Amidst high inflation and speculation of a recession, we would like to provide some insight on ways to reduce costs associated with landscaping.
typical spending habits
The average American household spends ~$250/month on landscape maintenance, where most of this amount is used towards caring for a lawn (weekly or biweekly mowing, weed control, aeration and over-seeding, fertilization, irrigation, etc.). Thus, this article will focus on lawn maintenance habits, lawn reduction, and lawn replacement.
Lawns are a somewhat strange phenomena that have grown deep roots in the American subconscious. Historically, lawns are European; in the 17th century, the ruling classes of Europe displayed their wealth through surrounding their homes with grass lawns. These lawns showcased the vast amount of property around manors and castles, displayed their livestock, and illustrated that their owners had no need to grow many edible or medicinal plants. Further, lawns proved that the owner had enough income to spend on maintaining a large and effectively useless array of plants. So, European colonists eventually began trying to implement this practice in North America, desiring to emulate the aesthetic appeal they associated with the lawn. However, this was made especially difficult by the lack of an "adequate" native grass, common droughts, and the lack of resources to maintain lawns. Once the lawn mower, lawn sprinkler, garden hose, etc. were invented, and the foreign grass seed mix perfected (by the USDA and US Golf Association), any American could try to grow the perfect grass. Unfortunately, many of these tools were melted for the war effort in Word War II, so it was only in the postwar era, when suburbia became a reality, that lawns became synonymous with the American home.
a brief warning: implement change slowly
It is important to begin slowly, taking small steps towards your goal. Depending on your goal, this could mean a variety of things. If your goal is to reduce lawn maintenance costs, small steps might be simply altering your lawn habits, one at a time. If your goal is to reduce or replace your lawn, small steps might include observing your environment and testing new plantings or ideas in a little section of the garden. If you have the patience and wherewithal, you might start with plugs rather than typical one quart or gallon sizes of plants.
The importance of this slow and steady pace is due to finances and personal preferences. We want to prevent sunk costs. You do not want to shock your existing system and have to fix it, nor do you want to spend money performing an overhaul that you come to dislike or find dysfunctional. In addition, it is not just our own personal preferences that can affect our gardens. Neighbors and HOAs often weigh in on landscape changes, so it is best to introduce small changes over time to adjust expectations strategically. It's also important to be slow to gain experience and knowledge for the future; for instance, we can find out what conditions characterize our local environment, what plants thrive in our local environment, what plants we enjoy looking at or using, and so forth.
tier 1: altering habits
If you are not into reducing or replacing your lawn, there are a few methods to employ to save costs, such as raising your mowing height and setting your irrigation time very early in the morning. Raising your mowing height reduces the time needed to mow the lawn, shades out weeds better, and offers better pest resistance. Having the irrigation begin before the sun rises reduces the amount of evapotranspiration (the combination of water lost by transpiration of plants and evaporation from soil and plant surfaces), reducing the total amount of water used to keep grass healthy.
tier 2: lawn reduction
If you are open to reducing a segment of your lawn, then take a look outside and map out the first place you would start. Some ideas are: where existing grass is struggling or has not grown, under trees or shrubs, along the border, on a steep slope, or in a low spot, where water tends to collect. Think of what might be useful or pleasing to you — a perennial and shrub garden bed, raised vegetable beds, a rock garden, or maybe some stepping stones with moss or groundcover between.
Next, observe the light conditions for a day. Is it full sun (6+ hours), partial sun (3-6 hours, some afternoon sun), partial shade (3-6 hours, shaded in the afternoon), or full shade (less than 3 hours, dappled light)? Be cautious, as light conditions in the winter may be different from those in the summer, when trees have regrown their leaves.
Ideally, soil conditions would be thoroughly assessed. If you'd like to do so, a soil test can be completed to determine the full picture of what your soil conditions are (see resource #4). However, it is possible to do a quick test of soil texture (see resource #5).
Equipped with light and soil conditions, you can begin perusing plants. Native plants are the first category to look at if you are looking for low-maintenance, as they are meant to thrive in your local region with little attention. For a list of native plants and native plant nurseries, see resources #6-7. If you're feeling overwhelmed, taking a trip to a local nursery can be an inspiring and helpful way to see what is available and what you like the look of. Talking to an employee about desired characteristics and your site can be unexpectedly fruitful.
From there, plant! See how it goes and adapt your strategy as needed.
tier 3: lawn replacement
The ultimate way to avoid lawn-related costs is to replace your lawn with a "no-mow" alternative, such as a low-growing sedge or buffalograss. Now, similarly to the lawn reduction method, do not replace the entire lawn at once. Start with places that make sense, such as those where existing grass is struggling (see list in tier 2). Also, take the time to assess your light and soil conditions, especially if a large area is to be replaced. Establish a connection with a local landscaping company or nursery and discuss your ideas and their recommendations thoroughly.
If you would like to retain a flat area for outdoor activities, white clover or microclover could work well. Although traditionally labeled by the landscaping industry as a weed, clover has regained popularity for being a simple, low-maintenance lawn alternative. Microclover seed mixes are readily available, and they can be sown in spring just like you would with grass seed (see resource #10).
No matter which strategy you choose to implement, there is a consistent lesson to be learned: increasing plant diversity (especially native plants) reduces associated costs of landscapes and adds ecological value. We cannot beat nature!
resources / recommendations
The American Lawn: A Brief History (article)
Landscape Irrigation Management Part 5: Irrigation Time of Day (journal article)
What Does “Full Sun” Really Mean (article, from a book)
Virginia Tech Soil Testing Lab (web resource)
Carrying Out the Soil Texture Test (article)
Virginia Native Plant Guides (web resource)
Virginia Recommended - Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (web resource)
Native Plant Nurseries (web resource)
Lawn Alternatives (article)
Lawn Gone (article)
How to Add the Right Clover to Your Lawn (article)