Is the American lawn dying?

Two South Shore experts talk eco-friendly grass care — and alternatives

Creeping mazus (mazus reptans) is a ground cover that likes sun.
Creeping mazus (mazus reptans) is a ground cover that likes sun.

As summer approaches and the grass loses its winter dryness, it’s time to start thinking about the center of almost every garden — the lawn. Chris Kennedy, owner of Kennedy’s Country Gardens in Scituate and an expert on earth-friendly gardening and lawn care, and Thomas Mickey of Quincy, author of “America’s Romance with the English Garden,” weigh in on how to maintain your lawn in an environmentally friendly way. The conversation has been edited for length.

Q: Do you foresee a time when people no longer want a traditional lawn?

Kennedy: We have seen it. We’re not seeing it across the board, but we’re seeing it here and there. People are realizing that doing something that’s been done before doesn’t mean it’s right. Oftentimes, alternatives [mean] less maintenance than a lawn, because a lawn requires mowing, expertise on fertilizers and chemicals — things like that.

Mickey: I don’t think so. I think when you talk to the people who do landscape work, who mow their lawn, that the lawn is really important to an awful lot of people. By no means does it play a secondary role.


Q: Are there ways to have a nice lawn without fertilizers, insecticides, or herbicides?

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Kennedy: It’s hard to eliminate them completely if you’re a perfectionist and want a perfect lawn. But if you’re tolerant of some weeds you can use less chemicals or none at all. Calcium is a naturally occurring element that is added to organic fertilizers now, and there are liquid iron products that kill weeds like dandelions. On the insect side, there are some things that work on grubs, like live nematodes. And of course, there are situations where people want to use a chemical but they don’t want to just use whatever the four-step programs tell them. If you use liquid weed killer, just spray that weed. It’s a lot less chemical.

Q: What kinds of grasses require less watering?

Kennedy: Fescues will tolerate drought better.

Mickey: There’s a grass called Pearl’s Premium lawn seed that really demands less water. They even say you never have to water it, but that’s not really on target — lawns need water.


Q: Is there any difference in what kinds of grasses homeowners should have based on whether their lawn is in full sun, partial sun, or shade?

Kennedy: Most grass seeds come as a mix and that’s a good thing. You’re not putting all your eggs in one basket. It ultimately helps you spread the risk out over many varieties.

Mickey: There are grasses that are more tolerant to a dry period. They’re easily labeled wherever you get your seed. You really want to be careful about what kinds of seed you put in.

Q: Are there any alternatives to the traditional lawn?

Kennedy: There are ground covers for sun and for shade and there are different levels of traffic they can tolerate. Thyme is one that’s able to tolerate some ground traffic. Sedums are rugged – they might get trampled on but they’ll come back. I like mazus, which has a pretty purple or white flower. Often I’ll put in some stepping stones, and you can put the majority of foot traffic on those. One of my favorites for shade is something call sweet woodruff. With ground coverings, you don’t have to weed or apply fertilizer.


Mickey: You can take some of your lawn’s area and use it for a perennial bed or for native or ornamental grasses. You don’t have to have this whole green area. It can be broken up. Zebra grass is one of several grasses that grow a little taller, and they have that look that rises above the flat carpet look of the lawn.

Q: Any additional advice?

Kennedy: One of the things we don’t spend enough time on is soil. Oftentimes, especially with new lawns, the soil is too sandy and doesn’t hold nutrients. I always recommend using compost.

Elise Harmon can be reached at