Turfing lawn for lettuce, micro-clover or even polypropylene greens

A look at our changing relationship with the traditional lawn, and why some Canadians are considering alternatives to turf grass.

Edible gardens, xeriscaping and fake turf gaining ground as Canadians rethink the lawn

Is it time to turn the grass into green groceries? (lamcopphis/Flickr)

It's the time of year when Canadians start watering, weeding and mowing the green, green grass of home.

North America has long had a love affair with the lawn as a symbol of domestic pride and the scene of summer fun. But is that relationship souring?

Lawn alternatives gaining ground

Increasing concerns about climate change, water shortages and the environmental impacts of fertilizers and pesticides have some Canadians rethinking the conventional lawn and considering alternatives like food gardens, fake turf or xeriscapes — landscaping with low-water needs.

Canadians are rethinking the conventional lawn. This UBC Botanical Garden lawn includes clover, yarrow and tall fescue grass to make it more drought-resistant. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

Even the traditional uniform "carpet" of Kentucky Bluegrass is beginning to evolve, as heartier micro-clovers and tall fescue grasses enter the market as an answer to drought and pests.

A troubled relationship

The conventional turf grass lawn began to take hold in North American during the post-Second World War real estate boom.

"Suddenly people were homeowners like never before ... so these landscapes and suburbanization just mushroomed," said Paul Robbins, author of Lawn People: How Grass, Weeds and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are.

Turf grass was an easy way to for developers to fill up the tracts of land surrounding these new houses, but lawns proved to be incredibly difficult for homeowners to manage in the decades that followed.

As I've learned about birds and insects, and the inter-relationships, when I look at a lawn like this, I see diversity, and that to me is beautiful.- Egan Davis, UBC Botanical Garden Horticulturalist

"Once you have a lawn, you are expected to mow it, you have to keep it green," says Robbins. "It isn't just having grass. It's having a nice, well-maintained landscape that doesn't look overrun and give you frowns from your neighbors."

That can be costly, in more ways than one. Canadians spent more than $2 billion on lawn and garden supplies in 2015. At the same time water shortages in parts of North America, including most of British Columbia in 2015, led some municipalities to reconsider the perpetually green lawn.

Robbins, who is also the director of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says parts of California and Arizona offer "lawn buy-backs" where homeowners get a rebate for every inch of turf they take out.

Trading turf for turnips

Anna Galvin is one of an increasing number of Canadians who've opted to exchange all or part of their lawn for a food garden. After fighting a losing battle with the European chafer beetle, she contacted Victory Gardens, a Vancouver-based company that helps people grow food.

Lisa Girody of Victory Gardens is helping homeowners convert their lawns to foodscapes. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

They completely replaced Galvin's ravaged lawn with lush vegetable and herb plots, berry bushes and fruit trees, and she has no regrets.

"I don't think anyone feels good about watering a lawn just to make it look green, particularly when there are watering restrictions. And when you're battling beetles and a shabby-looking lawn, why not get rid of it and do something useful with your garden?" said Galvin, who is looking forward to learning how to grow food with her 12-year-old daughter.

Lisa Girody of Victory Gardens says the company is seeing a steady increase in customers year after year, as people embrace less lawn and more food.

"They believe in supporting local agriculture and putting food in their bodies that they feel good about and feeding that food to their families," said Girody.

 "It's the people who are already invested in a healthy lifestyle, and one that supports them and the planet."

Plastic paradise?

For people who want the look of the lawn but not the hassle, artificial grass is becoming an increasingly popular option. Lawrence McClure of Syn Lawn Vancouver says the company went from 180 home installations a few year ago to over 450 last year.

"The technology has come a long way in the last 15 years," said McClure, who admits a synthetic lawn is not for everyone. "Every year it gets more and more popular, as people become aware of the business."

Some homeowners are opting for artificial grass as a permanent solution to damage from pests and pets. (SynLawn Canada-Vancouver)

McClure said the polypropylene and nylon surfaces are popular with customers who are looking for a permanent solution to chafer beetle and pet damage. A 650-square-foot lawn can cost between between $7,000 and  $8,000, which is what McClure estimates the average homeowner spends in a six-year period on a conventional lawn.

Redefining expectations

Landscaper and educator Egan Davis thinks North Americans need to redefine what they expect from their yards.

"It's astonishing how much water a lawn and garden takes, and it doesn't need to be that way," said Davis, head of horticultural education at the UBC Botanical Garden.

He recently installed low-maintenance xeriscapes for clients who no longer wanted put water and time into a conventional lawn. These gardens incorporate native grasses and wildflowers, alpine plants, and trees that require little-to-no water.

For those who want to keep a lawn, Davis recommends incorporating drought-resistant micro-clover, tall fescue grasses and even yarrow — plants he would have considered weeds 20 years ago.

Landscaper and horticultural instruction Egan Davis wants people to consider alternative landscapes, like this collection of native plants at the UBC Botanical Garden. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

"As I've learned about birds and insects, and the inter-relationships, when I look at a lawn like this, I see diversity, and that to me is beautiful."

Defending turf

The lawn still has staunch defenders. Turf grass makes up the majority of home landscapes Canada, and with good reason, according to Professor Katerina Jordan of the Guelph Turf Grass Institute.

"It's just an amazing plant," said Jordan.

"There are not too many plants out there that you can cut and they'll grow back, that you can fall on and not get hurt, that can stop soil erosion, and that actually return water to the groundwater system and filter pollutants."

Jordan said turf grass also cool cities and give people a place to play.

"It's more than just about aesthetics,"said Jordan, who believes a well-maintained lawn is a sustainable lawn.

"You get so many incredible benefits from turf."

To hear the Victoria Day special Lawn Gone? about our changing relationship with our lawns, click the audio labelled: Lawn Gone?