A yard without fescue or rye

09/02/2010 12:00 AM |

Low-maintenance plantings take the place of a water-guzzling lawn on Dena Zemsky’s front yard in Greenport.

The traditional Long Island front yard with manicured lawn and foundation plantings is apparently not for everyone these days. A reluctance to be a slave to the grass has led some homeowners to abandon lawns in favor of cottage-garden-style plantings that are easy to maintain and are kind both to the soil and to native insects.

Nancy and Tom Gleason broke ground on their New Suffolk home back in 2000 and, once it was complete, they put in a lawn in front of the house.

“We did have lawn right up to the house but not for long,” said Ms. Gleason. “We realized quite quickly we wanted a more natural look and less maintenance. And I don’t like foundation plantings at all.”

Because the house is tucked away in a fairly densely wooded area, the Gleasons tried to pick deer-resistant plants. The result is a riot of trees, shrubs and ground cover that includes French lilac, heather, sedums, viburnums, ferns, begonias, climbing hydrangea, crape myrtle and magnolia. Mr. Gleason says that their builder saved all of the topsoil that was displaced when the foundation was poured and attributes the staggering size of their still young plantings to that rich loam.

What about the work involved? “A lot of these plants are self-seeding,” said Ms. Gleason. “They do have a mind of their own so there’s some maintenance but it’s much less work than a lawn.”

“If you’re inclined to let the garden go natural, these are probably good choices,” said Mr. Gleason pointing out the hydrangeas, rudbeckia and sunflowers that have seeded and spread around the back of the house.

“And the bees and butterflies love the flowers,” said Ms. Gleason as a Monarch butterfly swooped and fluttered around deep purple buddleias surrounding the pool area. “We didn’t want grass here either.”

A planted front yard seemed the obvious thing to do after Dena Zemsky transformed her Greenport craftsman cottage, which had a standard-issue front lawn and foundation plantings, into an elegant shingled two-story home.

“The renovation pushed me to do something about that postage stamp of grass,” she said. “The other deciding factor was the deer on everyone’s front lawns over the last two or three years. When I planted this birch tree 17 years ago, I put in hosta. The front yard isn’t fenced and the deer decimated the hosta so I had to think about deer-resistant plants and I also wanted a drought-resistant garden.”

Ms. Zemsky designed her serene front yard “as you would paint a picture” and ended up creating a free-flowing garden incorporating the birch tree and lily turf that acts as a natural border.

“The lily turf was inspired by the plantings outside City Hall in New York,” she said.

For color, Ms. Zemsky planted purple scented geraniums and yellow rudbeckia (“deer don’t like them”), with a selection of hellebores and Japanese grasses.

What about maintenance? “All you have to do is weed,” she said.

Ms. Zemsky’s front yard is not entirely grassless, however. She replaced the existing driveway with permeable pavers that form a checkerboard pattern. But she’s not sure she wants even the few sprouts of grass that peek through the gaps.

“I’m thinking of replacing it with thyme,” she said.

Tamson Yeh is a turf and land management specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension. But in spite of her title, she too is very keen on planted front yards and has one of her own.

Ms. Yeh points out that getting rid of the lawn means minimalizing fertilizer runoff.

“You can produce a very pretty garden without resorting to fertilizer or water,” she said. “If you use mulches correctly, you don’t even have to dig up the lawn. You just cover it with three inches of wood chip mulch and plant right through it.”

Ms. Yeh thinks bulbs give the biggest bang for the buck and is keen on low maintenance flowering shrubs. She said, “There is some maintenance, though it’s mostly in the fall when you need to reduce stems.”

But the real plus side of a planted front yard is the wildlife, although she says it may not be for everyone.

“If you don’t like bees and wasps, this may not be for you,” she said, “But bees pollinate and that’s a good thing.” Another potential downside is the neighbors’ reactions. “You may be keen on the natural look,” said Ms. Yeh. “But if you’re in a suburban-type area there could be a backlash from traditionally-minded neighbors who think a cottage garden looks just plain untidy.”