Many of us who rent or own a home face a common problem: wanting a yard that looks good, no matter the season, but not having much time to devote to its maintenance.
In the past, the typical – almost expected – look of the American front yard was a large swath of grass. And that grass needed constant mowing, watering and a lot of maintenance.
Well, no more. Landscapes today come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and styles, with different levels of maintenance requirements. There are countless alternatives to turf grass, depending on where you live.
Hardscapes in the landscape
A common thread for these alternative landscapes is the incorporation of hardscape. These designs can brighten a dead, barren landscape in the winter, as well as lend a helping growing hand in the spring.
According to Judy Mielke, landscape architect at Logan Simpson Design in Tempe, Ariz., “Hardscape refers to any element in the landscape that is not living. Things such as walkways, walls, shade structures and water features are all considered hardscape elements.”
Hardscapes add aesthetic value, as well as day-to-day functionality to a landscape.
“Landscape architects often use hardscape to provide structure to a landscape. Quite often a hardscape element, such as a gazebo, serves as a focal point. Additionally, hardscapes provide a sense of permanence, helping to anchor the plantings, which are ever-changing,” says Mielke.
Because they do not change with the season as most plants do, hardscapes can give your landscape a crisp, bright look year round.
Hardscape elements help add variety to a landscape as well. For example, a dark blue wall can be painted over when winter sets in. To fight off the drab and cloudy weather outside, refresh and repaint the walls with a bright color to achieve an immediate makeover.
For those willing to put in a little extra work, container gardening provides a stylish, easy-to-replant way of preventing a yard from a case of the blahs. The unlikeliest of materials can be turned into a planter, reducing the need to go out and buy brand new pots. For instance, a cinder block turned on its side and placed on the ground can be filled with soil and planted with flowers and herbs.
Given the various hardscape elements that one can employ in a landscape, the potential for incorporating recycled materials into hardscape construction is both plentiful and diverse.
As a landscape designer and architect, Mielke sees recycled concrete (from old sidewalks and driveways) showing up in landscapes reinvented as walkways, seatwalls, retaining walls and raised planters. As Mielke says, “This material is abundant, free and relatively easy to use in construction because of its uniform thickness.”
She also says the incorporation of colored bottles into walls, as well as rusty metal from a variety of sources, have been crafted into art pieces and incorporated into landscapes.
In addition, “Crushed, tumbled glass from recycled bottles can be used as a top dressing for plantings.” The reflection from the sun off of the glass can provide a shimmer to the nearby plants.
And as if glass did not have enough innovative uses in landscapes, Mielke says recycled glass is being incorporated into a porous paving material made of fine-textured, tumbled glass particles bonded together with glue. Such porous materials are important in landscapes because they allow for rainfall to infiltrate the soil, acting as a passive way to harvest valuable rainwater.
No-fuss native vegetation
Adding variety to traditional turf with some hardscape elements and native vegetation can also benefit wildlife, Mielke says.
“[Although] sculptures and fountains are considered types of hardscape, and are primarily ornamental, they can also benefit wildlife. Greg Corman, a landscape designer in Tucson, Ariz. creates unique sculptures of found materials such as wood and metal that also serve as native bee habitats.”
For more information on landscapes that mesh with the native flora and fauna, rather than trying to differentiate from it, see Corman’s website.
The most important thing when selecting alternatives to turf grass is to choose plants that are suited for the climate and region in which you live. Plant a bed of Magnolias in the arid climate and salty soils of the desert southwest and those plants are not long for this world.
If you live in a humid, cooler climate, your native vegetation will be quite different. For example, in the northeast, think berries and evergreens, like the popular winterberry or evergreen holly.
When selecting plants to add to your yard, make sure to consult your state or local University Cooperative Extension office, a nearby botanical garden or your local library for books on the native plants in your area in order to select the right plant for the right region.
Reusing, recycling and promoting biodiversity… who would have thought so much could be done in your own front (and back) yard?