Update on Replacing Perennial Bed with Turf, and the Public Reaction

Summer of 2019.

Last year I wrote about the weedy mess of a perennial bed in front of my town’s most important historic building.

In 1985.

The space had originally been turfgrass, a continuation of the lawn on the other side of the sidewalk. So maintenance was easy – another minute or two of mowing.

Then the city’s director of horticulture got ambitious (in his words), ripped out the lawn, and planted landscape roses, ‘Autumn Joy’ sedums and presumably other perennials that are long gone. He now regrets creating such a high-maintenance bed in such a high-visibility spot, and recommended that it be ripped out and the lawn restored.

This month it was done, and already looks better to my eyes, though I’m hoping some low shrubs will be added to partially hide the ugly lighting fixtures. And our iconic bas-reliefs will get an overdue cleaning this winter. (By sculptor Leonore Thomas Straus, they illustrate the Preamble to the Constitution.)

Anti-Lawn Sentiment on Social Media

The change was noted on two of our local Facebook groups, and I immediately commented that it “made sense” to restore the original turf, since the perennial bed was a weedy mess most of the growing season. But most of the comments were in opposition.

  • “That’s just going in the opposite direction of all environmental advice. Not good.”
  • “Where will the bees and butterflies go? We need to provide a habitat for them to live. Unfortunately reducing maintenance is what it’s all about.”
  • “This makes me sad. I wish I were in better health and could have stopped this. A weedy mess is better for the environment than turf. Better for the environment is better for people in the long-term but some people are short-sighted.”
  • “I liked the weedy mess. Nothing is more boring than turf.”

The former city staffer who created the perennial and rose bed weighed in to apologize for creating it (“my bad”) and support its removal. He added that the roses had partially obscured the bas-reliefs.

One commenter, a nongardener, recognized it as a cost-saving move: “If the City cannot afford $5,000 for bus service in 2020 then it cannot afford the cost of maintaining flower beds. It’s unfortunate, but if our budget really is this tight then services to people must take priority over things that look pretty.”

City Landscapes and Pollinators

So what ABOUT the role of city landscapes in providing for pollinators?

  • Should turf be replaced with perennial beds and maintenance budgets increased accordingly?
  • Or how about just incorporating clover into existing turf?
  • What if cities used out-of-the-way spots for pollinator gardens so that they don’t require regular weeding, for appearance’s sake?

Your thoughts?

(I expanded on this post on the blog at Greenbelt Online.)


  1. Is the building still used as an elementary school? If so, it’s too bad some volunteer weeders couldn’t be arranged once a month or something because the plain lawn does seem a tad sterile.

    I like clover in a lawn but if it’s mown regularly, the clover flowers will just get whacked right off. You’d have to keep it long-ish to benefit the bees.

    It’s a cool building. The architecture of today’s schools is so generic in comparison.

    • It ’95 a larger school was built not too far away and this building became our Community Center. It’s considered a brilliant and sensitive example of adaptive re-use. They preserved very much the look of a ’30s elementary school, which is exactly what my own school looked like in the ’50s.

  2. From your photos, I’d say the building is the centerpiece, and when the bas reliefs are cleaned up, you’d certainly not want to cover them up from being seen (I agree with you about the lighting fixtures though). I’m wondering if/how the lawn gets used, like do they ever hold outdoor events there? I think if lawn has a use, it’s for people to gather/play on. If it never gets used, be creative with low-lying, low-maintenance perennials. The only other thing I think of when it comes to public spaces/buildings is safety; so you might not want to plant things that invite pest critters or activity you don’t want in the neighborhood.

  3. How about, instead of either turf (non-native) or roses and other perennials (non-native), a mix of prairie/meadow perennials and grasses that will be low-maintenance, adapted to your climate (to the extent that anything is adapted to something changing so quickly), and good for the native ecosystems and watershed? There are beautiful meadow plantings being done every day. This might be a great opportunity for your town to encourage residents to move in that direction.

  4. Return the flowers! Removal was not necessary, and will contribute loss of habitat for pollinators. It could have been improved, and apparently no attemt was made to do so. I am so sorry that the decision was made.

