A Hotbed of Lawnlessness

I went to check on a lawnless front yard, blogged about in the past.  The property's neighborhood has become a hotbed of lawnlessness.   There, stone, plastic, and decomposed granite as lawn substitutes have achieved varying degrees of success.  

First up, a project still in progress.  Lawn removed, the space has become a thick layer of river rock over landscape fabric.  
The hellstrip is a row of Pittosporum tobira biscuits set into decomposed granite (DG).  Or are they Pittosporum cow pats?  Bit of rain wash out there at the bottom of the photo.  How would it look to continue the DG and cow pats up either side of the driveway?  Go Zen, if you are going to go Zen.
 Aiming for that Zen garden effect, based on the planter containing Equisetum hyemale.  Hopefully the bottom of that planter is fully concreted in.  Otherwise the river rock is going to be full of Equisetum in no time.  Did they run out of river rock, or is that corner going to be a different type of stone?  I'll have to go back and see.

 If not Equisetum, the stones may surely sprout Nassella aka Stipa tenuissima.  The next door neighbor has a stretch of them in an unkept attempt at water wisdom.  
At this point best to wait until autumn to repair or replant. 
 One door down some tired Osteospermum planted with a few odd plants:  a Polygala fruticosa that has seen better days, a Dasylirion that could look nice, and the Dreadful Dietes.
Next door to that, a very low juniper is starting to thatch up.  I wonder how tall it will eventually get.  Still looks nice, except for the cut they had to make to keep the sidewalk open. 
Next is one of the first lawnless yards I blogged about.  (Original post here.) Time has not improved it, but also not degraded it all that much.  It's not weedy, at least.  The Dymondia looks to have died, and a few more odd plants have been stuck in.  But, it's not weedy.  That's something, right?  If you are just driving by and not looking closely, it appears reasonably well cared for. 
 The hellstrip junipers are well on their way to blocking anyone parked from opening their curbside doors. 
 That black plastic edging, pushing out of the soil is dreadful, and why do they need it in the first place?  The lawn is gone.  And what's with the belt of different-colored mulch? 
This next attempt at lawnlessness was the one I wanted to check on--a large sloped expanse of DG.  See the original post here.  I wanted to see how much of the DG had been washed away by our recent July miracle rain.  There are more tufts of Nasella/Stipa than there were last visit.  The Euphorbia turicallii has grown rapidly.  I wonder if they know it's going to turn into a 30' tree. 
 Yes indeed the DG had been washed onto the sidewalk.  Someone had swept it all back into place.  That may get old if we get an El Niño winter. 
 There's going to be a lot more Nasella aka Stipa eventually, but probably not enough to hold the DG in place during heavy rain.
 The Parkinsonia has grown. 

The next property was also an early blog post on lawnlessness.  It was newly installed four years ago.  What has happened after four years?  The things that happened were about what I thought would happen:  the gorgeous tall yellow Anigozanthos would severely decline, although they were blooming splendidly as last as last spring.  Time to pull.

The hellstrip has been redone.  Originally a grid of blue fescue.  A row of Agave attenuata clumps should work for quite a few years.  Eventually opening the curbside door of a parked car will be an issue. 

 The Zoysia looked fairly good last year--it had filled in--but water restrictions show it isn't as drought tolerant as some claim.
 Considerable replacement here.   The blue fescue became blue Senecio mandraliscae.  The Senecio will be beautiful this winter, overgrown next summer, and then the brown goo phenomenon will commence.   
A large tree--Schinus terebinthifolius I think, no loss there--was removed from the other side of the driveway, and the grid of Fescue clumps are gone as well.  Some potted plants near the wall, apparently intended replacements for something, are near dead.  The neighbor planted a wall of Cypress along the property line.  Would have been good to take the stakes off...
 The hellstrip Agaves obviously offsets of these--good idea.  The Agaves are growing taller than the 'Little John' Callistemon--doesn't look right.  

