Seasons Garden Design

For years I had been secretly removing 6" here and 4" there around the border of our lawn. I wanted to remove all of it, but my lawn-loving spouse did not. Over the years, we changed a portion of our large lawn into a series of circles dedicated to several uses. The remaining lawn had been whittled down to a 22' circle. As the summer wore on one year, my husband had less and less time to care for his beloved lawn. So I finally asked him if now was the time to remove it. He approved, with one caveat: that the circle remain 'quiet' with a lawn alternative that would be easy to care for with no mowing.

blue meadow
above: This entire area used to be lawn, but now it is a series of circles. We turned it into a stroll garden where we have a pebble mosaic circle, a crop circle, a circle with a table and 2 chairs for 'hanging out', a circle of herbaceous Carex, and a circle of Carex flacca - the circle at the front. We went through quite a process implementing this circle because it was the last vestige of lawn of our property. We wanted to keep this largest of the circles uniform - sort of like lawn, but not turf.


First we removed the existing lawn. We dug it out by hand, but you could use a sod cutter for a large area. The soil was fairly good because we hadn't use chemicals on the soil for fertilization or weed eradication. Chemicals kill microbiota in the soil. They are nature's rototillers. Without them, the soil becomes compacted and sterile.



We added approximately 4" of an 80% tested compost mixed with 20% quarter-ten gravel. If you can't get quarter-ten gravel, use small pea gravel. Mix it in with the soil - not with a rototiller which will compact everything just below the tines of the rorotiller. It's better to do it by hand!

We shaped the large circle so that we had a mound in the center gradually sloping to the outside of the circle. Then we lightly raked another product called 'Turface' into the top 1/2" of the soil all over the circle. It is used on athletic fields to support the weight of a person walking on the grass, instead of them sinking into the soil and ruining the grass. It is made of tiny terra-cotta particles. These articles will suck up moisture and then when the soil is dry, they will release the moisture.

Because these actions disturb soil and bring weed seeds to the surface, we applied corn gluten to the top, watered it in, and let the soil rest for the summer. This allowed any weed seeds to continue germinating if they had already started, but the corn gluten prevented dormant seeds from germinating


That fall, we planted plugs of Carex flacca, a blue-green-leaved sedge that is shade-tolerant and does not require much water. In early December, we planted 400 Allium caeruleum and 400 Camassia leichtlini, both blue-flowering bulbs.

The following spring, the Carex hadn't quite grown in yet over the winter. There were still sizeable gaps between the plants, but we were rewarded for the cold knees in December by masses of blue flowers.


By that fall, the Carex had mostly grown together with little to no soil visible, probably attributable to the great soil and the corn gluten, which also provides nitrogen to the soil. Over the next winter, the meadow looked exactly the same as it did in October.

Since planting our meadow, we have not needed to mow all. True. It's been raked once per year to remove the dead portions of Carex - normal growth cycle.This has been a great low-grow, no-mow lawn. It isn't perfect, but it's a great alternative to water guzzling and weed n' feed inhaling turf.


Maintenance of this circle has been pretty easy. No mowing and we do not fertilize it or apply any synthetic chemicals on it- even for weeds. The biggest issue has been violets, which, here in the PNW, can be invasive. They get stringy and try to climb all over everything and supplant other good native plants. We also have invasive grasses that seed in periodically and pose a problem because they are very clever at hiding among the Carex until they get large. This is when we see them and it's a bigger issue to remove them. This is the first year that I am planning to do a hard cut back using a string trimmer. I think this may make it easier to get in and pull out the violets (which I have done before, but they came back). If push comes to shove - and it might - I will have to use a broadleaf weed chemical on this area. I'm really resisting doing this and trying all other options first, but that is the professional recommendation I received from a nurseryman and plant expert friend of mine. Once I remove the existing violets, I may be able to successfully use corn gluten again, too.

Below: (top) Violets invading the Carex circle, note 'compass rock' at bottom pointing due north.. (bottom) When there's no violets in mid-summer.

carex circle at mid-summer

If you want other alternatives to Carex flacca, read below for some Pacific NW native grasses and a couple of groundcovers. If you don't live in the PNW, look for the best native sedges and grasses that grow low and are fairly drought-tolerant. Carex pensylvanica, Carex appalachica, Carex cherokeensis, Carex divulsa, Carex eburnea, Carex frankii, Carex laxiculmis 'Hobb', Carex oshimensis EverColor series, Carex plantaginea, Carex rosea, and Carex texensis are all good possibilities for a variety of biomes.


Pacific Northwest native grasses; some of these get tall and will need mowing to use as turf, but they won't need fertilizing and extra summer water after the first 2 years:
Achnatherum coronatum, Calamagrostis nutkaensis, Carex pansa, Carex tumilicola, Festuca californica, Festuca roemeri, Hierochloe occidentalis, Leymus cinereus, Ophiopogon japonica, and Sporobolus heterolepis,

Groundcovers as lawn substitutes:
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi,Fragaria chiloensis, (both Pacific NW natives) and Leptinella gruveri.


The major lesson learned on this project is that there is no such thing as a no-maintenance lawn. But you can do something about HOW MUCH maintenance you have to do and minimizing your use of resources. If a good raking, annual weeding, and low water use is the extent, that's a far cry from the usual turf lawn that is such a detriment to our environment and climate.

award-winning, sustainable landscape design - NE/NW Portland, OR, Vancouver, WA and SW Washington

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