Alternative Lawn for the Northeast


My wife – who is the mower of lawns in our partnership – has taken to mowing around any wildflowers she encounters. As a result, our rather sparse fescue lawn has sprouted tufts of black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), yarrow (Achillea miilefolium), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoides), oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and, in the shady areas, Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). I am aware, by the way, that most of these are not true natives, but all are so long naturalized in our fields that they have thoroughly integrated into the local ecology and provide benefits to pollinators and other wildlife.

Back-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta)

I’m not sure how I feel about the present look of this selective mowing, but I applaud the impulse. I want to transform our lawn but don’t know exactly how.

It’s too big a space (3/4’s of an acre) to convert it all to groundcovers and flowering plants. The labor of weeding and maintaining that would be far too much. I could dig it up and plant a meadow, and I may well do that with a part of it, but our dog, a compulsive retriever, needs a mown area to practice her stick fetching.

I’ve experimented with fine fescue lawns, the so-called “no mow” lawns, using organic techniques to install them for a variety of clients. They can be very attractive, with a soft, lush look to them, especially when mown high. They don’t have any benefit for pollinators, however.

Fine fescue (“No-Mow”) lawn

What I wish is that someone would do for the Northeast what the late Dr.  Mark Simmons of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center did for central Texas and develop a lawn mixture of native grasses that could be started from a seed mix. I had the good fortune to speak to Dr. Simmons a year or so before his untimely death at age 55. When we spoke, he was beginning to explore wildflowers that were compatible with his native grass lawns; I’ve been informed that research is now on hold.

If anyone who reads this is aware of any similar effort taking place in the Northeast, I would greatly appreciate a heads-up.

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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. Have you considered moss? Just got this book from the library – The magical world of moss gardening / Annie Martin.

    She talks about moss lawns in it that make me wish I had a yard. I’m settling for a terrarium

  2. I’ve been intrigued by Pro Time Lawn Seed’s ‘Fleur de Lawn.’ It’s mostly non-native, but “inspired by the lawns of the New England countryside.” I’m in Texas, so I’m growing buffalo grass with some clover thrown in, just because I like the look of clover (when it’s not crispy in summer). Perhaps mixing some clover(s) into your No-Mow mix might be an idea?

  3. I wanted to see a picture of your lawn! Great idea. I am experimenting with a “messy” bed in a small area that formerly had an apple tree. It is next to a garden near our barn but I just can’t handle any more beds that need to be weeded. So I just transplanted a bunch of exuberant spreaders (obedient plant, golden alexander, a Malva fastigata and pink coneflower) in amongst the grass and violets (which are like a weed here) and some natives that are finding their way in, like enchanter’s nightshade and honewort. I think next year it might be pretty. We shall see.

  4. It’s comforting to see that experienced professionals struggle with the same issues I have! (misery loves company?) I have a partly-sunny steep hill that wants to grow nothing but crabgrass and other weeds. Year after year I hand-pulled all the weeds and planted grass seed (a mix of fine and dwarf tall fescue ciltivars), to no avail. My husband informed me he’s tired of struggling to mow it, so away it goes! I’m using natives only, and I’m going to use sedges with shorter wildflowers. I’ve already been experimenting with some sedges–pennsylvania, ivory, plantain, as well as a few others. I’ve been growing golden ragwort–Packera aurea, native violets, and many other wildflowers in my beds, so it’s just a matter of transplanting a few to see how they do. My half acre then will be mostly beds of mostly native trees, shrubs, and perennials, with a mini-meadow in 1 section. Weeding? Yes, especially the first few years, but a good layer of pine fines as mulch really helps!


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