Turf Alternatives

As a landscape designer, a frequent request from clients is getting rid of their lawn and replacing with more natural alternatives. Water hogging and pesticide laden lawns are being replaced nowadays with different varieties of grasses, meadows, and other perennials that form a low growing mat, like thyme or mazus.

Mazus underplanted with a  bench

Ubiquitous American Lawns 

Today lawns cover more than 63,000 square miles- almost the size of Texas! And Americans are still in love with their lawns, but this is gradually changing. Turfgrass is mostly made up of non-native grass species and requires a huge amount of water, pesticides, fertilizer, labor, and fuel. There are definitely areas where lawns are useful, like in playing fields, but lawns are way over-planted. The bio-diversity of a lawn is extremely low compared to meadows and other garden plantings, and cost billions of dollars each year to maintain, as well as contribute to water pollution. More and more botanic gardens such as Longwood Gardens and the new Delaware Botanic Gardens are establishing flourishing beautiful expanses of meadow to showcase the beauty of natives in a natural setting.

New meadow plantings at Delaware Botanic Gardens, photo by Amy Sparwasser
Yellow Sulphur on cardinal flower in meadow at Delaware Botanic Garden, photo by Amy Sparwasser

The decline of our native pollinators has been traced to more lawn installation, roundup spraying, big agriculture, and less wild plantings with “weeds”.

To many people, Milkweed is considered a “weed”

Thyme Lawn

For one client, I removed an area of 500 square feet of turf by tilling and raking out, then planting with 1100 thyme plugs (tiny plants). Irrigated with a drip hose until the plants take root, thyme can form a thick mat of creeping foliage that blooms a sea of pink flowers in the spring. Thyme is not native to North America, but works quite well here in the right conditions. There are hundreds of varieties of thyme, but I stick with the low creeping ones.

A lawn area before turning it into a thyme lawn and native plants
Thyme lawn is irrigated with a soaker hose until established. The other part of the lawn is being planted with pollinator friendly plants
Creeping thyme is very steppable

Mazus reptans is another creeping plant that does well in partial shade to shade that spreads quickly to form a mass of creeping foliage with white or purple flowers in the spring.

Variety of ground covers cover a lot of ground here; the yellow is Chrysogonum
Mazus reptans

Change in Attitudes

More and more, I am seeing lawns disappearing and being replaced with perennial grass alternatives like Carex or Sedges and even more radical with meadow plants, like goldenrods and other native wildflowers.

Carex rarely needs to be cut
Carex Pennsylvanica under the chair and Hakonechloa on the edges in Toronto, Canada
Beautiful mix of wildflowers in England

The UK is way ahead of us and establishes meadows everywhere they can, like graveyards.I have seen graveyards in England being replaced with meadow grasses instead of the buzz cuts around gravestones that you would normally see.

Meadow in graveyard in England

But how to get rid of lawns? I suggest gradually turn your property into alternative plantings. Don’t expect it to be done overnight and be cognizant of your neighbors and Home Owners Associations (HOA). Get permission and if that is not forthcoming, then try to educate others about the alternatives. I am a beekeeper and wanted to make a meadow around my beehives to increase bee foraging opportunities, and created a meadow around my beehives.

Meadow around my beehives

To see how I created a meadow and other strategies in creating bee habitat, go to Plant These For the Bees.

Carex and Sedges

One alternative to consider are Carex’s or Sedges to replace turfgrass. Carex pennsylvanica, commonly called Pensylvania Sedge, is a shade-loving perennial sedge that is native to dry woodland in Eastern North America. Semi-evergreen in cold winter areas, this makes a great lawn substitute for dry shady areas, where you might have had trouble growing regular turfgrass. Never needing to be mown, it grows about a foot high, spreading by rhizomes to cover large areas.

Carex Pennsylvanica

Thyme Lawn for Sunny Areas

Creeping or spreading thymes are an alternative in a sunny location with good drainage. Remove your grass by either spraying with an herbicide, tilling it under, or killing with black plastic.

Killing weeds with black plastic is an effective way to kill perennial and annual weeds


What makes a meadow? An open habitat or field covered by vegetation, usually grasses and other non-woody plants providing areas for nesting, food gathering, pollinating insects, and shelter for small animals. Many people wish to replace their lawn with a meadow but think by sprinkling seeds out of a can they can get that look.

Garden writer, Stephanie Cohen, has planted large deer resistant meadow areas at her house in Pennsylvania
Sign at Longwood Gardens meadow
Walking in the meadow at Longwood
Native Monarda in Longwood Meadow

It is important to first remove the existing turfgrass by tilling or killing it with black plastic, cardboard, or newspaper covered with mulch or soil. You can then plant with selected native and non-native plants that do well in your location to form a dense covering of perennials that will crowd out weeds.

Kill turf with black plastic or newspaper covered with soil or mulch

Try using at least 80-85% native plants in your mix. Alternatively, you can use a good wildflower mix and spread the seeds after preparing your ground by raking it out, sprinkling, and raking the seeds into the soil. Firm the soil with a tool to make sure you have good contact and keep moist until the seeds sprout and get established. Don’t think you can sprinkle seeds from a can directly onto the ground and expect the meadow to appear that is pictured on the wildflower canister! There is work involved in establishing a meadow that looks picture perfect.

