How to Teach a Town to Garden – Ideas, Please!

Fabulous plant-filled border, small lawn.

The Mission

To turn my mostly-lawn community of 1,600 townhouses, some with incredibly large yards, into a place with gardens that benefit the environment and humans, too.   We do have large trees and lots of geometrically shaped hedges, but that’s about it, except for the houses on the perimeter that face the woods.  (Sadly, there’s a whole lotta chainlink fencing.)  What’s sorely lacking are small trees, shrubs, and perennials.  Also, privacy, since most of the hedges are 4 feet tall, and there are sidewalks running across the back yards of most of our homes.

Here are the ideas I have so far, and I welcome more.

Articles in the Local Paper

I’ve been promised plenty of space in our weekly (still print) newspaper, and will start with an article arguing that to achieve a variety of environmental and human goals, removing lawn and planting small trees, shrubs and perennials is the simple answer.  Sure, rain barrels help, but deep-rooted plants retain stormwater while looking pretty and providing for wildlife.  Future articles will promote upcoming events, report on those events, and teach basic maintenance of shrubs, trees and perennials.

The “Less Lawn” Garden Tour

Most garden tours feature the prettiest and often the most expensive gardens available to the tour-organizers, but the tour I’ve volunteered to organize will avoid the sticky wicket of choosing the prettiest and simply choose the most instructive – and inspiring, too – the ones with less lawn and more plants (okay, turfgrasses are technically plants but barely).  To increase the educational impact, I’ll be posting photos and plant lists of each garden on the tour to the web.

Does anyone know of a Less Lawn Tour that’s ever taken place?  I’ve asked some of the top experts in lawn reduction and they tell me they know of no such tour, ever.   So it’s high time to have one, and promote it as a model for duplication elsewhere.  Lawn reduction is officially a trend now, ya know.

Demonstration Garden(s)

“Before” photo of a neighbor’s yard.

To the surprise of exactly no one who knows me, I’ve adopted several of my neighbors’ yards already in my first year living here, and the one shown here is the perfect spot for showing how to turn a yard into a garden – by simply creating some borders and filling them up with plants, in this case give-aways that cost the homeowner nothing.  I used the popular newspaper+mulch method of lawn removal and am documenting every step in the process with photos and plant lists.  Here’s a “before” shots of the front yard, all turf and hedge, which now sports a new border in front of the hedge.

Talks and Demonstrations

Speakers are primed with their PowerPoints on the subject of rain gardens and alternatives to lawn (that one being my topic), and there will be at least one demonstration of pruning techniques, in someone’s actual garden.  The primary shrubs in town are, for hedges, privet and euonymus, and for foundation plants, azalea, so we’ll demonstrate much-needed pruning on them.

Web Resources

The community blog I edit and write for will have a special section (yet to be named) for photos and plant lists of gardens on the Less Lawn Tour, plus lots of other stuff.  Ideas include videos of the pruning demonstrations and profiles of plants that do really well here.

Master Gardener Help

Our county’s Master Gardeners have a booth at the local Farmers Market once a month, so I’m hoping they’ll be willing to carry the Less Lawn message, share plant lists, and more.  A pow-wow with the coordinator of the Farmers Market event is coming up soon.

Partners in Garden-Teaching

Speaking of pow-wow’s with possible partners, the more the better.  I’ve joined two co-op committees and am meeting with a couple more.  Better to have known people and groups sponsor the activities, rather than this newcomer.

Free Mulch Deliveries

One enthusiastic partner in garden-teaching is on the staff of the co-op and has volunteered to arrange for timely, free deliveries of mulch to help turn yards into gardens.

Name that Campaign!

We’re looking for words that convey nature-friendly, yet people-friendly, too, and easy.  So we won’t be using words like “sustainability” or “stormwater” but maybe “Yards to Gardens” or “Less Lawn, More Life” (thanks to Evelyn Hadden).  Ideas that use the town’s name, Greenbelt, include “Greenbelt Gardens” and “Greener Greenbelt.”  That last one is tricky because Greenbelt was planned as part of the “garden city” movement of the early 20th Century and being “green” is part of its self-image.  Trouble is, its “greenness” comes from its walkability, lake and surrounding woods, not from plants in people’s yards.


  1. You ARE doing it. Congrats & thank you.

    Sweet to see the difference in approach. In the South it’s normally stealth. Deeds are done before naysayers are aware.

    Of course this is only a Texan’s view of having lived in Georgia for decades.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. Bountiful Greenbelt.

