In the scenic coastal city of Galveston, a wild and colorful scene is taking shape. Welcome to the native lawn movement - also referred to as the anti-lawn or rewilding movement - that is changing the landscape of gardens and reshaping the way some people think about green spaces.
The back-to-nature movement has been steadily gaining traction throughout the United States, especially among homeowners who prioritize environmental responsibility. This growing trend questions the conventional suburban lawn and promotes eco-friendly alternatives that not only offer visual appeal but also demonstrate a greater consideration for the natural environment.
“Firstly, ‘anti-lawn’ is a misnomer in my opinion. A lawn is generally defined as a parcel of land with plants maintained at a low height, usually mowed. That could be turfgrass, low growing vines, low flowering plants, etc.,” said Priscilla Files, senior arborist and executive director of the Galveston Island Tree Conservancy.
“I’d say that almost everyone is pro-lawn of some kind. There is a growing movement on Galveston to maintain native plantings such as seasonal wildflowers in yards. In some cases, encouraging and cultivating naturally occurring plants in areas that would be considered lawns.”
In the age of social media and an environmentally conscious younger generation, the desire to move away from conventional grass lawns has surged. This shift is driven by various factors, including environmental concerns, a thirst for sustainability, and a longing to create gardens reminiscent of the lush, diverse landscapes seen in English garden aesthetics.
The late Lady Bird Johnson, a beloved figure from Texas and the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, stood as a notable champion of environmental preservation and the enhancement of America's surroundings during her tenure as the First Lady from 1963 to 1969. She made a profound impact in advancing the cause of wildflowers and advocating for the enhancement of the nation's highways, roadsides, and public spaces.
Mrs. Johnson firmly believed that the innate allure of wildflowers had the potential to elevate the visual appeal of the American landscape and offer shelter to various forms of wildlife. Her vision encompassed a nation adorned with indigenous flora rather than marred by the clutter of billboards and signs.
As a direct outcome of her passionate advocacy, countless wildflower seeds were disseminated and planted alongside the country's highways, spanning the entire United States.
She was ahead of her time - and the landscape is more beautiful because of her efforts. Her endeavors not only contributed to the aesthetic improvement of the nation's roadsides but also played a pivotal role in safeguarding native plant species.
Why So Blue About Green?
The pivotal issue here is that expansive, verdant lawns demand a substantial portion of the limited available water resources. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the typical American household consumes 320 gallons of water daily, with approximately 30 percent allocated to outdoor purposes.
Of this outdoor water usage, over 50 percent is dedicated to lawn and garden irrigation. On a national scale, landscape watering is approximated to represent nearly one-third of all residential water consumption, equating to an astonishing nine billion gallons each day.
Given the prevalence of droughts in various regions and the implementation of water restrictions, sustaining extensive areas of lush grass is no longer a feasible or cost-efficient practice, Files said.
“Natural/native landscapes are more efficient. They use much less water than most turf-grass lawns and don’t require fertilizers and pesticides which are a major source of runoff pollution. Our rainwater and irrigation runoff goes directly to the bay,” she said.
“Because of less management inputs, they reduce the use of gas-powered mowers, blowers, and edgers as well as reducing battery/electric powered lawn equipment. They attract and sustain pollinators, and other native wildlife like migrating birds.”
To Bee or Not to Bee
The honeybee population has been under duress for years. Recently, the Monarch Butterfly was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as well.
Replacing some lawn areas with flowers and wildflowers can offer essential support to our insect allies. In the case of Monarchs, Asclepias wildflowers (milkweed) are crucial for their reproductive cycle, making them indispensable in yards within the Monarch's range.
Rewilded landscapes offer beauty, color, texture, fragrance, and, most importantly, life. The transformation can happen relatively quickly, and homeowners often report an influx of butterflies and newfound interest in bird watching.
Research has demonstrated that reducing mowing frequency enhances the population and diversity of bee species. Well-maintained wildflower gardens yield stunning blooms throughout the year.
It's important to clarify that the anti-lawn movement doesn't advocate for the complete elimination of grass lawns. Instead, it encourages more water-conscious approaches, such as dedicating smaller areas to lawns. It's not about allowing nature to reclaim yards entirely and letting weeds proliferate uncontrollably.
In regions susceptible to drought, adopting reasonable, sustainable, and cost-effective approaches benefits everyone, and this transition can be gradual.
Diversifying plant species has also proven effective in maintaining green lawns during heatwaves, as lawns consisting solely of grass tend to brown quickly.
“I think the Broadway Cemetery is a great example. The city doesn’t mow it from February through June after they flowers have re-seeded,” said Files.
“That means that the crews that would have to maintain it during those months can be utilized in other areas, such as tree care. This is a win-win situation.”
Alternatives to Conventional Grass Lawns
Many people find yards with less grass and more trees, shrubs, flowers, and hardscape elements more appealing than vast expanses of grass. The possibilities are limited only by imagination, but here are a few simple alternatives.
In contrast to the common practice of removing clover from lawns, there is a growing trend of planting pure clover lawns as an appealing substitute for traditional grass lawns. These clover lawns offer exceptional drought tolerance but also serve as a magnet for pollinators.
Even in the heat of summer, they maintain their vibrant green appearance and display a remarkable resistance to yellowing, even when exposed to the presence of dogs.
