Garden Designers Roundtable: Lawn Alternatives & a personal announcement!


In the midst of a blazing summer, as we in central Texas and other drought-stricken parts of the country helplessly watch our lawns turn to straw and then dust, this month’s Garden Designers Roundtable topic of “Lawn Alternatives” is surely the most timely ever. Faced with increasingly severe watering restrictions, even lawn lovers will concede that shrinking the lawn to a useable, manageable size makes good economic and environmental sense.


Why spend all that money and time mowing, edging, and pouring drinking water on thirsty lawn grass when you could have a songbird-attracting, drought-tolerant garden of tough ornamental grasses, prairie stalwarts like coneflowers, and structural evergreens like softleaf yucca? This is my former front garden, completely lawn-free.


Or how about a nontraditional, drought-tolerant, native Texas sedge lawn, like Sheryl’s? (Click for a larger tour.) The Austin blogger at Yard Fanatic is watering this alternative lawn only once every two weeks. Think how much money she saves.


Or perhaps a new patio that beautifully covers up that dust bowl that used to be lawn by the back door where the dog goes in and out? (My former back garden)


Or a low-growing groundcover of liriope, Aztec grass, and oxalis under the trees, where the grass gets shaded out? This is “Central Texas Gardener” host Tom Spencer‘s former front garden.

We can do better than the default lawn, people! There are so many great alternatives to the traditional lawn—some that mimic lawn grass, others that show how beautiful a lawn-less yard can be. Why settle for the green (or brown) carpet when you can have so much more?

My big announcement!
A lot of non-gardeners and new gardeners don’t really know how to start the process of removing lawn, nor what to choose in its stead. With that in mind, I’m very excited to tell you that I have a contract with Ten Speed Press to write a book about this very subject! I’ve just started writing The Alternative Lawn (a working title likely to change), to be published by Ten Speed in Spring 2013. I’m likely to be a little less regular about updating Digging for the next several months. I hope you will understand, and I also hope you’ll join me on my new Facebook page called Lawn Alternatives to share your success stories, tips, and pictures. I’d love it if you would “Like” my page. Let’s start a conversation about ditching the traditional lawn and how we’re replacing it. I know you all will inspire me to keep writing and make my deadline!

We have a big group of designers participating in Garden Designers Roundtable this month. For more perspectives on “Lawn Alternatives,” please visit the posts of my fellow Roundtablers and our special guests, five members of the Lawn Reform Coalition: Susan Harris, Billy Goodnick, Saxon Holt, Ginny Stibolt, and Evelyn Hadden. Links to all the posts can be found at Garden Designers Roundtable and below. Happy reading!

Susan Harris : Garden Rant : Takoma Park, MD

Susan Harris : Gardener Susan’s Blog : Takoma Park, MD

Billy Goodnick : Cool Green Gardens : Santa Barbara, CA

Evelyn Hadden : Lawn Reform.Org : Saint Paul, MN

Saxon Holt : Gardening Gone Wild : Novato, CA

Ginny Stibolt : Florida Native Plant Society : Green Cove Springs, FL

Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold: Garden, Life, Home : Atlanta, GA

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

All material © 2006-2011 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

41 Responses

  1. Yay it looks like I get to be the first to add my congrats to your announcement, I can’t wait to read your book! Here’s my first plug for Portland to be on your book tour, this subject will be very popular here! (and that way I can take you to visit more nurseries!)

    That’s an invitation I’d love to take you up on, Loree. I’d LOVE to go back to Portland and see more nurseries with you! —Pam

  2. That’s great news, Pam! Enjoy it! I suppose it’s worth considering what lawn is *for* as well as what to replace it with. Seems that for a lot of people it’s a default rather than a thoughtful choice. Because there are good reasons for lawns in some circumstances.

    I couldn’t agree more, Chookie. A thoughtful examination of where and why one has lawn is the first step. In most instances, it’s a default choice, and other options would offer more biodiversity and beauty, as well as no mowing and edging. But there’s a place for lawn grass that is not chemically doused and overwatered, that is useful and used, and such a feature can be lovely indeed. —Pam

  3. David C. says:

    Congrats on that cool book opportunity, Ms. Digging! Based on enjoying your posts, I cannot think of a better person to convey this topic with taste and inspiration to the reader.

