Back to the Future with Sustainable Lawns


What is cutting edge in the field of sustainable lawns? Much of it is forgotten lore from the late 19th/early 20th century, I have been discovering.

steam mower 2

I came upon this revelation while preparing for the talk I am going to give this month at a conference organized by Larry Weaner that is to be hosted in Philadelphia by the Morris Arboretum and in New London, CT by Connecticut College.

The basis of my talk will be my own experiences with alternatives to Kentucky bluegrass and the two or three other turf grasses that are the default choices for lawns today. My thesis is that if you broaden your sights and find a grass species that is naturally adapted to the soil and location, you shouldn’t have to cater to it with constant chemical applications and endless irrigation. Grassland, after all, is one of the toughest types of plant communities, commonly flourishing where conditions are too difficult to permit the growth of woody plants.

This, I believed was an original thought, until I spent a couple of days reading late-19th-century gardening books at the New York Botanical Garden library. Published before the advent of the modern chemical industry, these presented a much more sensible and relaxed view of lawn care.

For example, Lawns & Gardens by N. Jonsson-Rosé (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897) included a list of two dozen wildflowers you can include with the grass when you sow a new lawn. Jonsson-Rosé might not have recognized the term “biological diversity” but his lawns were certainly no monocultures and definitely pollinator-friendly.

And in Lawns and How to Make Them by Leonard Barron (Doubleday, Page & Co. 1914) I found recommendations for 13 different grass species, each one accompanied by a description of the type of soil and conditions that suited it best. Included in this list are several species such as sheep fescue that I have been using to create self-sufficient, low-input lawns. There is even one species in Barron’s list, sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) that was mixed with other grasses simply to give the lawn a sweet odor when it was cut. That might make you almost look forward to mowing.

My favorite tip from these books: control dandelions by inviting Italian immigrants in to harvest the greens every spring.



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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Because I am happy to have children romp on my ‘lawn’ we have never used chemicals or fertilizers. It remains green and mowable though October most years – grass being a cool weather crop – but we actually refer to it as our ‘flowery mead’ dandelions, violets, hawkweed and clover being just the beginning. I have planted common thyme on purpose and it may take over the whole space. Very fragrant when mowed.

  2. So will you post your paper here?

    Shade garden: expaned beds, plowed grass under.
    I used vinca minor in shade. Also planted some Mondo grass last year in shade, seems to tollerate more foot trafic than they would have you believe? would have preferred the dwarf variety, but it thriving nicely.

    Sun yard: fescue, white clover, and weeds, will try to add some thyme next year.
    Looked into Buffalo grass, but seemed cost prohibitive at moment.

  3. Commonweeder doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides on her? lawn, due to the idea that children should be allowed to play on them. I agree–and truly wonder about people with small kids, who do play on the lawn, who have a regular spray service. There are plenty of “biologique” ways to inhibit weeds or to get rid of them. We have had to ask the mow/blow/goes not to spray ANYTHING in the front (they don’t go in the back) because they make us sick. So, alas, does the photina, which have been allowed to turn into trees, but that’s another story. For one thing, there is no access for heavy equipment to the back.

    In California, as you may know, we’re in the midst of an extreme drought. Someone put it into my brain that since we’re in a drought, buying bottled water, spring or otherwise, from sources in CA, is on the self-destructive side, and making someone rich from the state’s drought problems–sort of like war profiteering, and post-disaster scams. So, aside from Fiji Water, I don’t buy bottled water (when I’ve run out of water in my car’s insulated bottles, and can’t find a drinking fountain) from CA sources.

    We rent, and we have an idiotic landlord who wants the turf installed in 2012 to stay green, in spite of drought regulations, and over $200/mo of our money for considerably less lawn and plantings than we paid in our previous residence. I’ve said that if we’re fined by the city or the water co. for overwatering, we will not pay the fine, as we’d let the expensive turf die, and re-landscape xeriscapicly (is that the right word?). As Commonweeder wrote, creeping thymes CAN takeover, and that’s great. Hardly any water, and no maintenance.

    I did argue that
    a) there are rebates for removing substantial part of your lawn and choosing more waterwise/drought tolerant options, many of which are attractive and require no mowing (thus reducing the owner’s monthly bills)
    b) Artificial lawns require no mowing/blowing, allow no weeds, and no watering. There are reasonably attractive options
    c) there IS a more pleasant, drought-tolerant no-mow solution to the typical lawn: an herb lawn. Using flats, and planting in a checkered grid, or a set of concentric squares/rectangles, or some other interesting design: the irrigation hardware need not be removed, the herb lawn will stand moderate foot traffic, and once established (a week to a month) need watering perhaps once a week in warmer weather.

    A local nursery has flats of several low growing creeping thymes, chamomile, and the like. While there are low-growing mints and “mosses” (Irish and Scottish), I tend to think of those as being more shady-area plants wishing a bit more water than the first batch mentioned. It would likely cost less, labor and water included, than the artificial lawn options. Rosemaries and lavenders are wonderful as edging plants—and they come in a couple of dozen varieties that can be easily had, with different colours of flowers and leaves, different shapes and growth styles. One can gather bits off the lawn and edging to use in cooking or potpourri, which is never advisable with yard grass! Requires no insecticide or fertiliser, either. (It also means no more maintenance by the mow/blow/goes.

    Thus far, the owner is not facing reality, in my not terribly humble opinion. Pennywise, pound foolish, that’s him.

    I must look into vernal grass. I know of a couple of “sweetgrasses”.

  4. I have mosses and other greens in moist shade. We added common clover because old news articles in told of that to keep the yard green.

    I have a great rocking hand weeder, and weed the dandilions easily and drop clover seeds as I go. I want to wash and eat the greens.

    We use no chemicals and love having birds and bees.

    Luckily I have a small front yard I can easily mow, with a quiet push mower, since we are fined if the lawn gets taller than two inches. Last year when we had no rain many people didn’t cut grass short. No fines and nearly everyone who got a letter was told to recycle it.

    We need seed alternatives and non grass choices. I think clover and thyme are a start for sunny areas.

  5. I’m reading “The Practical Flower Garden” byHelena Rutherford Ely, published originally in 1911. Mine is the 1922 edition. Just finished the lawn chapter. Dug weeds out by hand each spring and August. Drop a pinch of grass seed where each weed had been. Then lightly seed the whole yard (spring) and then roll it. “Two men can push a 350′ roller”. Does anybody do this anymore? She had a sod garden to replace spots that died out. This was at her summer place in northern New Jersey. She fertilized with cottonseed meal in the spring and bonemeal and wood ash in summer. When I say she I mean the army of gardeners she had working for her.

  6. I’ve been researching a bit on organic lawn care and it does seem that (surprisingly) professional turf managers are a bit farther along in terms of using more sustainable lawn care practices, probably due to regulatory and water usage concerns (certainly not out of goodness of anyone’s hearts).

    Soil health, appropriate seed varieties, surfactants, microbial sprays, and organic composts are all starting to become more of a industry standard for commercial lawn care, but the average landscaper and weekend warrior is not yet aware of these changes. I expect that we’ll see more of this as synthetic products become increasingly less popular. My fingers are crossed that we’re headed in the right direction.

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