Umbra,

I’m not a big fan of lawns, but I do want some nice grass cover on at least part of my yard, especially the steep slope on the side of the house. I was looking into native grass species, but from what I’ve found so far the warm weather grasses native to the Northeast are more like hay than the stuff on a typical lawn. Should I just suck it up and buy some grass seed, or do you have a better idea?

Dennis
Hopatcong, N.J.

Dearest Dennis,

A lawn has its place in the American Life. As long as we set limits and have the right sort of lawn, which I will shortly describe, we needn’t bite our nails with guilt. Here are some lawn benefits: we spend time outdoors there, breathing fresh air. Other romping and lounging surfaces, such as patios, are impermeable, whereas a lawn at the very least absorbs and filters rain, if not also supporting soil life. And because we use push mowers, lawns provide both relaxation and exercise.

Till there was you.

A well-planned lawn includes low-maintenance grasses along with a few other low-growing, mowing-tolerant plants that provide plant diversity and may even feed the soil (e.g., clover). The well-planned lawn is planted in an area where grasses will thrive and need little or no fertilizer or pesticides; it is not planted in a sopping wet area or a shaded area. In the yard as a whole the lawn is kept to a minimum, since it requires water and other annoying and perhaps environmentally damaging maintenance.

I do wonder about your proposed lawn, because you mention it will be on a steep slope. Here are a few questions to ponder before guiltlessly purchasing appropriate grass seed: If you won’t be lounging upon it, why does it matter whether it is like hay? And why does it have to be a lawn? I worry about you having to mow on a slope and succumbing to gas-powered devices for said task. There are various perennial low green groundcovers that would be less of a pain to maintain. Your New Jersey Experimental Station at Rutgers will be a resource for lawn alternatives, with this caveat: do not plant English ivy. English ivy is a botanical scourge. Cornell University Extension will also have plant lists appropriate for your area.

Let us suppose you are set on an actual grassy lawn. Before buying the grass seed, read your local Extension publications on preparing for and buying seeds for a lawn. Again, you can also check Cornell’s literature. Those of you outside the Northeast, look for your own Extension publications online. I also like to check my organic garden seed purveyors for suggestions on hardy lawn mixes — on the East Coast, I use Fedco.

No matter if you choose lawn grass or another groundcover, attend closely to the planting phase. Any plant will do much better throughout its entire life if the soil is well prepared before the plant is installed. That is why I recommend thorough reading of all the various gardening publications. Dig the soil to the recommended depth, add the correct nutrients, and be sure you are siting the plant in a place where it gets the correct amount of sun. If you are transplanting a plant from a nursery, be kind. All these steps will make your plants healthier from day one and result in less intervention (i.e., work and pesticides) down the years. All the more time to simply enjoy your beautiful yard.

Idyllically,
Umbra