When Celeste and Joe Crowley built their home in Durham some 30 years ago, they knew one thing for certain: They did not want a traditional lawn.
No shaggy green grass to mow every other week. No late afternoon hose downs during dry stretches. No bald spots, brown patches, grubs or unexplained divots.
Who needed any of it, when there were so many better options at hand?
“We were never fond of lawns to begin with,” says Celeste, who, with her husband, built a home on Country Lane near the Androscoggin River. “We made a conscious decision at the time that we wanted to have a small footprint in what was a totally wooded three acres.”
True nature lovers, are Celeste and Joe Crowley. So, when it came time to design the layout of their property, they weighed the difficulties of grass against the splendors of alternatives like shrubs, trees, perennials and wildflowers.
What would be better for the environment, they wondered?
“We knew for sure we didn’t want to be out there running a lawn mower for a couple hours at a time,” Celeste says. “And people put pesticides and all kinds of things on their lawns. We didn’t want to use chemicals because our artesian well is out there, plus we live on the river.”
The decision was made. The Crowleys would eschew the traditional lawn altogether.
To some, it was madness! No traditional lawn? Is that even legal?
“We had some local guy do the foundation,” Celeste recalls. “He dug it out and then he wanted to know about the lawn. We said, ‘Well, we’re not having a lawn’ and he looked us like we had three heads.”
You can sort of see why. The image of the deep green and immaculately maintained lawn is one that is firmly associated with all notions of the American dream. Part of that dream has always involved getting married, buying a house and then spending the next 50 years or so mowing, raking, hosing and otherwise maintaining the lawn so that it looked at least as good as the guy’s next door.
The American lawn has been around for generations, but lately there has been a trend — though not a very big trend just yet — of people going in other directions. Why spend all summer fussing over a lawn when you could turn that space into a vegetable garden and have something to show for it? Why not throw down landscaping blocks and turn your front yard into a patio? How about letting wildflowers grow crazy just to see what happens?
For the Crowleys, it was all about nature, and letting it do whatever nature wants to do, with a little loving intervention. On their property on Country Lane, there’s a little bit of everything.
There’s a bank that the Crowleys landscaped and turned over to nature.
“We made it all even and then we put on bark mulch,” Celeste says, “and that’s when we started planting our native trees, bushes, perennials and even wildflowers. We purposely allow wildflowers to grow. Even, like, black-eyed Susans. We’ll dig them out from the side of the road someplace and we’ll put it in our garden.”
Joe surrounded the area with stone walls and created walkways.
“On one side I have a lot of day lilies,” he says. “On the other side I have a lot of the native bee balms.”
When other landscapers toss out flowers that are two-thirds dead, Joe will take them back home, stick them in his nursery and wait for them to come back.
There’s a Joe-Pye weed seven feet tall, and other natural attractions that draw humming birds, squirrels, raccoons, you name it. The more nature they get, the Crowleys feel, the better.
“We feed everything,” says Celeste. “We don’t discriminate, we love it all. We don’t care if blue jays come in. We even had a platform for leftover food. Instead of putting it in the trash, we’d put it up on this high platform and birds, crows, ravens — any kind of birds, really — and sometimes even mammals like skunks and raccoons climb up. It’s really beautiful out there. It’s a naturalist’s dream.”
Although the move away from lawn grass doesn’t appear to be a full-blown movement yet, there are many landscapers and greenhouse operators in the area who say there has definitely been a move in that direction, beginning in particular around the time that COVID-19 appeared.
“A lot of people started turning their lawns into vegetable gardens last year,” says Nina Stewart, who has been running Landscape World in Lewiston for 25 years. With the pandemic, the shortages and everything going on, they wanted to grow vegetables instead of mowing a lawn. A lot of people took pallets and turned them into raised beds. It’s really a good thing to do.”
But food shortages don’t explain it all. Stewart and others say they’ve seen the beginnings of a trend in which people just don’t want to spend time fussing over their lawns when unpredictable Maine summers make that such a tedious affair.
Lots of people are turning to anything BUT grass to fill space in their yards.
“This year, like last year, perennials went like crazy,” Stewart says. “They want them to come back every year and then they’re adding more and more. A lot of people wanted ground cover this year.”
Replacing grass lawns requires some sweat and grunt work, sure. But it doesn’t require a whole lot of expertise. Stewart knows of one woman in Lisbon who wanted to get out of the grass game at home, but didn’t know how to go about it.
In the end, she just went for it.
“Right by the sidewalk, she turned a lot of her lawn into perennial gardens,” Stewart says. “She went in there and made some crushed rock paths. She said she didn’t know how to do it. Then she showed me and I said, ‘Wow. You’re doing a great job.’”
In Sabattus, another family chose to evict the grass in order to create more living space.
“They turned their front lawn into an outdoor patio,” Stewart says. “They fenced it in and put blocks down. They put some Adirondack chairs out there, a fire pit . . . and all that was a front lawn at one time. I thought that was a neat idea.”
In Auburn, Edie Williams inherited an exotic front yard garden when she moved into a home on Shepley Street 10 years ago.
Out there, near the corner of Hillcrest Street, Williams’ yard is filled with a little bit of everything. There are lilies and hosta, rhododendron and sedum, echinacea and oriental iris. There’s a ninebark tree and a few plants Williams is unsure about.
“It’s a little bit wild out there, which I like,” she says. “It’s fun to watch things move around. They’re planted one way but then they’ll seed somewhere else.”
