Get rid of the grass

Woodland gardens are low-maintenance, eco-friendly and beautiful

You may have noticed the amount of turf in your neighborhood is declining.

Grass requires a lot of maintenance: watering, fertilizing, mowing. Many homeowners are looking for more eco-friendly, low maintenance options. So what’s easier and greener than grass? The woodland garden.

Are homeowners in Southwest part of this trend? Jason Rathe, co-owner of Field Outdoor Spaces, Inc., said, “Absolutely. Almost all of our clients are looking to reduce their amount of turf.”

Southwest is full of shady areas where woodland gardens thrive. These gardens range from small plots to entire yards and usually include native drought-resistant plants and some type of ground covering.

Southwest homeowner and self-taught gardener Kathy Bishop has had a woodland garden for the past 15 years. The current one covers about half of her backyard and dates to a home remodel 7 years ago.

“Getting rid of turf is something I believe in,” she said.

Southwest homeowners Michele McGraw and Tony Dodge have eliminated practically all of their turf. “We just couldn’t grow grass,” McGraw said about their backyard. Their neighbor’s downspout aims towards their property, creating a need for water management as well. McGraw and Dodge turned to Douglas Owens-Pike of EnergyScapes, Inc. in 2002 to transform their yard.

Low-maintenance and loving it

Extensive gardening experience is not necessary to have a successful woodland garden, Rathe said, as long as you’re paying attention to what’s popping up. McGraw and Dodge had no gardening experience until Owens-Pike renovated their yard. After finishing their backyard, the couple decided to get more involved in the front yard. “Now, we’ve become more comfortable with the plants,” Dodge said.

The woodland garden is a “slow” garden that requires little maintenance. Bishop spreads compacted cow manure around each spring to give the soil nutrients. McGraw and Dodge deadhead in the spring and keep their yard well mulched.

“It’s low-maintenance. We don’t have to mow it every week,” McGraw said. “I like to garden rather than do maintenance.” Depending on how green you want your garden, very little watering is needed. However, after the plants have bloomed in the spring, there is more uncovered space. “The biggest maintenance time I think would be late spring, early summer when you get those big flushes of weeds,” Rathe said. Weeds will be more likely to invade these open spaces, especially in the first few years, because many plants take a few years to get rooted and spread out.

While most woodland plants bloom only in the spring, there are native plants that bloom in other seasons. Bishop has mixed plants that bloom from spring until fall throughout her yard. In the sunny sections she has beds of wildflowers that bloom at various times of year. She also has native perennials that bloom year-round.

McGraw and Dodge also created a yard that blooms year-round by carefully selecting the right mix of native plants.

Structure in the wilderness

To help give the garden structure, especially after most plants have stopped blooming, many gardeners use hostas and bulbs.

Rathe relies on inanimate objects like benches and steppingstones to make gardens feel calm and to help arrange plants. Bishop has incorporated a bench, stones and logs into her yard. McGraw and Dodge have locally quarried stone paths with pussy toes creeping up in the cracks.

For ground coverings wild ginger looks great, but does not stand up to high traffic. For a more traffic-resistant ground covering, Rathe suggests Pennsylvania sedge, as it  thickens up with more sun. McGraw and Dodge say their pussy toes ground covering can take a lot of abuse.

While native plants certainly can take off, a woodland garden is unlikely to become overgrown. Rathe says you don’t really need to worry about these plants getting too tall or appearing overgrown and unkempt, because they are mostly slow-growing plants ain shady areas. For McGraw and Dodge, Owens-Pike specifically chose plants that would not grow too tall for the front yard.

Good for the earth and the animals

Owens-Pike also incorporated a small rain garden in their backyard and another in their front yard to catch the runoff from downspouts. On the south side of their house is a moisture barrier that drains the water from their neighbor’s downspouts to the back rain garden. The water collected in the front rain garden waters their sugar maple tree rather than going into the sewer. Because the ground is able to soak up more water, the sugar maple thrives and “It’s happier than if it were in a lawn,” according to Owens-Pike.

Woodland gardens also create homes for wildlife, attracting many birds, butterflies and insects. “I love having natural beauty out my window. I love the birds that it attracts,” Bishop said. “For me the biggest benefit is personal.”

For McGraw and Dodge, the benefits have been the low maintenance and seeing all the new plants. “It’s been way more interesting than having a lawn,” McGraw said, “And it changes throughout the year.”