    If something else for a name pops in my head I’ll post it.

    You have a lot covered already. What is missing is teaching the children as a way to involve the parents. Is there an elementary school that can use a school garden. It could be vegetables, butterfly, a rain garden, any garden can be a teaching tool.

    What about adopting a local public building for installing a garden; library, post office, fire station or even the town house association commons/office building.

  3. I would be very interested in the plan that you create because I am interested in starting something similar in our little neighborhood in NoVa. Cheers!

  4. I’m sure you’ve already heard of Incredible Edible Todmorden in England, which took a guerrilla approach to turning their public spaces into food production and revitalized the community. There might be some ideas here for you, including using the competitiveness of police and firefighters to jumpstart the planting of public spaces.

    It’s a great mission. Good luck!

  5. Trouble is, its “greenness” comes from its walkability, lake and surrounding woods, not from plants in people’s yards.

    This is an unfortunate perspective. If you are walking through a flat lawn-filled neighborhood vs a lush, diverse ecosystem filled with birds, butterflies and bees I feel like that could be an argument for “greenness”. Greenness as healthy habitat and an interesting place to walk around. My weeds in front are just as green and boring, but when my shrubs, perennials and groundcovers fill in and mature they will be visually stimulating and a positive contribution to the local environment. I think you need to rebrand this greenness of which you speak.

    But I love everything that you are doing here and wish it was happening near me as well.

  6. I can’t add anything to your plan–it sounds wonderful!

    I have a large area of lawn that I’d like to remove, but can’t settle on a plan. I think I need to have someone draw something out before I spend the time and money. I know what I like when I see it, but starting from scratch often intimidates people–like me and I already love gardening!

  7. Kudos to you for spearheading a project like this. This takes guts and initiative and you have both.

    Here in Eastern North Dakota the standard landscaping is a large expanse of lawn with a few hostas/daylillies and misc shrubs against the house. Since I’ve already been branded in the neighborhood as “weird”, I simply try to quietly lead the revolution by example. I try to find other like minded folks and learn from them, and make sure to gently tell the non-believers how much less time and money I spend on lawn maintenance in the summer now that I have 50% less lawn than I did before.

    Going forward I’ll just slowly keep converting lawn space into productive garden or perennial areas, a few square yards each year. If you do it slowly enough, people won’t notice as easily.

  8. There are people who are never going to get involved with their yard/garden. They are going to hire maintenance. Of the mow and blow and meat balling kind. Unless you have landscape maintenance co.s that are trained to take of the type of landscaping you are promoting at the same price as mowing blowing, these folks are not going to buy in. So what about having classes at the vocational school/community college that would teach these classes or change their curriculum for the professionals?

  9. I know Pam Penick of the blog “Digging” recently release her book on “Lawn Gone”. She has been campaigning this idea in her area for a while.

    Here in my village, some of us would like to se more gardening, planting of appropriate trees, and bringing gardening into our community for beautification, and as a way to improve our natural resources, including our municipal boardwalk project which has recently gained the volunteer effort of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited, and Dr. Darrel App’s Village of Roses rose project and perennial classes

    It is difficult getting traction in our small village as we have a more elderly population, low incomes, and busy homeowners (time, money, knowledge, and physical ability) being part of the negative dragon project.

    When I first moved back to this area, I attempted to spark interest, and while there have been more gardens and green spaces added to our village, we have also lost a lot of mature trees in storms.

    This summer, the county Master Gardeners are hosting the county garden walk and including a couple gardens in our community. Perhaps this will be the spark that finally sparks the accumulated “tinder” accumulated so far.

  10. I love the ideas you have already. In addition (and maybe this is something for a little further down the line), I wonder if you could show people how to propagate plants that they already own as a lower cost way to fill their gardens with beauty. Even better would be if you could organize volunteers who have mature gardens to donate cuttings, unwanted self-sown seedlings or seeds to those who are new to gardening. Just getting started when your yard is completely bare can be so pricey and learning to grow a plant from a cutting, seed or seedling makes you feel extra connected to those little beings.

  11. Great idea, Susan! Here in Austin — and central, south, and west Texas in general — people are very on board with the concept of reducing thirsty lawns because of the ongoing drought. You’ll need a different approach if water is more plentiful (i.e., no enforced watering restrictions that prod people into changing their landscaping). Getting off lawn chemicals is one way — most of us are “greener” about that these days, but may not know what the alternatives are. Making it as easy and inexpensive as possible is key also. Lawn retains its hold because it’s easy. Sheet mulching is a low-effort way to remove lawn, and planting low-growing shrubs and groundcovers vs. perennials makes for lower maintenance. Also, remind people it doesn’t have to be done all at once, and even a small reduction in lawn makes a difference.