    As to your comment on doing “better than the default lawn”, I would add that we can do *way better* than the default gravel expanse with many actually want gravelscaping and nothing more, and you may be surprised where that is most common)

    Sadly, I see a number of these gravelscaped yards here in Austin. It seems the homeowner has just given up. However, a gravel garden (or perhaps a gravel patio amid a xeric garden) is another matter entirely and can be very beautiful. As with too much lawn, too much gravel speaks of an all-or-nothing approach. —Pam

  4. Melissa says:

    Congrats on your book! That sounds absolutely fantastic! I think it’s about time we had more books about alternative lawns! We’ve cut our lawn by 2/3 in our front yard. I would do the whole thing if the hubby would let me!

    Sounds like you have an obsession with gardening away the lawn, as I do. Maybe if your hubby reads all the Roundtable posts today, he’ll be convinced. There are so many great examples of lawn-less yards in these posts. —Pam

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Good luck Pam. I know your book will be a hit. I can’t wait to read it.

    Thanks, Lisa! —Pam

  6. DAY says:

    I second Chookie Inthebackyard’s comment. Is the lawn there to comply with city/ neighborhood demands? Or is it an extension of the homeowner’s personality? I like to let Nature do most of the work, with just an occasional nudge, here and there.

    Day, you are right that HOA or city codes can stop a would-be lawn remover in his or her tracks. There’s a lot of education to be done to convince overzealous HOAs and other regulating entities that lawn alternatives are not by definition weedy or unkempt. Our diminishing fresh-water supply and stewardship of the environment demand some changes in perception here. —Pam

  7. Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations Pam!!! You KNOW I’ll be one of the first to buy your book!!

    Thanks for the support, Rebecca. I have your book as an example to strive to live up to! —Pam

  8. S. Fox says:

    Congratulations Pam! Your posts are so beautiful and informative I’ve often thought you should write a book. It will be a great reference, especially for central and south Texas.

    Attitudes have changed a lot since 1995 when our realtor didn’t even want to show us this house because of the “zeroscape” and our new neighbors kept hinting that we should plant a lawn. Last year the beautiful lawnless landscape across the street was featured as a major plus when marketing the house for sale.

    I love it, S. Fox! Anecdotes like these are heartwarming to gardeners everywhere, and encouraging to newbies who want to do better by the earth than the default lawn. —Pam

  9. Andrew Keys says:

    CONGRATS, Pam! What a perfect forum to make your announcement in!

    Thanks, Andrew. It worked out pretty well, didn’t it? —Pam

  10. peter schaar says:

    Felicitaciones!!! I too want to buy your book when it comes out. I am already landscaping our new (oldish) house, and the back will have no lawn. The front lawn will sport that unknown Sabal palm as a centerpiece, to be surrounded by Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuisima). A sort of lawn, but very drought tolerant. I’ll send pictures when it is all in and established, Let us all know when the book comes out.

    A Mexican feathergrass “lawn” sounds delightful, Peter. I look forward to seeing pics one day. And yes, I’ll definitely let everyone know when the book is out. It won’t be for a while, but authors are responsible for most of their own publicity these days, so I’ll be out there plugging it. Thanks for your support! —Pam

  11. Jenny says:

    Congratulations Pam. Excited for you. I know it will be well received even where there is abundant rain. After all, who really enjoys all that mowing. I only hope that subdivisions, where they have CC&Rs, will think twice about demanding a green grass from their homeowners. I heard of someone in a local development who was put on notice for having buffalo grass, which had gone dormant through lack of rain. Get busy, gal.

    Stories like that show how much work is still to be done in changing popular perceptions of alternative lawns, Jenny. But then gardens like yours show how more can be done instead. I’m inspired by your lawn-less example! —Pam

  12. Congratulations! It will be great. You’ve already been an inspiration, with the work you’ve done in your own gardens.
    Way to go!

    Aw, thanks so much, Linda! —Pam

  13. Rob Thuener says:

    Congratulations on the book deal. May I be the first to suggest a title (it’s especially good with a bit of a Texas twang added to it): Mow No Mo’

    Ha! You win for funniest comment so far, Rob. Or, since we’re rhyming, how about Lawn Begone? —Pam

  14. So excited about your book! More people need to know how to have beautiful landscapes sans turf. Hope you’ll consider coming to speak to our community garden club after it’s published.

    I’d love to, Kathleen! Thanks for the support. —Pam

  15. Saxon says:

    Hooray for more books on lawn alternatives. Continue on. We will make a change…

    Yes, we will! Saxon, I have several of your inspirational books on my shelf. Your images of lawn-less gardens and meadows would convince anyone. —Pam

  16. Genevieve says:

    Pam, BIG congrats on your new book! If this post is any indication of what’s to come, I can’t wait to see the gorgeous array of photos and advice.

