DIGGING IN: Losing the Lawn

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Thursday, August 20, 2015, 12:23 am
Ken Sperber and Val Thonger

Above: The authors’ front yard in summer.

I guess we missed the memo that front lawns need to be manicured grass. We never much liked watering the lawn and then having to mow it, and always shied away from using herbicides and turf fertilizers. So it made sense to us to lose the lawn when we moved into our home in East Lansing 30 years ago.

Over time we have tried many varieties of flowering plants to fill our front gardens (formerly known as the front lawn). Our yard spans from partial shade to full shade, so not all plants have grown well, and the Michigan winters are tough on many colorful flowering plants that we have tried planting. Our garden is now what you might call “eclectic acclimated.” We now have a low maintenence front yard filled with perennial plants that we have grown to love.

Here we provide information about five of our favorite plants. Each type brings colorful blooms each year without any special care.

Starting with the shadiest part of the yard, we grow sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) also known as sweetscent bedstraw (shown below). This groundcover plant has delicate white flowers in the spring and does especially well under bushes and around shade trees. After cutting, the drying leaves have a long lasting fragrance and are often mixed into potpourri.

Another favorite spring flower is the Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). Pictured just below, Lily of the valley does well in the partial shade of our yard. This plant does so well that it keeps spreading out, so make sure to place it in an area that is contained. The plant’s tiny flowers have a very strong fragrance, as potent as any perfume.

A critical factor in propagating these aromatic favorites is choosing a proper planting time. The roots of Lily of the Valley have rhizomes called “pips” which can be separated anytime after the plants flower. Cool fall and winter weather are the best time to transplant, because the “pips” can have a dormant period before growing in the spring. (Cautionary note: Lilly of the valley plants and flowers are very poisonous if eaten by humans or pets.)

In the lighter portion of our yard (which is still partial shade), the pink Anemone thrive. These delicate pink flowers bloom from late summer into fall. Anemones are also known as windflowers, and are a diverse group of plants with over 100 species. The Anemone were originally native to Asia and feature large five-petal blossoms on long stems above bunches of dark green, maple-like leaves (see below). They like to spread and do well as a border plant.

We originally received our clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) as part of a perennial plant exchange. It has flowers that are a bright purple and appear in showy clusters in May and June. It is a very hardy perennial and a very good groundcover that spreads quickly. In fact, the bellfowers are a very aggressive type of plant and have taken over nearby areas in our gardens. They can tolerate dry or wet conditions and grow well in rock gardens. The flowers have a very pleasant aroma. (See below.)

Cranesbill hardy geranium (Geranium) is another perennial flowering plant that has done well in our gardens in both partial shade and more sunny locations. Although the names are similar, this plant is not related to the popular annual seed geraniums (Pelargonium) used for summer bedding plants. These true geraniums are cold hardy perennials that form luscious mounds of leaves topped with pink flowers peaking in spring but flowering until the first frost. Perennial geranium is also called Cranesbill because of the shape of the seedpods that appear after the flower petals fade. The Cranesbill seed heads snap open like bird beaks and release seeds. These true geraniums (shown below) are derived from native alpine plants, so they are very cold hardy.

These perennial plants bring us joy throughout the Michigan growing season, all require little maintenance and bring birds and butterflies to the yard, and, best of all, we never have to mow the front lawn.


(All photos by Ken Sperber except the sweet woodruff, which is from http://pantrygardenherbs.com.)


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