  5. Understanding about the pollinators, etc. I still like the grass. Clean, easy-ish to maintain, neat, visually relaxing, and showcases the iconic building. I’ve been around this building for many years, and am an avid gardener, and have maintained ‘meadow’ gardens in places where the maintenance labor was volunteer. Most meadow plantings would be too tall in this space. IMO. Go Greenbelt. Folks can make the meadows etc. in other areas.

  6. I vote clover. It’s relatively inexpensive, easy to establish, enhances the soil, and provides for bees and other pollinators. It can also be mown from time to time as needed with no harm done. Last, it will allow the architectural features to shine on their own.

  7. Strange that there is no vote for flowering shrubs. They are easy to care for, will attract pollinators, grasses and many dwarf shrub varieties are available to help with not obscuring the bias reliefs. Surely this simple plan could benefit all.

  8. The turf looks painfully boring. There are other perennial options. Just because this planting palette was a disaster doesn’t mean every perennial plant palette would also be a disaster. I mean they didn’t even use enough mulch to suppress weeds. They only used enough mulch to make weeds worse.

  9. What about organizing volunteer gardeners?
    We have been doing this in our town for the past 5 years. A 250’ x 30’ rock garden was created in our local park, and is completely maintained by volunteers. Weeding days are Mondays and Wednesdays. The garden has grown to be quite stunning, and there is no shortage of volunteers. Many former gardeners live in apartments, condos, etc., and they love the chance to garden once again.

  10. Couldn’t they have planted something like some low growing cotoneasters? Low maintenance, and they would provide flowers for pollinators and berries for the birds. A few minutes of weeding maybe a couple of times a year, less time than mowing for certain.

  11. As a horticulturist working in an arboretum and a past president of a garden club from my experience going back to turf was the right choice. The past garden was a choice with the wrong plants. How I was able to manage theses kinds of gardens of one year of seed is 7 years of weeds, thick mulch of fresh wood chips. I have worked on school plantings and they never last very long either maintenance mows the garden over or someone else tries another idea. Plant native trees and walk away.

  12. I lived in the co-op for 5 years. The turf grass was boring. IMO, it needs some low evergreen ground cover for interest. The rest of that front courtyard is pretty barren but for the beautiful trees. The side of the building has nice shrubs and could be upgraded with some pollinator perennials if they’re low in number as an offering of food to those emerging courtyard host tree insects.

  13. In my city we had a change in the large garden beds by the city council buildings, from bright floral bedding-out (very time and money consuming) to tussocks and other native grasses.
    Inevitably, people complained about all the pretty flowers disappearing, but the tussocks are perennial, low-maintenance (don’t even need to be mowed and they crowd out weeds), five figures easier on the budget, and pleasing to the eye, in their own subtle way.
    All of which is to say: it doesn’t have to be a choice between high-maintenance plants and grass.

  14. There aren’t many lawns in my California neighborhood because we get no rain in the summer and lawns must be irrigated to keep them green. However, I walk every day in a beautiful cemetery (Mountain View) that was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead after the civil war. The landscape is lawn with scattered trees.

    This lawn demonstrates that lawns need not be sterile if herbicides aren’t used to eradicate plants considered weeds. Few plants in the cemetery lawn are actually grasses. There’s plenty of flowering clover, English daisy, plantain, mallow, lippia, etc. The lawn is visited by many bees. It looks great to me!

    Lawns need not be maintained to the pristine standards of the 1950s. Let them go to provide habitat and reduce the use of herbicides that are harmful to humans and wildlife.

    If the community can’t afford to maintain flower beds, a lawn that is free to accommodate whatever drifts into it is a good compromise.

  15. Compromise with a lawn interplanted with snowdrops, short narcissi, species tulips, iris reticulata and blue star creeper. Leave mower on high during summer.