    Thank you, Genevieve! More to come, definitely! —Pam

  17. Abbey says:

    Go Pam! I am president of my homeowners association and after this drought a lot of people need to reinvent their yards, but they don’t know where to start. It so hard for the average people to find resources and ideas for an average sized home in our climate. You can bet I will be plugging your book and Facebook page to my HOA members.

    Yea! Thanks in advance, Abbey! Although the book is for a general, not a regional, audience, it will certainly feature examples from our region, as well as many others. And it will definitely be written for the average homeowner, not necessarily gardeners, but people who want a nice-looking yard without a boring expanse of lawn. —Pam

  18. Sandy says:

    Congrats!! I will be looking for your book. I have been spending the summer trying to figure out what I want to put in our yard in place of grass. I knew when we bought the house that I didn’t want so much lawn… I’d been wishing there was a Texas version of Reimagining the California Lawn, a book I saw mentioned on another blog.

    Sandy, I haven’t read that book, but I agree it sounds like a great resource for that region, and Texas could definitely use more regional plant books like that. While mine is for a national audience, it will, I hope, offer plenty of examples to inspire people in Texas as well as around the country. —Pam

  19. jenn says:

    Wow. That’s fab news.

    Will look forward to your posts all the more, seasoned as they will be with anticipation!

    Thanks, Jenn! —Pam

  20. daricia says:

    what a great topic! congratulations to you, pam. i look forward to reading your book — your blog is always a pleasure.

    Thanks, Daricia. I’m excited about the topic too, which I’m passionate about and which seems particularly timely. —Pam

  21. Congrats on the book to come! How exciting!! After reading your post and some of the others on this topic, I started to take a look at my front yard, and I am envisioning it without lawn now. Next project??? Just when I thought I was “done.” We will see.

    Ah, the garden is never done, is it? I’m eager to rip out more lawn too, but the book may put actual gardening plans on hold. We’ll see once the weather cools. I might be able to slip out for some sod-busting from time to time. —Pam

  22. Congrats on a book we’ve been needing for a long time. I hope you’ll actually get to write several books for the different areas of the country. Also I hope you can include some of the research Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is doing on native grass replacement plants. And for those who need a lawn for their kids, maybe you can include a lawn alternative that Little Leagues are using in Florida. I don’t remember the name of the grass but it should make a greener alternative to non-native, water hog plants.

    I will definitely look into those two alternative lawns, Marilyn. Thanks for the suggestions! —Pam

  23. Mamaholt says:

    Oh Pam, that’s WONDERFUL!!! Congratulations!! Damn, damn, Facebook keep luring me with it’s vixen ways. I, as you know, have NO lawn at all so I could surely talk a blue streak on it. We’ll miss you on Digging, but can’t wait for the book! xoxox

    FB is wiley that way, isn’t it? (But I’m glad you’re still on the Austin blogger FB page.) Now, you are a great example of what fun you can have with a garden—and with young children—without a lawn! —Pam

  24. Pam, Congrats again on the book. It’s a timely topic that is sure to be of interest to loads of readers. I can’t wait to read it myself.

    Thanks so much for your support, Debbie. I loved your alternative lawn post today, by the way. So funny! —Pam

  25. Yes, it’s time to be looking at lawn alternatives! Congratulations on the book!

    Thanks, Linda! Yep, now’s the time for looking, ’cause it’s too hot to do any actual digging. ;-) —Pam

  26. Terrific photos as always Pam — and congratulations! Heading over to like your page right now.

    Susan, this all began with you. Thanks for making this journey possible. As I told Rebecca, I’m looking to your Garden Up! book as an example to try to live up to. —Pam

  27. Congrats! Look forward to seeing what develops!

    Thanks, Jim! —Pam

  28. Laura Munoz says:

    That’s wonderful news BUT I’ll be sad not to see as many posts here from you.

    I hope you will have a few alternatives that are neither all gravel or all desert-scape. Currently, my front lawn is absolutely dead and I’d love to replace it but the choices are slim for what will survive on caliche.

    Can’t wait to read your book!

    Laura, I will definitely propose solutions that are not all gravel or cactus. Thanks for your input on what you’d like to see. —Pam

  29. Hi, Pam, obviously we are kindred spirits with this lawn alternatives thang. So glad the interest in rethinking our landscapes is building; now people just need more info and examples. Keep up the great work! Looking forward to your book.

