Sunday, May 23, 2021

Grass Lawns and Lawn Weeds

My yard has very little lawn, meaning areas with a monoculture of grass. Northern Colorado is too dry for standard varieties of Kentucky bluegrass, so having extensive grass wasn't water-efficient, and when we moved here, I was very conscious of the low rainfall of the region. Secondly, the need to keep a grass lawn mowed meant that the shaggy lawn would signal that we were away, back when we took extended trips. Third, my husband, the chief lawn-mower, didn't enjoy the activity. 

lawn of thyme
Thyme lawn

So I eliminated grass in the front, putting in instead shrubs and perennial herbs. We kept some bluegrass lawn in the back, for playing frisbee, mainly, and the occassional lawn party.

Now, almost 15 years after making those changes, I can say I haven't missed the grass lawn. Filling the space that is a suburban front yard with something other than grass was somewhat of a challenge, however. So much space but for what? One of the best decisions I made was for a thyme lawn. Advised by a landscape architect, I filled a substantial area, out by the sidewalk, with thymes (creeping thyme Thymus serpyllum and mother-of-thyme T. praecox) and Turkish speedwell (Veronica liwanensis). Those are low creeping plants and I describe the whole as my "thyme lawn." The thyme lawn is spectacular in the spring when the plants flower (purple!). The photo above shows it with one of the two species of thyme in bloom. Generally the speedwell flowers first, then creeping thyme, and finally mother-of-thyme. 

The rest of the growing season there are small green leaves, or kind of beige tiny seed heads from the smaller thyme (mother-of-thyme). The picture below has the speedwells in bloom (blue-purple area in center of photo) but shows the leaf color well. 

They stay green into the fall and green up pretty early in spring. Below you can see some green while the neighboring flower bed is brown.

thyme lawn in late winter
Thyme lawn in late winter

On the down side, leaves and twigs get caught in the thyme lawn and are hard to remov; thyme's branches aren't straight like grass blades so raking isn't efficient. I haven't mowed the thyme lawn, but that would probably work. The flowers attract lots of bees: don't walk across a flowering thyme lawn barefoot!

thyme lawn with pine needles and a bee
Thyme lawn with pine needles and a bee

Over the last decade the thymes have pretty well eliminated the speedwell. I planted three species as 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. The surviving speedwells have climbed out of the lawn bed into neighboring flowerbeds. The thymes cover the ground about an inch deep, growing over existing branches. They continually expand onto the sidewalks, and seed into neighboring flowerbeds and the cracks in the sidewalks. Kentucky bluegrass rhizomes expand into flowerbeds and would seed into flowerbeds except that mowing generally keeps it from flowering. Easy-to-grow plants are often a bit aggressive.

grass lawn
Grass lawn I had once: not well-fertilized but only small weeds.

We had extensive grass lawns when I was a child. I have an aesthetic that likes monoculture green lawns, linear edges, and the like. But nature doesn't grow like that and so yard care is a continual battle to keep the edges neat, stop invasion by weeds, etc. I would prefer a yard that matched the plants in it, where the columbines are welcome wherever they grow (they like my paths) and the speedwell can move in with the creeping juniper. The tension for me is frequently about how much order to impose and how much chaos I can live with.  

In Switzerland a couple years ago, I was struck by the fact that their lawns tended to be a mix of grass and what I thought of as weeds. Very few lawns were grass monoculture perfection. Many of the weeds were the same plants we have invading grass lawns in the U.S., for example dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) and plantain (Plantago major). In Switzerland, those are natives. You can call them weeds, since weeds are "plants in the wrong place" (a peculiarly human-centric definition), but you can also call them wildflowers. Where did we get to thinking that a lawn was best when there was only a single species of grass? Grass and wildflowers seem a pleasant combination whether you sometimes walk or play croquet on it, lie down to read in the shade, or, I suppose, graze your goat. Keeping out everything but one grass species is a lot of work for a dubious aethetic.

lawn in Switzerland
Lawn in Switzerland with lots of "weeds"

There is no way I can ignore dandelions because they'll invade my neighbors' more classical lawns, but in the grass lawn in the back yard, I tolerate a lot of miscellaneous small plants. Writing this makes me wonder what creeping natives I could add to the thyme lawn.

Plants are a hobby of mine, so I will of course try new ones, cut some for flowers indoors, and sit and watch their pollinators visit. Minimizing the work so I can just play when I'm in the yard--that would be great. For that, I am continually questioning the aesthetic driving my choices. The thyme lawn and a relaxed attitude toward the mix of plants that is my grass lawn have been successful changes. 

Comments and corrections welcome.

thyme lawn
Two thymes and a speedwell

Two thymes and a speedwell: In the photo above you can see the larger-flowered thyme creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) in the upper center, the tiny-flowered mother-of-thyme (Thymus praecox) covering the left half of the flowerbed, and a small patch of Turkish speedwell (Veronica liwanensis) along the top of the photo, betweed mother-of-thyme and the sidewalk. The flowers of Turkish speedwell are quite blue and bigger than those of either thyme, but not so dense and hard to see in this photo.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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  1. How have your neighbors been about your thyme lawn? I'd like to get rid of our grass out front too. It's not doing well. But I am a little afraid of the HOA/neighbors freaking out over it.

    1. Even the neighbor with the putting-green lawn had no objection to the thyme lawn. My neighborhood doesn't have an HOA, however. You'd be wise to talk to them. In Colorado, state statutes encouraging xeriscape (water efficiency) have superseded older rules; acceptable is a moving target. The thyme lawn looks like/is a flowerbed.

  2. When you planted thyme, how did you get rid of bluegrass? I would love to plant thyme in random places and think that it would "take over". Is that wishful thinking? You say you eliminated the front lawn. I need some more words for that. What did that entail?

  3. I hired contractors who brought a turf-cutter (rented, I think) which cut the turf so it could be rolled up and carried away. See online videos. I have done the same thing with a spade, but it is hard work. I'm not sure how you'd set conditions so that the thyme prospered and the grass did not. You'd probably have a mix of thyme and grass for years.