It's that time of year to think about what needs to be done with lawn…
Gravel instead of Grass for a Front Lawn
We know the lawn has long been an important part of the home landscape.
Therese O’Malley says in her book Keywords in American Landscape Design: “Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the lawn was an essential element of the American designed landscape.”
Homeowners today address the issue of the lawn in different ways. In parts of the country where water is at a premium that might mean decreasing or even eliminating the lawn.
The Lou Weiss household in Pittsburgh took an unusual step by eliminating the front lawn completely and replacing it with gravel (below).
I visited their house a couple of weeks ago on my trip to Pittsburgh for the http://americangardening.net/tinder-dating-tips/Annual Symposium.
Instead of grass, Weiss has covered the area in gravel. The gravel allows rainwater to percolate through channels leading to a rock cistern. Water from the cistern and the roof is recycled for use in the home and the vegetable garden out back.
When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it.
The Weisses kindly invited us into the house. The beautiful design of the landscape complements the features of this modern white house. It is no surprise that the house and landscape have both received a lot of press over the years, often in architecture magazines.
I must say, though, that the front lawn really took me by surprise. It seems an extreme way to deal with the landscape, but there is something that I like about. Maybe it’s the white color of the house that complements the gravel so well.
Though most American gardeners probably cannot take the step that the Weiss family did, the gravel lies there in the midst of a long tradition of the lawn which is the heart of the English garden. The seed and nursery industries of the nineteenth century often encouraged the lawn in their catalogs.
Philadelphia nurseyman Thomas Meehan wrote so matter of factly in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1882: “The garden is made up in the main of trees and shrubs, lawn and flower-beds.”
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This is horrendous and no different from the green painted gravel yards that prevailed in the 1960s. We need to stop treating our land like our living room, and start treating it as an ecological system. The gravel raises the temperatures around our homes and buildings and the permanent weed barriers being used disrupt nutrient/oxygen cycling and suffocate soil microbes. This kills the soil and increases runoff. Within a year or two, silt and dust collects under the gravel and over the weed barrier. This creates a crust that further limits water, nutrients and oxygen access.
Elizabeth, thank you for this follow-up to my blog post. I had no idea about these negative effects from a landscape that depended so much on gravel. Perhaps the reason we don’t see this often is the negative impact on the soil.
Unfortunately, architects and house flippers are installing more and more of these “rock turfs” because they don’t understand what’s going on underneath. And when everyday people see these installations (they’re not gardens) on HGTV, they’re thinking, wow, I can do that too!
I will be talking about this on Central Texas Gardener next week (central Texas gardening show on PBS), so I’m gathering information, perspectives, etc.
Elizabeth, please use the image of the gravel landscape that I posted in your talk. Best.
A brave decision indeed! I like it too. But most plants consider gravel to be the ideal germination medium, so how do the Weisses keep this area weed free?
Charlotte, I know that below the gravel is a landscape fabric which lies right above a few inches of stone. So perhaps these layers help with keeping the weeks down.
Hadn’t thought of that! I’ve been blessed with deep topsoil all my gardening lilfe.