  12. Putting the green in Greenbelt!

    Going off other comments–

    What about sample design plans that people can download off the blog? Or a few times a year where homeowners can come to one place and get help design? They bring an aerial photo of their parcel, a list of their wants and needs, and a designer helps them get a plan started. For free, of course, or a very small fee.

    I like Christopher’s idea of you adopting a civic landmark and using that as a showcase. Adopting a school might be a great idea–parents will see it every day and you can use it to get kids on board. You could even have volunteers teach kids about making cuttings or air layering.

    I don’t think this site is live yet, but it will be a great place for homeowners and designers and contractors to post ads for free plants and landscape supplies.

  13. Here’s what we did in London Ontario Canada… we held a boulevard garden contest. We enlisted the help of our neighbourhood association and rounded up some nice donations for prizes. We set guidelines so the gardens wouldn’t infringe on city bylaws. A group of three qualified judges was brought on board and we set a “judging date” so all the gardens would be observed on the same day. We promoted the heck out of the event– mailbox flyer drops, media release, posters on billboards. We took photos of the gardens as they appeared and set up a web site to display them. The prizes were given out at the fall fair.
    The project was a success and now, ten years later, most of the boulevards are still being maintained as gardens. Many of the gardeners went on to garden their front lawns and to join the neighbourhood garden club.
    Oh, if your neighbourhood doesn’t have a garden club, start one. Your first event should be a plant swap– make sure everyone goes home with something nice to plant!

  14. All these are great ideas. I would like to second the suggestions of getting children involved as a means of drawing parents or grandparents in, and coordinating with your local Master Gardener program or local garden clubs to promote plant giveaways at your demonstrations and workshops. I work in a community garden from time to time, and every time I try to recruit people to participate, they express to me that they are afraid of killing the plants or messing them up beyond repair. Overcoming their fear is the hardest part. If they can get their hands on a free plant or two, they haven’t risked anything, which can make the idea seem safer. I also like Pam’s idea of telling them to start small. Adding a few more daylilies to the edge of the lawn is an easy step to take…then just add a few more. For those folks with shade, hellebores are wonderful plants for the novice. They’re evergreen in many areas of the country, they reseed themselves healthily but not recklessly, and require little maintenance.

    Maybe the Master Gardeners or local garden clubs would be willing to help do some limited one-on-one mentoring, or teach small on-site neighborhood workshops? If people see a skilled gardener do something in their neighbor’s garden, it’s easier for them to picture the same activity in their own.

    Some houses of worship are also amenable to the idea; the community garden in which I work is sponsored by a church. The church promotes the garden as a means of inter-generational interaction; it also raises awareness of stewardship of the environment (it’s an organic garden), and gratitude for plenty and sensitivity to want. The church sells the produce from the garden to its congregation on Sundays in a kind of limited farmer’s market, and all proceeds go to the local food bank.

    I look forward to hearing how it goes! Good luck.

  15. The idea Chris mentioned about kids is good — and using stats to show that nature HEALS people, makes kids smarter, is healthy for them like eating well and exercising, but is more fun. I am in suburban lawn hell, and am anxious / terrified to tear up my fescue for buffalo grass (which grows and acts and looks much different than fescue). I’m on the board of Wachiska Audubon, a regional prairie conservation group, and we have a backyard habitat tour that, in theory, is educational — its hows people how to attract wildlife with native plants and by default have less lawn. It’s not as polemic as it sounds or should be, though, but something sorta like what you suggest does go on here in Lincoln, Nebraska. your ideas are WONDERFUL!

  16. I think a lot of people put in lawns because any dimbulb can mow (or hire someone to mow). It doesn’t take any kind of thought or knowledge. Shrubs and small trees aren’t really any more work, but they require a little more knowledge about what to do when, even when that knowledge consists of “leave it alone”. I think a lot more people would do more in their yards if they had some coaching. They’re intimidated. Maybe some of those master gardeners could help people choose appropriate trees and shrubs, and give simple advice on placement and care. The key is to keep it uncomplicated. Gardening needn’t be esoteric and difficult. The guys who need something to do with power tools can have hedges and topiary.