  16. I like the look of the new turf very much. I think it compliments the geometry of the building, frames the bas reliefs and allows them to have the focus they deserve. It is a small strip of border between the sidewalk and the building.
    There are many other places in our city for informal plantings for pollinators. Flower beds like that are high maintenance and in front of historic artwork does not seem the right place. Better they are in spots where the inevitable weediness doesn’t distract or seem out of place.
    Low, similarly geometric, evergreen shrubs to screen the lights would offer a more formal measure of respect for the sculpture.

  17. I realise a good looking perennial garden is high maintenance, but how about replacing it with ground covers and a few very low growing shrubs. In the DC area, it should be easy to find evergreen ones and some that flower and berry.

  18. What a ridiculous choice and what a ridiculous website. It’s as if DJT decided to create an entire website screeching against those of us gardening for the environment and wildlife. Turf is one of the greatest sources of freshwater degradation due to higher rates of run off into storm drains and the water table after copious amounts of pesticides and fertilizers have been applied. In Ohio, we have entire lakes we cannot use and periods of time without tap water because of this. Algae blooms much? Turf serves no purpose and the US is amusingly the only country so obsessed with it. It look hideous and i see no reason why the city couldn’t have had a few volunteers clean up, create, and maintain a lovely native perennial bed. This website popped up in my feed because I am a wizened, avid gardener always Googling for new information. Lol! First visit, last visit! Some of us old timers are open to changing how w garden and don’t see new information from the youngsters as a threat to our existence. Who is the snowflake exactly when you create an entire website pooing on more natural gardening? What is this country coming to? How awful and ugly.

  19. You asked, “So what ABOUT the role of city landscapes in providing for pollinators?” Yes, that would be great. Talk to Thomas Rainer on ways to make it work. He would know more than I would in a public area.

    Not to be rude, but I don’t think what *I think* actually matters. Most cities will do what is cost effective since high dollar or high maintenance landscapes aren’t in their budget or are low priority. Most use mow & blow guys just like much of the rest of America (think cemeteries with flat headstones for easy maintenance), and the mowers & blowers want “quick and easy” and certainly never messy. Sometimes gardening for pollinators is messy.–There, I said it.

    My personal garden is created for the pollinators, and I’ll stick to what I want for my garden since no one out there *in the big city* is listening to me anyway.

  20. This might be a good place to experiment with some grasses like muelenbergia, nassella, calamagrostis, penstemon, etc. grasses shouldnt be high maintenance and could be planted in the turf close to the building. the problem with the roses and other plants was that they needed to much water, and didnt get it, and suffered. but a grass garden wouldnt hide the carvings (if placed judiciously) and after the first year probably wouldnt need any watering.

  21. The first duty of a city administration is to its citizens, and that includes trying to make efficient use of limited financial resources. Unfortunately, bees don’t pay taxes, but I’m sure there are a lot of other private gardens and public areas that the city can leave to flowering plants and weeds, both of which can support urban bee populations.

    I also agree that the new lawn looks much better than the previous hodge podge of plants (and I’m a gardener!). Add in the fact it’s less maintenance intensive and it make logical sense to pick that option.

    One suggestion might be to prioritize native grasses instead of the usual lawn species. I know that higher up north the beautiful little blue stem is heavily used in highway and other city plantings.


  22. Even if city budgets are tight, money should be set aside for pollinator gardens and educated staff to maintain them. Helping our insects and birds is vital to maintaining our way of life.

    And there could be a way for citizens to donate funds, raise awareness etc.

  23. To those who say the lights are ugly: You should know that when Greenbelt repurposed the old Center School to become the new Community Center it is now, the significant scope of the job included designs from a professional illumination designer and installation of lights that made the front facade with its buttresses and bas relief Preamble panels absolutely POP! It was a beautiful sight to behold. Not long after, a brief wave of vandalism against the light fixtures resulted in the removal of the wall-mounted lights and the installation of cages around the lights on the ground as seen now. You can see that the junction boxes are still there, on either side of each buttress. It was impulsive and defeatist at the time to tear out the lighting, and some day the city should reinstall the wall-mounted lights and uncage those on the ground so the building can grace the evenings again. And pop up a couple of cheapo surveillance cameras.


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