This yard prompts one to ponder the idea of remaining true to the original design.  Why not replace short-lived plants with same, when the old ones are finished?  I can see both sides of the argument--why not look for a substitute that will be more successful? 
Please get rid of those Anigozanthos and find something better--or replace them with fresh specimens...please?   The Phormiums can go too now the Asparagus ferns have gotten size.  
 I thought this neighborhood investigation was complete, but lo!  The sparkle of artificial turf beckoned.
 I wonder if they stopped watering the tree.  Quite a wrap job around the trunk and surface roots.
 The tree roots (Cinnamomum camphora, a bad choice for a parkway tree) are pushing the sidewalk upwards.  I imagine before the artificial stuff went on, they were watering like crazy trying to keep the lawn green.  The tree of course got 99% of the water. 
Queen palms around the corner.  They'll regret those.  Each palm got its own pet rock or two. 
 The sign explains the artificial turf somewhat.  I'm not at all anti-artificial-turf, but it has drawbacks, like anything else.
 More plastic around the corner.  Small area, shady, fairly reasonable solution. 
  Two 'Natchez' Lagerstroemia on either side of the entranceway from the street.  Most of the front is a half-circle drive way
 Hodgepodge hellstrip. 
Ran out of budget here.

 Across the street from that, the most successful front garden of the tour, though not completely so. 
 A well designed yard.  The photos don't quite communicate that, but overall it looked great--lush but not out of control, agreed with the style of the home.  A top grade for design. 

 Yes, that's artificial lawn again.  Lots of tree shade, and this is the north side of the house, too.  With all the shade, the plastic sparkle was absent.  The latest/greatest artificial turfs look more natural, but they cost several times more than more astro-turfish types. 

Graceful curving design to everything.  Properly wide paths.  Lots of Dreadful Dietes, though.  They must have run out of budget when they got to plants.  Spent a lot on the artificial turf and specimen trees. 
Brighter/lighter color on the front door, so the entrance doesn't look so cave-like, wouldn't hurt. 
 Quite tall plants for a parkway, but three large spaces to make opening car doors possible.

 The real fail was proper plant maintenance.  Bunch grasses should be cut almost to the ground so the entire bunch can grow back afresh.  This is the standard "shaving brush" error, which, well....the tips don't grow back, guys. 
 The Cistus hasn't been sheared into a globe.  Yet. 
 The other parkway on this corner lot got artificial turf. 
 Same sidewalk, but the other side.  Looks good.  The other fail was some of the plant selections.  That might have been a budget issue.  These Melaleucas get big and coarse in time, and they are surface-rooted.  Perhaps the walls will keep them in check, perhaps they won't. 
 There were some good smaller trees, mostly 'Natchez' Lagerstroemia.
 The Westringia trimmed into buns--they look rather good that way.  The Lavenders were untrimmed and need to be replaced, making the redo two or three years old.  
 After this tour, I came away ever more convinced that a great design is easily damaged by poor maintenance, and that a marginal design is made better by great maintenance.  When it comes to a garden, care, love and skill show.  Where the no lawn vs. lawn really shows is in the water bill.  The learning curve on lawnlessness is there, and it will take a while for homeowners and gardeners to learn how to make a lawnless front garden look great.  In this particular neighborhood, some are getting close.


  1. You are so funny!

    This is a fabulous post. It has history and a wide selection of "lawnlessness" (clever term) or what not to do, but with comments about the good stuff also. Must have taken you along time to write. Last paragraph says it all. Well done!

  2. These massive front yard re-dos are expensive - when I see one like that you showed at the top of your post, I harbor the hope that the homeowner is simply pacing the expense with a plan to replace the rock with live things later on. I dislike the large expanses of rock gravel and the artificial turf. I briefly toyed with the idea of a patch of artificial turf myself but, even though it has improved, I still don't like its appearance close-up, or the heat it generates. I'm already frustrated by the expanse of wood chip mulch I've got under our Magnolia tree and have enlisted my husband to build me a combination bench-plant shelf to break it up and add some color. As you say, it's a learning experience.

    1. The even appearance of turf adds a visually quiet space or negative space for the eyes and brain. Wood chip mulch unfortunately doesn't do that. The bench-shelf is a great idea for your tree, looking forward to seeing what you and Mr. P. create.

      The true Zen gardens of Japan with their expanses of raked gravel does does create that negative space--the trick being how to achieve that in a local style amid domestic architecture, right?

      Artificial turf has its (limited) applications. As a dog area, it works great for me (and the dogs). And in shade for a child-centric property, where grass doesn't grow and reflected heat is not an issue. It's not right for every place, and seems somewhat unnecessary for the examples in the post. As more is learned, better use will surely follow.