  17. I say great start! I know in my neighborhood, we having a thriving Monkey see, Monkey do culture. Bring in great plants, people will want their own. Also encouraging plant exchanges for those tight on budgets can help. They need not know their improving anything other than their own enjoyment.

  18. You may want to check out the the Mar Vista Garden Tour, which will hold its 5th Earth Day-Linked event on 4/20/2013. I have no personal connection to the event but I did attend last year. The focus isn’t specifically on lawn-less gardens but many of the gardeners that participate have limited or no-lawn gardens, as befits our arid Southern California environment. You can get more information at the organizers’ website: . More than 80 homeowners are expected to participate this year.

  19. Such a great idea, but I ditto the sentiments regarding maintenance. How many gardens get installed, that in 3 years are a pile of weeds. It requires trained people committed to care for it, paid or volunteer. Before you put a spade to the ground, have a monthly maintenance plan first, with committed people to care for it first. Are there local gardeners or public garden institutions willing to allow you to shadow them and offer advice – spend a year doing this, it will pay off. Have money for plants that have to be replaced due to unforseen drought, or major storms, and animals (woodchucks, rabbits, etc). The preplanning is critical, not exciting, but will pay off in the long run – necessary if
    you want it to be a success.

    • Whoa whoa whoa. Monthly maintenance? Seriously? I invite you to come to my 1500′ foot garden which NEVER looks like a mess of weeds, a garden I only “work” in one day a year–and that’s cutting it down in March. Native perennials for Nebraska. Gardening IS easy, the only intimidating thing is knowledge, which is why we have garden coaches like moi and some master gardeners who know something besides how to grow annuals in pots on city streets.

  20. How about Green, Easy, Lovely (GEL, pronouced as in gelatin). I think one of the big things you have to overcome is the perception that gardening will take a lot of work – and a lot of expertise. It can, of course, but if all they do is plant a bunch of shrubs and small trees it can make a tremendous difference without requiring a lot of work. Those who want to do more, can – and may be inspired to once they see the results of the easy stuff.

    Sounds like you are off to a great start!

  21. Susan, I’d urge you to also get in touch with any Federated Garden Clubs in your area. Many people have the mistaken idea that all we do is sit around at flower shows sipping tea, but that’s not the case! We have many green initiatives going on in our clubs that come not only from the national organization, but that individual clubs come up with on their own as well. Many garden clubs also have youth clubs, so you’re getting the next generation involved as well. Other than that omission (sorry, but I’m very active in the organization), it sounds like a great idea!

  22. ** Greenbelt Alive! **

    Perhaps for the reluctant neighbor gardener you can suggest container gardening. They may be afraid of commitment to the perceived work involved, or be afraid that they would produce a mess, or kill all of their plants. But just a few large pots with plants requires little work once planted, and a neighborhood garden club meeting with short introductory demos and lectures and a couple of free plants might get them started. And three or four houses with visual plant interest showing will help folks see their neighborhood as a gardening neighborhood, and help kick start a change in perception.

    My in-laws live near Seattle, and it seems that all of their neighbors have, if not gardens, at least lots landscaped with interesting ground covers, perennials, and small trees. It’s hilly, and curvy, and there’s a plant surprise round every corner. They can’t all be gardeners, but anyone who moves in there isn’t expecting the lawn hell we see in so many “developments”, either. They seem mostly low maintenance.

  23. Many Good ideas above in addition to your plan. You are seeking to accomplish a paradigm shift in this neighborhood. Paradigm shifts usually occur unannounced… attitudes and new ways thinking are hard to encourage by slapping people in the face ( No one should be considered a “dimbulb”…. even if you don’t come outright with such nominals, you need to be very careful the looking down your nose attitude doesn’t shine thru.) If someone doesn’t want to get with the program, its alright. Paradigm shifts are like that, while they are relatively swift, there are always a few late comers…. and that is alright. Take people under your wing like the neighbors you have adopted… lead by example, not by preaching. It’ll spread.

  24. You’ve framed a fabulous concept — one which hopefully catches on. In my neck of the woods, county and municipal development regulations REQUIRE sodded front lawns and subdivision covenants require the same and prohibit “vegetable gardens” in the front yard. Anybody see a problem here?