Williams has lived in several areas, including Alaska, and doesn’t recall having a traditional front yard since she was a kid. She doesn’t miss it, she says, although she was never one of those who minded mowing very much.
For Williams, it’s simply that she can have a better hands-on relationship with the plants in her yard than she could with grass.
“I love working out there,” she says. “I used to have a vegetable garden and I’ve worked on farms since I’ve been in Maine. I like having my hands in the dirt.”
Williams is also kind of learning as she goes when it comes to taking care of all those plants.
“It was in much better shape when we moved here 10 year ago,” she says. “The people who used to live here were definitely more meticulous than I am.”
Around the corner, on Orchard Street, Don Corwin went with plants and flowers instead of lawn around his home for reasons that are simplicity itself.
“I didn’t want to have to mow it,” he says.
He speaks from experience, too. After moving up from New York, Corwin lived in Union in a home that sat on a couple acres. He had a 60-foot-by-60-foot vegetable garden then, but that still left plenty of space for ordinary lawn.
And lawns have to be mowed.
“And I’m out there mowing every Saturday morning, a transplanted New Yorker on the riding mower with a beer in hand,” Corwin recalls. “All I’m doing is riding in circles. I mean, I had the garden and the garden was work, but I was harvesting things; getting something for my efforts. We always had fresh vegetables in the house and I could give stuff away to people who didn’t have gardens, and that was nice.”
Corwin has since moved to Auburn, but his feelings on lawns hasn’t changed.
“An open lawn with grass is useless,” he says. “I’d rather it be productive.”
In front of and around the sides of Corwin’s home are a wild variety of perennials in the ground, and annuals — maintained by his wife — in pots. There are coleus, hosta, astilbe, sedum, false indigo, cosmos, black-eyed Susans, zebra grass and some monster sunflowers flirting with 12 feet tall.
“They’ve grown so tall this year, the squirrels are afraid of getting nosebleeds,” Corwin says. “Usually they go up and lop the heads off and take the flower some place to munch on the seeds. They haven’t touched them this year.”
All around Corwin’s house — on both sides of the sidewalk — is the look of unrestrained nature instead of neatly trimmed lawn. It’s sort of a juxtaposition — most of the homes in the neighborhood are surrounded by traditional, predictable grass. But not all of them.
Corwin points to a house across the street. There, at the corner of Orchard and Granite streets, is the home of Lil Barnett and her son Mark.
“That corner right there was completely bare,” Corwin says. “Mark and his mom have turned it into a nice little garden spot. He’s got some beautiful plantings that he brought up from Portland. They cut all the tees down that were starting to lean toward the house, and they took all the giant shrubs out that were hiding it. It’s a great sunny spot and they built this beautiful little garden.”
And on other streets in the neighborhood, you see signs of lawn abandonment here and there. On Lake Street, a home features boulders in the yard instead of grass. On Shepley Street, near Gamage Avenue, is a front yard filled with such a variety of wildflowers and other landscaping touches, the entire corner has a certain Zen-like quality. Just around the corner, at a home on Hillcrest Street, you’ll find fruit trees growing instead of grass.
Mark Labonte, owner of Labonte’s Landscaping, does this kind of grass replacement work for others. He also does it for himself.
“At the cottage, which is on Middle Range Pond, I took down a bunch of trees but instead of putting in a lawn, I’m putting some trees back and turning it into a woodland garden,” Labonte says.
Labonte has been called for help with similar projects. Some people want ground cover just for the views, others want to make room for vegetable gardens. Labonte definitely understands the desire to get away from traditional grass. But he does warn that just because you ditched the lawn, doesn’t mean your summers will be labor-free entirely.
“You’re trading one kind of maintenance for another,” he says. “One is weekly mowing and the other one is weekly weeding.”
The trend away from lawns might not be as big in Maine, Labonte theorizes, because in Maine it’s not too difficult to grow and maintain grass, as it is in dryer parts of the country, particularly Western states where drought is common.
“We are blessed with an abundance of rain here compared to other parts of the country,” Labonte says. “We do have a good climate for grass. We don’t feel the pressure or the need necessarily.”
He has also seen people who blend a desire for aesthetics with concerns about the environment. A wetlands or drainage garden, for example, will place plantings in areas where there is naturally occurring runoff during rains.
“It does several things,” Labonte says. “It filters out a lot of impurities that would end up in the aquifer — in the rivers or into streams. It’s almost kind of like a retention pond kind of deal.”
At Longfellow’s Greenhouses in Manchester, the anti-grass trend is apparent.
“I’ve heard of quite a few customers who are taking out part of their yards and building new gardens,” says Kate, who works in the nursery at Longfellow’s. “It does seem like we’re getting a lot more people gardening overall. This year as well as last year in the nursery, we have sold a lot more of the fruit trees and the raspberries, blueberries — anything edible — as I think people are trying to plant more of that so they can make less trips to the store.”
Longfellow’s caters to professionals and amateurs alike, so on its website, it offers plenty of tutorials for people just getting into the non-grass game.
“We try to explain things here in person” Kate says, “but we also have a printed guide, either on our website or on a pamphlet, and that just helps to start everyone off on the right foot.”
Corwin, who so zealously switched from grass to plants over the past couple years, DOES have a sizeable patch of the green stuff in his backyard. It’s too shady back there to do any serious growing and anyway, “we have a dog and a dog needs a place to run. The kids need a place to sit and it’s kind of nice to sit back there.”
Corwin thinks about this for a few moments before offering the ultimate concession.
“Grass,” he says, “does have its place.”