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Mansfield Magazine

Keep Off the Grass

Sep 22, 2015 09:24PM ● By Kevin

Let’s face it: As beautiful as a lawn is, it requires a lot of maintenance. It has to be watered, mowed, fertilized and treated for weeds. Less rainfall and municipal watering restrictions make us think about how we use water in the landscape. Perhaps you want less maintenance in your yard. In my case, my thinning buffalo grass lawn and the subsequent intrusion of weeds presented a challenge. All these reasons lead us to consider alternatives to the traditional lawn.


My first step with both a client and my own yard was to kill the existing turf. I made at least two applications of a glyphosate herbicide and waited for it to take full effect. Once I took this step, I knew there was no turning back! The next step was to amend the soil. Since both my client’s and my lawn had underlying clay, I spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of expanded shale over the surface of the killed lawn and used a rototiller to incorporate this product. Expanded shale, because of its many air pockets, aerifies and loosens up tight, heavy clay. I then spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of aged compost over the entire area and incorporated that product into the underlying mix. Aged compost also loosens up heavy clay and helps turn it into a more friable medium.

Once the soil had been amended, I used a bow rake to grade the entire lawn. This is where you can get creative! Grading is nothing more than sculpting the soil to assume the slope you want it to have: flat, inclined or mounded. If you want berms, now is the time to create them. If you want to include boulders, place them after you have established the grade and make any adjustments to the grade around them. This is also a good time to lay stepping stones or any other kind of hard surface such as sidewalks or pads for a bench.

One thing I like to do is dig a trench where the soil meets the sidewalk or driveway so that the soil level is 2 to 3 inches below the level of the concrete. Doing this ensures that, even after you have applied mulch to the area, soil and mulch will not wash out onto the sidewalk or driveway.


If you have an irrigation system, now is the time to convert it from a system that waters grass to one that will water the kinds of plants you install. Some communities require drip irrigation for anything other than turf, as was the case with my client in Arlington. My own yard has no irrigation; I simply place a hose-end sprinkler with a circular pattern of dispersing the water in the center of the space, and it waters everything perfectly. I hand water certain spots as needed.

Plant Material

This is the part you’ve been waiting for – the reason you eliminated the lawn in the first place! Use your imagination and knowledge of plant materials to create a beautiful yet low water-use landscape. If you don’t know which plants to use, contact a landscape designer who does. Ideally, you should choose low-maintenance plants that require less water than your turf did. Definitely include native plants in the renovated landscape, but don’t rule out introduced plants that, once established, exhibit considerable drought tolerance and require low maintenance. I like to use such native plants as red yucca, autumn sage (Salvia greggii), agarita, agaves, yuccas, zexmenia (Widelia hispida), native and introduced ornamental grasses, coral honeysuckle, crossvine, coralberry, Turk’s cap and fall aster.

In choosing plant materials, decide on a color scheme, and when you want those colors to appear - spring, summer, fall or all three. With perennials you can have a succession of color from late February to November. Blooming shrubs and trees can provide color in the spring or summer, and the foliage and fruit of other shrubs and trees add color to the fall and winter landscape. Ornamental grasses, whether native or introduced, function in the place of shrubs but lend a soft, gentle look to the landscape and send up beautiful inflorescences in late summer that persist through the winter and provide food for birds. If you want to create the look of a lawn without using turf, consider any number of native or introduced groundcovers that will give you that look. You may even want to include edibles in your landscape such as fruit trees (including fig trees), blackberries as shrubs or a plethora of perennial or annual herbs. Whichever plants you choose, use a variety of plants to create a tapestry of textures in your new landscape. Such a design will have more visual interest than the monoculture of turf did.

Any number of reasons can compel us to think of alternatives to the traditional lawn. Whatever your reason, take the necessary steps to plan the alternative. Consider soil amendments and grading. Decide on irrigation, if any. Finally, choose the plants that will create beauty, conserve water and lower your maintenance. You’ll be glad you did!

Written by Steve Huddleston, the senior horticulturist at the 
Fort Worth Botanic Garden and co-author of Easy Gardens for North Central Texas.

Read More

Web Extra QA With Fort Worth Horticulturist and Local Author Steve Huddleston - Sep 16 2015 0429PM

Web Extra: Q&A With Fort Worth Horticulturist and Local Author Steve Huddleston

Did you know Steve Huddleston is a published author? He shares information on his book as well as some updates on the Botanic Garden. Read More » 


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