Seeding a grass lawn with attractive drought-tolerant clover will help retain moisture and keep patches of lawn prone to drying out greener and cooler during the hottest days of summer.
The more aggressive alternative is to kill the lawn grass, and re-seed heavily with clover, for a pure clover lawn, which will save even more water than a clover/grass mix.
More Flower, Herb and Garden Beds
Increasing the presence of flowers, herbs, and garden beds can be a valuable alternative to full-scale rewilding if it's not an immediate choice. One effective approach involves incorporating more wildflowers into existing flower beds, which serves as a departure from conventional grass lawns.
Raised beds, on the other hand, offer a versatile space for cultivating various plants, such as vegetables and pollinator-friendly, drought-resistant cover crops.
By introducing raised beds for planting flowers, wildflowers, herbs, or hardscapes, you replace sections of your lawn with aesthetically pleasing features and also introduce diversity to your yard.
These raised beds can be utilized for vegetable cultivation during the spring and summer months and for growing pollinator-friendly, drought-resistant cover crops in the fall and winter. This approach conserves water and earns appreciation from pollinators.
You can find region-specific wildflower mixes at local garden stores and online that will yield beautiful, indigenous, drought-tolerant plant species.
Trees, Shrubs, and Ornamentals
In addition to enhancing the visual appeal, planting more trees, shrubs, and ornamental plants offers multiple benefits. These additions provide ground coverage and help suppress weeds and also provide cooling shade, reducing the necessity for extensive watering.
Furthermore, the shade offered by trees can lead to energy savings by cooling homes and reducing air conditioning costs during hot weather.
The mission of Galveston Island Tree Conservancy is to replace and enhance Galveston’s tree canopy devastated by Hurricane Ike’s storm surge in 2008 by planting a minimum of 25,000 trees island wide, Files said.
By taking these actions, the nonprofit organization contributes to the establishment and, often, the ongoing care of trees that have been introduced. Additionally, it promotes the preservation of Galveston's resilient trees and work towards enhancing the quantity and spread of trees throughout the area. It's important to note that more than 80 percent of the trees on the Conservancy’s species list are native to Texas.
“Our issues with traditional turf-grass lawns are more along the lines of residents installing irrigation systems for exotic turf-grass lawns that adversely affect the roots of large trees. Also, irrigating a turf-grass lawn is not as helpful to trees. My opinion is to water for the trees’ needs instead of the turf-grass as the trees are the most valuable aspect of a landscape. Turf-grasses require more frequent and shallower watering than trees. Trees need less frequent and deeper watering. The two practices are at odds,” she said.
“You can replace a five-square-foot chunk of lawn in an hour if you’re near a garden center; you can’t replace a 100-year-old Live Oak.”
Trees thrive in a natural, indigenous environment. They play a role in capturing and reducing rainwater runoff, thus enhancing the overall condition of the landscape while also easing the burden on stormwater systems, she said. Native trees, much like wildflowers, serve as vital habitats for pollinators and various wildlife.
“More native trees perform the same function as wildflowers in terms of providing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. One large Live Oak can support over 400 organisms,” she said.
“And one small tree, strategically planted near a building, can perform the same cooling function as a window unit air conditioner.”
To Seed or Not to Seed
For those taking the DIY approach to embracing the movement, visiting a local nursery that specializes in native plants is advisable for guidance on suitable plant varieties for your region.
Before embarking on an anti-lawn transformation, consider potential obstacles, such as homeowners association (HOA) regulations. Some HOAs have restrictions on plant species and appearance, so communication and planning are essential.
Additionally, be prepared for upfront labor and costs, particularly in removing existing grass. To make the process more affordable, you can start with a small area and work in stages.
Maintenance remains a part of rewilding, although it is significantly less demanding than traditional lawn care. Regular attention to native plants and vigilance against invasive species are necessary for the long-term success of your anti-lawn landscape.
The City of Galveston offers a wildflower permit program, permitting residents to cultivate wildflower gardens without contravening the tall grass and weeds regulation. Currently, to qualify for this exemption, residents must submit their permit applications in January each year.
This permit is cost-free and will be issued as long as residents commit to certain conditions, such as maintaining the property's perimeter to prevent wildflowers from encroaching into neighboring yards.
“The current ordinance is being reviewed by the City of Galveston Tree Committee’s Wildflower Subcommittee to clarify it for the city marshals and for residents,” Files said.
“I think we’ll see more folks applying for wildflower exemptions and installing or facilitating natural/native lawns and landscapes, especially when the newly revamped Wildflower Ordinance is passed by the Galveston City Council. Kudos to the Wildflower Subcommittee for their wonderful work with the City of Galveston on the ordinance.”
By embracing alternatives to conventional grass lawns and rewilding our yards, we can contribute to a healthier environment, support pollinators, and create stunning, dynamic landscapes that inspire both awe and admiration, Files said.
In the end, the choice between grass or wildflowers may determine the future of our planet's gardens and their pollinators.
“In my opinion, the only challenges besides the rare cranky neighbor are being addressed by the Wildflower Subcommittee working on clarifying the ordinance with input from Galveston residents. The opportunities abound,” she said.
“I think that the more natural and native landscapes we have in Galveston, the better the environment will be and the experience of living on and visiting the island will be more comfortable and attractive. Nature tourism is a large part of our tourist industry. The natural landscape is the foundation of what makes Galveston Island magical.”