Returning a Town’s Perennial Border to Lawn?

Buttresses and bas-relief sculptures seen behind Knockout roses

Of all the historic buildings in my town, my favorite is what’s now the Community Center, so it’s full of artists, dancers, seniors and really everyone else, every day.

I love the Arc Deco buttresses on the front facade. And I wrote here about the bas-relief sculptures between them depicting the Preamble to the Constitution, with the excuse to write about it here that they illustrate “Promote the General Welfare” with someone gardening.

Speaking of gardening, a few years back the City Horticulturist was a real gardener, so of course he ripped up a prominent patch of turfgrass and installed in its place a large border of perennials and roses.

If you’ve started and maintained perennial beds yourself you won’t be surprised to learn that once the real gardener was gone and a regular maintenance crew took over, using power tools only, no hand-weeding or herbicides (after complaints), the garden changed for the worse. The photo above is how it looks after power-weeding and mulching.

More typically, it looks like this. In front of our most important and beautiful building, this drives me crazy.

So, a make-over is clearly needed to make this high-visibility spot look good without increasing the manpower allotted. What would that be?

Let’s start with previous landscaping there. Back in 1937 when the town and this building launched, an all-too-common mistake was made – using evergreens where they don’t have enough space, as they soon didn’t here on either side of the entrance.

Tulip magnolias, easily limbed up, are a much better choice, obvious in this current photo.

Across the front of the building below the fabulous artwork was a row of low (at least originally) junipers, a few flowering trees and lawn.  Someone must have recognized another mistaken plant choice – the trees would eventually block the building’s iconic features – because they were removed.

With that review of history in mind (and having consulted the experts at our museum), a group of us gardeners and city staff are meeting today to brainstorm design and plant ideas for this prominent spot to look good with less labor (including less use of power tools, if possible), and to complement architecture and the established plantings on the other sides of the building.

This shady side always looks good with just Abelias, Viburnums and Liriope, though the grounds crew chief tells me it’s a lot of work to keep the windows and sidewalks clear of branches.

The more public side is another story. More Liriope, but here the Abelias are sheared into gumballs and there’s a row of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ for late-season flowering. I wonder how often those gumballs need to be power-treated to stay looking good (if you like that style, which honestly I don’t).

Lawn-bashers should look away right now because one idea that’s been floated is to replace the original lawn panel there, leaving just enough room for a row of low-growing shrubs close to the building (but not too close; bas-reliefs need to be cleaned occasionally).

(Maintenance-wise, adding a bit more lawn to the large one between the building and the street would take just a minute or so longer to mow.)

A quick trip to my favorite independent garden center turned up several plants I could imagine along the front of the building and my favorite is the ‘Grey Owl’ Eastern Redcedar shown above. Known more commonly known as Juniper, it has these qualities going for it: maximum height 3 feet, blue foliage (it would be the blue in the whole landscape), no need to shear, and – drumroll, please –  it’s native! Meaning, everyone could be happy with it in this very public spot.

Also promising to me are two plants that would echo shrubs already growing elsewhere around the building: draft Abelia and draft Plum Yew.  I sure hope we can count on the mature size stated on these signs – just 2.5 feet – because at that height they wouldn’t need shearing. Yay!

Whatever’s decided, the city plans to have the make-over done in early September after our big Labor Day Festival. Report to follow.


  1. I applaud your efforts to turn lawn back into garden, and your choice of ‘Grey Owl’ juniper. However, one native is not enough. A bed of alien plants is hardly better, ecologically, than lawn! Please take the time to research native perennials and shrubs, or consult someone who already knows them well, to make your efforts pay for the birds, butterflies, bees, and all the creatures who depend on native plants. My motto is ‘Think Native First’, and once you do that, there is no reason to turn to alien plants. (Not that you can’t have some Asian and European plants, but 100% native trees, 75% native shrubs, and 50% native perennials is an easily achieved goal.

  2. I love ‘grey owl’. I’m sure that you realize that with time it can get quite large and really shouldn’t be sheared but carefully hand pruned.

      • I was going to issue a warning about juniper ‘Grey Owl’, but others beat me to it. Seeing it at Raulston Arboretum 20 years ago showed what an unpruned specimen could become; it was easily five feet tall and eight feet wide. Granted, it would increase more slowly in your climate than in the z7b Carolina piedmont, but…

        Some nurseries report the size of woody plants at ten years, which makes some sense given that apparently the majority of customers will be in another location before ten years are up. Gardeners who plan to stay put, and people planning for long-term public/institutional settings need to see genuinely mature plantings in their own region if possible, and ask around if not. Fortunately, asking around is easier than it was a few decades ago.

        • Oops; somehow got it in my mind that this planting project was for Eliz. L.’s climate. For the greater DC area, growing conditions at Raulston Arb. are that much more relevant.

  3. I vote for lawn. I’m pragmatic, long term, and I love that building, having spent many years regularly enjoying both the library and the fabulous ceramics classes, studios and people. During those years I also watched the challenges of maintaining those garden areas to look good and complement the building. It never looked great. Lawn, with classic gravel behind and next to the building will be restful to the eye, easy to maintain along with the existing areas, and highlight the beautiful art. I, too, have found that Nursery plant tags seem to show plants with about a ten year age. Very misleading, tho i can see why they do it. I wish more folks understood what those size ranges mean. Good luck with this planning, and thank you for participating.

  4. Maintaining perennials requires more expertise than lawn. Before laying the sod this fall, perhaps mixed small bulbs could be planted during the soil prep? That makes the spring lawn sort of magical.

  5. Any possibility of using xeric ground covers instead of lawn? Good for you for tackling this project, what with the parameters stated. I’m sure weighing all the opinions isn’t easy, either. Cities need more concerned gardeners like you. I used to complain about one of our government buildings constant planting of annuals and all the watering they required – no native plants were ever used. My complaints went unheeded.

  6. How come commercial landscapers never seem to consider perennial herbs? They are relatively easy to maintain, don’t grow too tall, come in many visually pleasing shapes, colors and textures, smell nice, are pest resistant, and many are drought tolerant. I have an area I planted 20 years ago with lavender, santolina, 2 types of thyme, and hyssop, and aside from an annual pruning, some mulching and very little watering, they are going strong (and beautiful when blooming). The tallest plants, lavender and santolina, are maybe 3 feet high in bloom. I inter planted them with iris here and there, also low maintenance and drought tolerant, for color in spring and textural contrast. Anyway, my herbs are way less maintenance than my lawn!

Comments are closed.