    Evelyn, I am delighted to be part of the movement you’ve been promoting for so long. Yes, more info and examples for all regions of the country are needed to show people what is possible. —Pam

  30. “…we can all do better than the default lawn…” Right on, sister! I’m thrilled that you are going to be the one to show us the way – congratulations on your book deal!!!!

    Thanks a bunch, Jocelyn! I’m excited to have the opportunity. With so many of us spreading the gospel about lawn alternatives, the message is bound to take hold. —Pam

  31. Jeanette says:

    Dear Pam,
    Congratulations! Your great photos and lovely prose will make the book a treasure for those of us who are tired of wasting gallons and gallons of “treated” water on lawns. There are so many barriers to break through, firstly the green lawn paradigm and the peer pressure to have a tidy yard. You can help us with your design and horticulture knowledge to make this not only palatable but very welcome in our neighborhoods. Don’t forget those of us with slope. Advance order here!
    Jeanette

    Jeanette, thanks for your very kind and supportive comment! I also appreciate your suggestion about slope and will try to address that in some way in my book. —Pam

  32. Denise says:

    Wonderful news and well deserved. I sincerely hope any photographs for the book will be yours!

    Thank you, Denise! I will definitely be providing some of the photos, so thanks for the vote of confidence! —Pam

  33. Congratulations on your book!

    Our 2 1/2 acres of front meadow grass has never been seeded, watered by us, aerated, etc. All we do is keep it below the mandatory 9″ in height. It’s just too big for us to undertake replacing (although I’d love to have a lavender field out there…not allowed, though).

    Freda, a meadow-grass lawn qualifies as an alternative lawn. Yours certainly sounds low-maintenance and organically maintained and allowed to grow long. It kills me to see huge properties kept mown short and fertilized and fussed over. But your vision of a lavender field—now wouldn’t that be something! Maybe one day all the HOAs will see the light…and smell the lavender. :-) —Pam

  34. Cindy says:

    Hey Pam. Cindy, formerly of ARE here. Currently helping my new landlord turn the dirt (not soil, yet) into something other than the traditional grass and hedges around a manufacturing building turned urban lofts. I love the round table members but I can not emulate their ideas here in our heat. I know your book will be a great source book for me here in Fort Worth.

    Hi, Cindy. It sounds like you’re working on a great project. I’m glad to know about your new blog too. Regarding Garden Designers Roundtable, while it’s true that plant selections necessarily vary across different regions, design ideas can be universal. We just have to go for a more xeric aesthetic here in Texas. Luckily we don’t have to worry about the effects of road salt, as some of them do! —Pam

  35. Great post and congratulations on the book deal, Pam! With this drought and heat we’re experiencing, it’s a perfect time for homeowners to reconsider the massive front lawn. We should develop our own Austin Lawn Reform Coalition with local landscapers!

    Thanks, Jenny. We’re already doing it, aren’t we? One garden design at a time. Every client wants a reduction or removal of the lawn these days. —Pam

  36. carolyngail says:

    Great article, Pam and happy to hear about your new book coming out. I’ve been so busy for the past few months re-locating to your former “stomping grounds ” down here in N.C. I have to start fresh and learn about the flora and fauna here. I hope to have my own home and garden one day soon . BTW, so sorry that you’ve had the most horrible drought in history in Texas this year.

    Wow, Carolyn Gail, I’m behind on your news. Congrats on your move to N.C. Whereabouts? —Pam

  37. Caroline says:

    Congratulations, Pam! I can’t wait to read the book. My lawnless front yard could use some direction.

    Thanks for the encouragement, Caroline! —Pam

  38. Love your work and can’t wait to read your book!
    Thanks and Best
    R

    Thanks so much, Robert. I appreciate your support. —Pam

  39. carolyngail says:

    Thanks, Pam. I’m in Chapel Hill/carrsboro. Lovely country down here. My first Irish ancestors landed here in the early 1700′s and now I’m returning to my roots.

    I’m sure you’ll love it. Congrats on the move! —Pam

  40. As I’ve already told you, I’m thrilled as can be for your book contract! I have no doubt it will be a success and I’ll be here, cheering you on!

    Aw, thank you, Kylee! I really appreciate it. —Pam

  41. Pamela Schaefer says:

    Where are the northern gardeners?

    I’m not sure what you mean, Pamela. Among the Roundtable contributors for this topic, everyone is north of me! There are also two Minnesota, two Connecticut, and one Massachusetts contributors. —Pam