  3. Interesting mix of developments there! A well maintained garden definitely wins over one that was well designed at first but not that maintained later...

    1. The mow-blow guys need to learn more about non-grass plants. Lawns are on the way out here.

  4. Your front yard tours are going to get bigger ever year, if the water situation doesn't change.

  5. Fun tour! Very interesting to see the different ways (successful and not so) that homeowners are responding to the drought. I'd never seen artificial turf in a residential setting before but think that it might work well in some situations. If DG, with which I have no experience, slides down slopes in the rain, why would it be used on slopes?

    1. DG is used on slopes by people who don't know what rain does to DG. Sigh.

  6. Quite alot in this post...alot of the mistakes made in El Paso, Albuquerque, and so on. You point them out well. As someone in the design end of this business, I wonder how many of the people who ignored mature sizes, made poor plant choices, etc. would actually listen to good advice, or follow good examples, which are certainly many in your area. (within 25 miles / 2 hours that is)

    Maybe to get lawn removal rebates, people should have to attend a full class and tour on xeriscape at the Huntington gardens, etc.

    Thanks for the tour...good stuff, and I hope you do more tours like this. I should, too. But first, I need to do some more of my own designs...they will *not* have faux turf. Ugh.

    1. Never say never to faux...pre-school play area completely shaded by a large tree, for example? It's the tube in the artist's paint box that may only get used once or twice, but gets the job done.

      The lawn removal rebates are exhausted again, so the company that was dumping a pile of gravel and sticking in 10 lavenders to suck up the millions is shutting down. Leaving the professional landscapers to do what they can without any rebates. Surprise, surprise...

    2. Your scenario is a good exception with budget and that tree getting irrigation, oxygen elsewhere...good point. The $ ran out...ha!

  7. Not everything works, but some does as you pointed out. At least people are trying, right? Hope you keep this up, as I'm curious to see how people cope with the drought...

    1. They are trying! Early adopters, as in tech, you might say. Leading the way. It is really interesting to see what people are coming up with, instead of just letting the lawn go brown.

  8. This is kind of painful to see. Lawn was perfect for those who didn't want to think about the landscape surrounding their house, who wanted it neat, tidy, and maintained by somebody else. Over a half century of this easy solution upturned almost overnight. It would be great if landscape design becomes a hot topic, like what counter to put in the kitchen!

    1. Easier just to cram people into apartment blocks in mega-cities. No need for gardens there. :(

  9. Fascinating post. I need to re-read it to absorb all the valuable info.

    I agree 100% with your conclusion. Maintenance matters! A house down the street from ours had an expensive contemporary front yard makeover a few years ago, complete with metal panels and grasses planted in geometric patterns. No maintenance was ever done, now it's a weedy mess with attractive metal panels.

    Glad you dislike dietes as much as I do. I just don't understand why people plant it.

    I continue to love and covet Anigozanthos and it continues to disappoint me. I wonder what the secret is? Or maybe I should resign myself and treat it as an expensive annual?

    1. The Dietes looks so good blooming in a 1 gallon pot with no dead leaves, only fresh green foliage. At home in the ground it turns into a mix of dead grey leaves and new green leaves and dead flower stems. Dreadful. That's the long answer. The short answer: it's cheap.

  10. I love river rock, but there can definitely be too much of a good thing. We had dinner with friends in their new house, and I had a tough time tamping down my reaction to the astroturf they had installed. They have a new grandchild, so having read this excellent post, I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense. It must be challenging for landscape designers to determine the level of commitment clients have to maintenance. It should definitely influence the choices they make. I suppose we will all be struggling with balancing aesthetics and responsible water use as time goes on.

    1. Another billion people on this planet in a decade. Another billion in the decade after that, and the one after that, too. Do people think there will not be shortages of resources?

  11. In our neighborhood, a couple of my favorite small houses/gardens were sold and the new owners didn't keep up with the garden maintenance. It was kind of a surprise to me to see just how much my appreciation of each garden was rooted in the "maintenance factor."

    1. The power of maintenance is a surprise--there is a house in our neighborhood with grass and a privet hedge and nothing else. However it is so flawlessly maintained, I find I love it, the simplicity of it.

  12. This was a really interesting post, thanks! "Each palm got their own pet rock or two", love it.


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