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Monday, July 4, 2016

Front yards that time forgot

I live in a suburb with a firm code for front yard landscaping. The norm is evergreen foundation plantings—yews, hemlocks, rhododendrons, azaleas—with a well-tended lawn flowing toward the street, and possibly a privet hedge along the sidewalk.

    From the point of view of sustainable gardening, this traditional approach poses a lot of problems. Most of those evergreen shrubs are species imported from Asia that won’t provide native insects with food they need. 

    The lawn is a monocultural desert, especially if it’s fertilized and treated with pesticides and broadleaf herbicides to keep it green and weed-free. Over-fertilizing is all too easy, leading to accumulation of excess nitrates and phosphates in ponds and rivers via stormwater runoff. Pesticides and herbicides reduce biological diversity and interfere with the full functioning of the food web—not to mention the risk many of these chemicals pose to human health.

    Mowing the lawn is another environmental “don’t,”  because gas-powered lawnmowers are heavy polluters and inefficient users of fossil fuels.

    Then there’s the privet hedge. Privet (Ligustrum species) is a nonnative genus of shrubs introduced to North America as early as the sixteenth century. It’s popular because it takes well to shearing, and its leaves contain a chemical that inhibits insects’ digestion. 

A privet hedge marks the boundary of this property

Birds eat the black fruit and distribute the seeds, allowing privet to escape into the wild, crowding out native plants in fields and forest gaps.

    People are still installing this classic formula of lawn and nonnative shrubs, but there’s a trend toward a more sustainable approach. One of my neighbors, Doris Lewis, is a front yard revolutionary. There’s no lawn in front of her house at all. When the house was built, she designed a beautiful combination of trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcovers that make a lovely vista for passersby. It’s much lower maintenance than a grass lawn and doesn’t require mowing, chemical fertilizer, or pesticides. 

Doris incorporated roses and small trees in her front yard design

    Short of Doris’ radical rethink, there’s an incremental, sustainable-enough approach to the front yard that I’ve tried to embrace. It involves minimizing lawn, avoiding use of landscape chemicals, and planting native substitutes for problematic nonnatives such as privet. At present I have no front lawn, and I’m starting to integrate some native plants to liven up the boring shrubs in front of the house. 

An oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is a new addition to the front yard

I notice that some neighbors are trimming away lawn to plant insect-friendly perennials and shrubs too.

    If your front yard is sunny, there’s another way to go. A friend who was part of the local food movement told me that when she saw a front lawn, she thought of it as wasted space for growing vegetables. I’m not aware of front yard vegetable gardens in my neighborhood, but I know they’re thriving in other areas. 

Raised beds in front of the Becker School in Austin, Texas

I recently heard a determined urban gardener describe successfully growing cucumbers right next to her parking spot at the front of her house, inspired by what she considered the outrageous price of organic cukes at Whole Foods. That's the wave of the future.


  1. Fortunately no rules spoken or unspoken in Greenfield, MA, as far as I can see. There are some wild gardens in front yards! We are trying to be as sustainable as possible in our new garden - that was nothing (pretty much) more than grass. A few astilbes. This year my husband recommend that I buy a lot of the biggest plants I can find - and I've been doing pretty well - but we are not done yet. I look forward to meeting you in Minneapolis.

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