DC-Area Readers, My “Sustainable Garden” is Open Sunday, October 5, 11-5




Why? Because I hated mowing, and I wanted plants that offer more for wildlife and for my own enjoyment than turfgrass.  (Btw, beautiful lawns CAN be grown organically – see www.SafeLawns.org.)

Front: In the fall of 2007 I ripped out the lawn in the center oval and attempted to grow food – but there wasn’t enough sun. Now I’m experimenting with assorted groundcovers, and may add a bird bath. (For growing food, I’ll try again next year on my sunny deck – in containers.)

Back: The much larger back lawn met its demise, too – composted with leaves. The design goal in this lawn replacement was to keep the space open and low – visually and functionally similar to a lawn. Plants needed to be able to take a bit of foot traffic – at least for weeding and removing litter – and withstand having the garden hose slung across it in the summer. Also, they needed to require no mowing and no watering – at all – and not cost a lot. I
priced several low creeping perennials but they spread too slowly and
would have cost from $1-2,000 to cover the area within one season.
(Because it’s on a hillside, covering the ground quickly is essential
to prevent erosion.)

The solution: First I enlarged the borders.  Then for the remaining ex-lawn, the dominant plant here is Sedum acre, which arrived here as a weed. It
was already thick around the dry streambed, so I removed several plugs,
planted them in the bare space, and in 3 months the ground is almost
completely covered. Other weeds I’ve allowed to stay are the edible purslane and the native smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum), now blooming in fuchsia.  The only money spent was for a few dollars’ worth of white and red clover seeds. Clover
is drought-tolerant and “fixes” nitrogen – captures it from the air and
converts it to a form usable by plants.  Later this month I’ll be
planting rivers of crocus and chionodoxa (“Glory of the Snow”) across
the space and expect to be thoroughly dazzled next spring.


My garden (certified as a wildlife habitat by the
NWF) is a mixture of sustainable plants, both native to this area and
well-adapted plants from other regions. There are full pages about almost all the plants here at Sustainable-Gardening.com – under “Plants” in the navigation bar. [Shrubs are here and Perennials are here.]

Unfortunately, English ivy covered much of my garden when I bought it in 1985 (and still covers most of our wooded valley – more on that below). So I’ve used the ivy to cover the chain-link fence around the front yard but will rip it out when I can afford a decent fence.  Ivy continues to climb the sides of the house and the tool shed. It’s a total pain to keep in check and I’m researching alternative solutions that isn’t TOO costly. Meanwhile, I make sure there’s no ivy growing up the trees.


Besides minimal watering during periods of
drought, the only maintenance these plants require are weeding (with a
hand tool), a yearly application of Takoma Park’s free leafmold mulch
in the borders, collection of leaves in the fall, and a bit of pruning.


I have a 2-part program for garden pests: 1) Tolerance for a bit of insect damage.  2) Intolerance for plants that are severely damaged by pests or diseases – I just get rid of them. The only exception are the Canadian hemlocks, which I will spray if they ever show signs of wooly adelgid infestation.


The garden is filled mainly with drought-tolerant plants and the little supplemental watering that’s needed is done by hand. (I also recommend drip irrigation.) Container plants on the deck are exclusively succulents, so they never need watering.

Water from the driveway side of the house is
directed under a stone retaining wall to discharge into a dry
streambed, which slows the water down and can handle the occasional
flash flood.  Then in the wooded area the streambed ends and the water is dispersed into the vegetation, which continues to slow it down.

Water from the other side of the house is fed
under boulders and discharged into a 2-foot-deep trench of gravel, then
into the wide, intensively planted mixed border of trees, shrubs,
perennials and groundcovers that continues all the way to the bottom of
the hill.

At the bottom of this wooded valley is a stormwater runoff “creek” that feeds into Sligo Creek. Unfortunately,
there’s no natural solution to the erosion occurring along its banks –
because of the unnaturally large quantity of water carried by it,
caused by increased development and the piping of water to this creek
from other neighborhoods. An expert from the
Anacostia Watershed Society has advised us that vegetation won’t
stabilize the stream banks, that only large boulders or other physical
barriers will stop the erosion – the exact solution we see along Sligo
Creek. But because  this is privately owned land, we’ve been unable to find any source of funding for such a project.


The other obvious ecological problem in this
valley is the plant mix at the ground level, where there’s a Battle of
the Invasives going on. Some of us have removed
patches of ivy, five-leaf akebia, mustard garlic and other nonnatives
in order for native plants to revegetate, but they haven’t been able to
out-compete the thugs. To remove all invasives
and restore the valley to its indigenous vegetation is a big job
requiring not just funding but also expertise in restoration and a lot
of labor for both the removal and the upkeep.


There’s LOTS more on my website www.Sustainable-Gardening.com and my SustainableGardeningblog, including slide shows of my garden at other times of the year. 
For definitions of sustainable gardening – mine and others – click
"Sustainable Gardening 101" under "Gardening" on the navigation bar.  [Here it is.]

Or for information about my garden-coaching, see www.TheGardeningCoach.com.   I specialize in naturalistic, low-maintenance gardening for the budget-conscious.   


  1. Susan, what about Virginia Creeper to replace the English Ivy? I can give you some – we have lots. Interestingly enough, we had English Ivy on one tree, and I removed it as soon as we moved in. Now, it comes up in spots at the back of the property – far away from the original spot. I guess birds must be dropping seeds.

  2. The anti-lawn looks great! Is it sedums…I seem to remember sedums but whatever, it looks good. What is blooming now? Not much here and the leaves are starting to turn. Have fun at the tour.

  3. Layanee, it’s sedum acre, clover, and 2 annuals – smartweed and purslane.
    And Kim, the main purpose ivy plays in my garden is covering the chain-link fence, which the non-evergreen Va creeper just won’t do. And yes, birds DO drop ivy all over the place – because people let it grow up into trees, where it becomes mature (with large, heart-shaped leaves) and sets berries.

  4. Susan,

    Would love to see the progress of the un-lawn and woodland garden in person but I’d need a quick plane ticket! or a really fast car.

    However, I did sent the link to a couple of ladies in the Baltimore area that I correspond with from time to time.

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