  25. Hi, Susan. Less Lawn Tours… love the idea! Maybe have “Work and Learn” events, an idea favored by permaculture groups, bringing together garden gurus and newbies to all tackle one garden at a time. Working together makes it less work for everyone (especially you, if you don’t want to be out there spreading mulch and newspapers on every willing neighbor’s lawn!), and everyone learns too. All Natural Greenbelt? Good Natured Greenbelt? You’re a great person to get the ball rolling, and people will join in if you keep it fun.

  26. Awesome awesome project! And yes I agree, you ARE doing it!

    I can only add as a suggestion, a contest with multiple categories: Greatest Lawn Reduction, Most Creative, Friendliest, Edible Landscaping, etc. Juried entries and the jury would be composed of local gardeners.

    This could become a prime social event in the town, with the right publicity and backing.

    Very cool.

  27. I like putting a positive spin on things. Instead of Less Lawn, how about something like Planting for Pollinators? Here on the left coast we have a Going Native Garden Tour, a Bringing Back the Natives garden tour, and a water district that gives grants to homeowners for replacing turf with drought-tolerant plants from an approved list. It doesn’t rain from about May to October. And yet the most prevalent landscape is still pesticided lawn bordered by overgrown and poorly pruned shrubs. In the DC metro area you have local celebs such as Doug Tallamy (who wrote Bringing Nature Home, about how native insects need native plants) at Univ. of Md. Find out what excites the imagination of your neighbors and focus on that — hummingbirds? butterflies? less maintenance? fragrances? woods they rambled in as a child? It’s all about baby steps and planting seeds (metaphorically), but I think the most persuasive argument is seeing the difference between a lawn and a real garden, and seeing life coming back. Find out what people care about environmentally or globally, and show them how they can make a difference starting in their own gardens.

    • Good ideas, Gemma, and I’m looking for a speaker on native plants to add to our speaker/demo series. I’m afraid Doug T is too far away – Univ. Delaware, not Maryland.

  28. Those are all good ideas. I feel like those are all great ideas that work in combination. Rebate programs from the water companies combined with higher prices and invoices that clearly showed water usage were pretty effective in my area. San Francisco has a program to pay for materials if neighborhood groups will do the labor.

    Local groups often do a good job of getting volunteers out for work days on a creek, waterfront, at a school, and so forth. I think it would be fun, productive, social, etc… if there was a group with volunteer days that were in each others’ yards, kind of like the old-fashioned barn raising but for gardens. Not sure how it would all work but I’d love to see someone give it a try.

  29. I bow down to your enthusiasm, Susan! I hope it works! Personally, I think the ‘demo-garden’ approach seems the most effective. Do what you mean in a visible yard, and then follow up with a yard (garden!) sign with some times for walk-throughs where you can tell people what you did. I’d totally show up for that, and I walk passed yards all the time walking the dog.

    People’s biggest concern is maintenance, no? How will you convince the people who prefer to use motorized equipment (lawn mower, hedge trimmers and leaf blowers…) as the only gardening approach?

    If you have any good ideas on how to turn our local, public park into more than a flat green lawn where dogs run around, LET ME KNOW!!! There is room for shade trees, paths for children to explore and hide, open areas for dogs and sunny spots… now you take the space in in about 2 seconds:

    Left – lawn, right – lawn. Ah, this is a lawn.

  30. There are two garden tours in the San Francisco Bay area that specifically celebrate organic practices, encourage natural soil and water conservation, waste reduction, and are stand out beautiful gardens.

    One is called ‘Bring back the Natives Tour’ and the other is ‘The Bay Friendly Garden Tour’.

    Last years Bay Friendly tour was big on ‘chickens in the garden’ as well as a variety of composting design concepts, permeable surfaces, efficient watering methods, alternatives to kentucky bluegrass lawns, food forests, potagers and upcycled materials.
    I’ve been a participant for the past several years and it is one of the most pleasurable gardening tours out of the dozen or so that we have in the area.

  31. If you’re going to teach a community gardening class, planting natives are a must have! Plant lots of edible flowers too 🙂

  32. Love my lawn, however I do realise the benefits of increasing garden space. In particular if that space is converted into a vegetable garden enjoyed by people within a community.

    I live in a town called Mudgeeraba, in Australia. A few years back it was voted the friendliest town in our country. Nice title to have but after reading your article I have come up with a few ideas of my own.

    With a bit of persuasion I am sure I could rally up some support to do something similar in my community.

    Maybe we will shoot for the title of “The Best Community Garden Town”, or something similar!!

  33. You have some good ideas there. Have you thought about a Facebook fanpage or group to build a community. I think a good demo garden for others to be inspired by is another great idea.

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