In the drought-stressed southwest the idea of removing lawns and replacing them with water thrifty gardens has gone from radical to everyday. Local water districts are even offering “buy-back” programs for turf—the Los Angeles DWP is currently offering $3 per square foot. Classes on how to “Kill Your Lawn” or “Designing a Drought-Tolerant Landscape” turn away overflow attendees on a regular basis.
While there have been many excellent books published on this subject most have focused on the West Coast and many are specifically aimed at California. The New American Front Yard by Carolyn Sutton, ASLA, seeks to broaden the appeal of the idea to gardeners throughout North America. Most titles in this category list reasons to ditch the sod and make a garden before shifting to design concepts, general tips, and an extensive plant list. After convincing us to free ourselves from slavery to our lawns, Sutton’s book differs by keeping the focus distinctly on design. Her clear presentation of how a well-considered design can help anyone create a beautiful yard without turfgrass is reminiscent of the best writings of John Brookes (high praise indeed!) Why certain aspects of good design work and appeal to our senses is a difficult concept to put over well.
The author has done a wonderful job of making the process approachable and easy to grasp without over-simplifying the concepts.
For most homeowners the idea of drastically reducing or getting rid of the lawn is appealing, but the next step—“what do I do now?”—usually trips up the process. Sutton is careful to give the average gardener the reassurance that they can “do it themselves” and her book is for those who are serious about accomplishing the task. Clear reasoning and a precise approach explain what to do and why it should be done a certain way. This is not to say the process is represented as “easy.” A certain amount of dedication and the application of complex ideas are expected from the reader.
The book does not include plant lists, just general sections about categories of plants: trees, groundcovers, vines, etc. The reader is encouraged to “go native” and use plants from their local floristic zone and avoid invasive exotic species. With each section it is clear the author has chosen to keep ecologically responsible design, construction, planting, accessorizing, and maintenance in the forefront. Sutton highlights water savings resulting from lawn removal as well as the added benefits of less pollution, noise, and waste from the creation of a working environment more in tune with its surroundings.
The New American Front Yard is a welcome tool to help pry up the acres of grass that have been installed more as a result of a lack of imagination and misaligned social pressures to conform than from any sound gardening practices. Fire up the sod stripper and rip out the lawn!
Steve Gerischer, garden designer and PHS board president
Los Angeles, California