2019 PLANT PICKS

No lawn, more leisure - How to advise customers in using shrubs, flowering plants, groundcovers and more to replace lawns
Treena Hein
October 10, 2018
By Treena Hein
Some lawn remains after conversion, but the addition of alternative groundcover adds diversity.
Some lawn remains after conversion, but the addition of alternative groundcover adds diversity.
These days, homeowners are being pulled in more directions than ever and their free time is increasingly precious. As they look at how to simplify their lives, more and more of them taking a long, hard look at their lawns – and gardening centres must therefore be ready with both good replacement options and good guidance.

However, although free time is of the utmost concern, reducing or eliminating lawns is also about saving money.

“Dollar for dollar, it’s cheaper in the long run to have a garden,” John Cowie, retail manager at Art’s Nursery in Surrey, B.C., notes.

Those who don’t want a lawn also aim to use less water in an era when he says many communities are putting annual restrictions in place (and in some cases bans) on watering.

But the motivation to be more earth-friendly in reducing or getting rid of lawns also goes well beyond water, Cowie says. Pests and diseases are higher in lawns than they are in a garden, and homeowners are not keen these days to put pesticides into the environment. Pests and diseases are higher in lawns because grass is a monoculture, he explains, and in a garden, the sky’s the limit for total number of species. There are often only a few or even one example of a particular plant, tree or shrub. One of Canada’s most common lawn pests is the European chafer beetle, which Cowie says has been more common this summer in B.C. because of a mild preceding winter (at least in the south of the province).

“Because they are resistant to the chafer beetle, we are recommending more fescues and micro-clover,” he says. “Micro-clover is also very drought tolerant.”

Another reason homeowners are getting rid of lawns is because some of them with children grown and gone simply don’t need one.

“People in this category might use more hardscaping, maybe they want to entertain more,” Cowie observes. “They don’t want to be pushing a lawnmower anymore.”  

Alfred Prins, long-time department manager at Parkland Garden Centre in Red Deer, Alta., is another gardening professional who is seeing more people (many of them older homeowners) interested in hardscaping. He says they often go with planters and trees placed on a bed of decorative rocks, but he cautions that these beds placed in front yards can provide easy projectiles for vandals.

Lastly, Cowie adds that many people who aren’t keen on their lawns anymore are finding that they’re not doing well anyway. The trees on the property are now mature and throw a lot more shade, and lawns just don’t thrive in shade.

What to do
Grass can be removed by applying a non-selective, non-residual herbicide, digging it up by tiller or by hand, or putting down a cover. Ken Mosher, owner of Oceanview Home & Garden in Chester, N.S. notes that plastic is a good choice if customers can wait some time, even up to a year.

“We don’t recommend landscape fabrics,” he adds, “as they are permanent and create layers that change or block waterflow and make perfect insect breeding areas. They also are not effective on some weeds such as horsetail. Our first choice to eliminate old lawns and grass is cardboard and lots of it.”

He advises overlapping two to three layers of cardboard and then covering it with mulch; the cardboard is gone in one season along with the grass under it.

Cowie rarely recommends testing the soil that held a lawn, but does stress the need to properly prepare the soil. He notes that customers don’t commonly understand that grass grows only about six inches down, and there might be clay or rocky soil under that. Organic matter should be added to make sure plants get a good start.

Mosher notes that if homeowners are working with an area that had an old lawn full of weeds, “I can pretty well guarantee the soil is acidic… evergreens, etc. will be perfectly OK with the existing soil. Perennials will benefit from adding some lime at the time of planting.”



In terms of designing the space (deciding what plants, shrubs, trees, groundcovers and other features to choose and where to place them), Cowie is always telling customers to investigate both the online and real worlds.

“They should take pictures of what they like, and list or take pictures of what they don’t want, what hardscape features are desired – it should all be decided on first,” he says. “It’s only then can garden centre staff really help customers achieve what they want. It’s like designing your living room. It’s all personal taste and you need to know what your taste is. And you absolutely must figure out what you’re going to use the space for.”

He adds that if an area is going to be subject to foot traffic, be sure to select a groundcover that can withstand that to some degree. Most plants, he notes, can’t withstand the amount of traffic that grass can, but there are options for light-to-heavy traffic.

For his part, Mosher is a big believer in designing an interesting and exciting garden space through varying the heights of plants, shrubs and other features. There are also many other options, he notes, from large rocks to hold back raised berms to dry riverbeds to help absorb and direct rainfall. And, while some plants will fill in relatively quickly, he says it usually takes at least a full growing season for the plants to establish enough root system to really get going.

“What’s more important is that the customer is realistic and uses enough plants to obtain good cover in their desired period of time,” he says.

Although “losing our lawns” seems to be a new trend, Mosher reports that “it was always my view that less grass and more gardens was the way to go…. as long as the client is good to pay to have them maintained or is willing to put in the time. The issue is that things change and either you get older and can’t spend as much time as needed in the garden or your financial position changes and you can’t afford what you could just a year ago.”

In other words, if you plant the area with vegetation that’s going to take just as much time to maintain as a lawn (through watering, deadheading, weeding, pruning, mulching and more) and your goal of saving time is why you removed your lawn, you are no further ahead.

“Even the best-designed gardens suffer without the necessary attention,” Mosher concludes. “If you don’t mow your lawns for a month you can have a machine come in and fix it overnight. You can’t fix the lack of attention to a garden as quickly.”

In his view, a good landscape can add 20 to 30 per cent to the value of a property and a poor-looking one will do just the opposite.

“Be sensible in the percentage of your property that you manicure,” he says. “The options are endless for a beautiful no-lawn.”

For more
Canadian wholesaler Valleybrook Gardens (Abbotsford, B.C. and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.) has created www.jeeperscreepers.info to help consumers select plants for hardiness zone, plant use and location that are useful when replacing a lawn.

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