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No-mow masterpiece: Ann Frogge redesigned her front yard without turf grass

Reducing lawns needn’t mean reducing beauty, and going organic needn’t mean going ugly

By Ava Middleton Special to The Commercial Appeal
Posted June 17, 2011 at midnight
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Photo by Kyle Kurlick // Buy this photo

Ann Frogge had her Germantown front yard designed to resemble the Middle Tennessee terrain she remembers from growing up. The lack of a turf grass lawn eliminates some maintenance, but presents its own set of challenges.

More and more homeowners are deciding to reduce the size of their lawns. Some are seeking to be more sustainable, especially in areas with water restrictions, while others are making room for higher-priority items.

Ann Frogge eliminated the grass from her front yard in Germantown to model the landscape of Middle Tennessee, where she grew up. Planted primarily with native plants and trees, Frogge’s yard uses a berm to create multilevel planting areas. “I wanted to simulate the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee as much as I could, and I think with some grass left, I don’t think I would have gotten the effect that I wanted to have,” says Frogge, a master gardener since 2008.

She enlisted Diane Meucci of Gardens Oy Vey and landscaper Michael Wayt to ensure that the project would meet her goals. “When we first started, it was very unusual because rarely do you get a client who every time you inspire them, they inspire you back,” says Meucci.

“At the get-go, my thought was I won’t have to work in the yard as much,” says Frogge. “That is not true. I think one has to be an avid gardener in order to maintain a grassless lawn, because the weeds are still there. Mulch helps tremendously, but I am still trying to find the right type of mulch that I want on my front garden,” says Frogge.

There were also some drainage issues prior to the addition of the berm. Thus far, French drains and a dry creek bed have been added to address the problem, and more measures might also be necessary.

Eventually, the site will become shadier as the trees become larger, and Frogge anticipates that the maintenance will be reduced. “When there is more shade, hopefully there will be less weeds, and it will be more like a forest.

“My favorite trees in the front are the European Hornbeam and the ginkgo, but I have lots of favorite trees,” says Frogge. She is fond of the Chinese Parasol tree, the Serviceberry tree, the grove of Sweet Bay magnolias and her fig trees. With ornamentals and shrubs, she finds it easier to narrow down her top choices. “My three very favorite plants are heucheras, hellebores and hydrangeas.”

Meucci selected plant material based on the site.

“My primary goal is always to garden ecologically, which doesn’t always mean native plants, but will sometimes mean whatever the best plant for the site is,” says Meucci. “So it was always considering the site, considering the possibilities and picking the right plant for the right place. It was one of those really inspired moments where everybody involved added and added and added, and it became something magnificent.”

There is an allée of fig trees and blueberries leading from her front yard to her backyard and an archway covered with scuppernong and muscadine grapes. Other edibles include the serviceberries, blackberries and raspberries.

“The first year, you don’t think it’s going to make it. The second year, you think it might make it,” says Frogge. “Then the third year, the plants just burst into bloom. That happened last spring.”

The collaboration between homeowner, designer and landscaper produced a magnificent result.

“It just goes to show you that gardening ecologically, growing food and including beauty does not have to be miserable,” says Meucci. “It can be the most extraordinary beautiful thing.”

According to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), efficiency and sustainability reign supreme in landscape elements. According to their 2011 Residential Trends Survey, Americans are interested in low-maintenance landscapes, native plants, water-efficient irrigation, ornamental water features and food/vegetable gardens. According to the report, 76.2 percent of those surveyed are interested in reducing the amount of lawn in their landscape.

This growing interest in reducing lawns is being prompted in many cases by the knowledge that maintaining lawns is causing pollution and wasting resources.

“The idea that we need to have lawns as the default landscape attribute is just terribly misguided. Any monoculture like that that has been planted by man has always proven to be problematic. Species diversity is what makes the natural world go round. Lawns would never happen in nature, where you see nothing but grass all by itself because grass all by itself can’t grow — you need a mixture of other plants,” says Paul Tukey, author of “The Organic Lawn Care Manual” (Storey Books, 2007) and founding member of and

It’s this lack of other plants in our typical lawns that results in the extensive use of pesticides, fertilizer and water to keep the lawns lush. Most lawn opponents advocate lawn reduction, not lawn elimination.

“The alternative is to embrace natural lawn care and natural living systems, and we end up putting less stuff on. And we save money. We save resources. We create lawns that are beautiful, but they’re not toxic. That’s the whole goal of the safe lawns campaign,” Tukey says. “Going organic on your fertilizer is not going ugly. We have figured out ways to modify the soil so that the soil wants to grow grass predominantly and not a bunch of weeds. If your lawn is mostly dandelions, it’s because your soil wants to grow dandelions and not grass. The whole key to our natural system, other than embracing the soil as alive, is to see weeds as messengers sent by Mother Nature to tell us something about the soil, and it’s usually very, very simple. In the case of dandelions, it’s because the soil doesn’t have enough calcium at the surface of the soil, so to remedy that, you could put down high-calcium limestone, wood ash, gypsum or natural amendments that change the soil so that it doesn’t want to grow dandelions anymore. The dandelions don’t die overnight when you do that. They fade out gradually. Going organic is a process, not an event.”

Rather than automatically devoting the most space in a yard to lawn, homeowners can explore other uses for their property, such as growing edibles, making outdoor living spaces, adding water gardens or establishing wildlife habitats.

“Forward-thinking garden designers have come to include the lawn as just one of many optional elements in a landscape plan, like a wall, a terrace, a flower bed, or a water feature,” says Stephen Orr, author of “Tomorrow’s Garden” (Rodale, 2011) and editorial director of Martha Stewart Living magazine. “It’s like thinking of turf as a rug — or even a sequence of rugs — instead of wall-to-wall carpeting. Responsible homeowners should stop and consider their grass usage and question how much lawn, if any, is needed to fit the way they live or would like to live.”

Ava Middleton is a garden writer and garden coach who lives and gardens in Midtown.

© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. Permission granted to Safelawns to re-post article.

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