misbehave. Many of my perennials have seeded themselves in random areas, and we have many types of vines and groundcover that we have to cut back or pull out several times a year: myrtle, english ivy, virginia creeper, grapevine, and some kind of bushy thing I don’t know the name of. Tree seedlings pop up every year and are hell to get rid of. Plus we get thousands of jewel weed, a native plant that is apparently trying to eat our property. The jewelweed is easy to pull up, at least.

  12. Jewelweed is also the antidote for stinging nettle rashes. Crush the leaves and stems in your hands and apply wherever you have touched the nettle.

  13. I tried jewelweed last year for my poison ivy rash, sadly with no success. I do live in hope that the stuff will prove useful for something some day. I will keep it in mind for stinging nettle (which we do also get in our wonderful garden!)

    As a hilarious coda to this discussion, we found five new poison ivy plants in the front yard today. This is exactly one week after my husband painstakingly and carefully pulled them out by the roots. Because I’m hypersensitive, this was really necessary and appreciated on my part. One week! One of the plants has at least five clusters of leaves!

  14. Grass lawns are much easier and I am not sure they require less water than flower-intensive areas. Perennial gardens require weeding (more in the spring and less as the perennials get larger). Bark can help but watch out for local efforts which are invariably infested with weed roots and seeds. Groundcover cloth makes everything harder after a year or so. Stay away from gravel.

    I love my landscaped beds, but they are a lot of work.

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