Bay Journal

Keep off the grass – let nature take the lead in your landscape

  • By Tom Horton on July 06, 2015
Tom Horton sits on his front porch, gazing out where his lawn used to be.  (Dave Harp)

My quibble with Barbara Ellis’ new book, “Chesapeake Gardening & Landscaping,” is that she didn’t write it six years ago when I began transforming my yard, and the way I looked at yards.

Her book, profusely illustrated by Neil Soderstrom’s photos, would have saved me much labor and trial and error, from learning the differences between part sun, part shade, dappled shade and full shade — to mulching techniques that are far less back-breaking than stripping a quarter acre of crabgrass with my dull shovel before planting.

Her guides to native and “nearly native” species include virtually all of the hundred or so species of flower and vine, shrub and tree crammed into my small urban yard after considerable research.

If you’ve been considering whether to lose some lawn to green your surroundings in the fuller, ecological, Bay-friendly sense of the word, this book is close as you’ll get to one-stop shopping. And, it is well-written, as Ellis is a horticulture and gardening writer of long experience.

My own yard was a full on, give the mower away, don’t paint the house because soon they won’t see it, leap into leafiness. As a nature-loving journalist, I extend the rights of free speech and diverse expression to the soil, which has too long been forced to drone mindlessly in the key of grass.

Ellis understands not everyone will want to take a pickaxe to their driveway as I did, to free it to grow milkweed and wild persimmons, pomegranates and columbines and pines; nor saw out chunks of concrete patio to make space for a couple more native fringe trees.

Chesapeake Gardening’s nearly 300 pages are written for all levels of interest, from those who want to just get their toes green, usurping a few feet of turf for some colorful coneflowers, to my own wild abandonment of all that’s groomed.

It’s not just a gardening book with “Chesapeake” slapped on the cover. She’s got sections on Maryland’s Critical Area Act, which mandates more ecological sensitivity in the landscape near tidal waters; and information on “living” or “soft” shorelines — constructing wetlands as alternatives to stone along eroding waterfronts.

While her book’s not preachy, Ellis is clear that she’s encouraging a fundamental shift in perceiving beauty and attraction amid one’s home landscape.

Insects chewing on leaves means food for birds rather than reaching for the sprayer. Multiple layers of dense and varied plantings mean more habitat, not disorder or being untended.

As for being untended, she dares to advocate “sometimes doing nothing,” a radical concept in our grow-or-die culture. “Nothing” in yard/world translates to leaving dead wood and snags to rot and recycle, feeding woodpeckers and fungi and the soil. It also means resurrecting God’s own composting system — letting the leaves lie where they fall and letting hedgerows go a little wild.

The permission Ellis gives to go a little wild endears her book to me. So many people think every yard planting must leave space for the next 50 years of growth, lest plants might actually touch one another.

“You can’t plant an oak in your yard, it’s too small; that tree’s too close to your house; that bush is too big for that spot.” It all makes me wonder whether people have ever seen an actual forest.

There are also, as Ellis points out, a lot of naturally occurring dwarf varieties of big plants like magnolias and hollies, tulip poplars and others.

There are limits. Don’t plant sycamores over your septic tank. But there’s enjoyment seeing plants sort things out themselves, in accepting a “lawn-gone” yard as more of a journey, an evolution, than a final product.

And as a writer I’m comfortable with editing. In the yard, editing’s done with saws and trimmers and loppers. If something’s out of hand, it’s short work to rein it in, or dig it up and move it, maybe to a fledgling eco-yard nearby.

There’s a sequel to Ellis’ book, which I’d guess the author’s aware of; and that’s the personal growth that comes from cultivating a fuller, more Bay-centric sense of the place where you live.

Over the years, my own place has become, in no particular order: a greener-by-the-day protest against mindless tree cutting by neighbors; a memorial, with tags on trees marking the passing of dear ones; a defiance of the inevitable tendency of the universe to run down as Earth’s finite stores of energy degrade each time work is done. (So say the Laws of Thermodynamics.) Allowing the yard to bring forth complex ecosystems, building structure from decay, helps to offset the end.

“We are what we garden,” writes Eleanor Altman of Adkins Arboretum (a partner in the book) in the foreward.

Think about that. Do you want your obituary to start: “her life was like a lawn...”

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About Tom Horton

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Read more articles by Tom Horton

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