Meadow at Delaware Botanic Garden has lots of grasses, photo by Ruth Clausen

Maintenance is still required to weed out undesirables that pop up which will happen less frequently as the plants knit together to form a weed killing mat. And your meadow will need to be mown down in early spring.  Here is a great list from Longwood Gardens of meadow wildflowers that they recommend.

For more information on lawn alternatives, The MD Extension Service has a great article on Ways to Reduce Your Lawn.

English Vs. American Gardens

The iconic gardens of Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Bressingham, and Beth Chatto’s were on my recent UK garden tour this July.

My recent group of garden tour friends at Great Dixter

Along with many other gardens that deserve more attention and recognition, I returned home with a renewed appreciation for the diversity and passion for gardening that is encountered only in the UK. Gardening is an obsession with the Brits and since I share that obsession, I can relate to the culture and the importance that they place on this “hobby”.

An explosion of color using island beds at Bressingham Gardens
Entrance into the white garden at Sissinghurst
Thyme patio at Sissinghurst, picture by Amy Sparwasser
Sissinghurst’s hop-kilns for drying hops
Great Dixter is known for their artful use of containers throughout the garden

Not only is gardening a great practical past-time, but an entire nation engages in the leisure activity of visiting gardens enrolled in the National Garden Scheme. Begun with the aim of “opening gardens of quality, character and interest  to the public for charity”, the National Garden Scheme has raised over 50 million British Pounds since it began in 1927,  and over a half million visits occur each year in more than 3700 gardens open to the public. Garden visiting on that scale is totally unheard of in the rest of the world.

Royal Hort Society at Wakehurst is unique in they have one of the only seed banks in the world providing a safety net for species threatened with extinction

People in England love to visit other people’s gardens to gather ideas and perhaps with hopes of adding their own gardens to the National Garden Scheme rolls, and it includes small town gardens as well as more urban gardens.

A friend’s beautifully designed garden in the Cotswolds
A garden arranged by plant families, the Chelsea Physic garden is in central London

But why does Britain have this obsession? Probably climate plays a large role in the answer to the question. The closest comparison of UK weather to US weather would be the Pacific Northwest. If you have ever traveled to that area of the country you will see extraordinary gardens and plants that you can only dream about growing in other parts of the US. The hardiness zones determine your frost free days to garden and the Pacific Northwest is a temperate zone 8 and zone 9. For comparison, here in Maryland, I am a 6b which means that I get much more extremes in weather. Plants don’t like extremes; the more moderate temperatures encourages a wider range of different plants to grow. The hardiness zones in the UK run the gamut of 6 in northern Scotland, to the rest of England with the majority in the 8 and 9 zones. The UK enjoys a temperate maritime climate characterized by cool winters and warm summers, which sounds similar to Seattle. Go to Hardiness Zones in the United Kingdom to see a map and explanation of their zones.

Lady Di’s garden at Kensington has palm trees

So, mild climate, regular rainfall, and a very long growing season. It is no surprise that England has fantastic gardens. When I take visitors to gardens in England, they are often surprised when they see flowers that are blooming together, like a Lenten Rose and a tea rose blooming side by side. At home this would not be possible, especially in my unforgiving mid-Atlantic climate. Or you will see palm trees or other tropicals that stay outside all year. Tree echium (Echium pininana) , a native of the Canary Islands, is a plant that can naturalize in southern California, and you see it planted extensively in southern England. An exotic that will merit lots of admiring comments, this is a favorite plant of many English gardens.

Echium at Rushton Vicarage near Norwich

Closeup of Echium which has tiny blue flowers on a gigantic towering stem up to 13 ‘
An extraordinary grouping of geraniums at Beth Chatto’s garden
Beth Chatto started dry gravel gardening and can grow exotics and tropicals year round
Magnificent Eucalyptus tree at Beth Chatto’s garden
Beth Chatto’s garden

Plant Hunters Started It All

To add to this climate bonanza, many historic plant hunters calling England their home, departed the shores to bring home numerous offerings, especially during the Victorian era. Bringing together all the world’s plants and see them bloom together is often startling to visitors but you can trace this directly back to those first adventurous plant hunters. Starting at Kew Gardens, then disseminated to the ruling class, these exotics were propagated and descended the social scale until they reached the smallest village as cuttings. You can see the results in the gardens across the United Kingdom today.

A commonly seen ‘Cape Fuschia’ or Phygelius capenisis is seen in English gardens and hales from South Africa
Eremurus or Foxtail Lily hails from Asia and is rarely seen in the US
At the Hampton Court Flower Show, Eremurus is planted in a meadow


Gardening On TV

I gave up long ago looking for gardening on HGTV.  But in the UK, gardening shows run constantly with every subject under the sun discussed. Planting seed potatoes? Yes there will be several shows on that in the spring getting you up to speed. And on the subject of potatoes, the English are mad about growing and eating potatoes. It is one crop that I viewed everywhere outside my coach window zipping by. And it is the main crop that the English grow on their “allotments” which is simply a large plot of ground that they grow all types of “veg”.

An exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show of potatoes won a gold award, picture by Darlene Wells

Obsessive Gardening & Flower Shows

So, gardening is a total obsession for natives of the UK and they have good reason to be with the forgiving climate. And gardening off-shoots also thrive with flower fetes, flower shows, and events like the Snowdrop Sensation Plant Fair in February or the Christmas Floral Extravaganza in December.

Flower shows are a celebration of the pinnacle of gardening achievement and draws in hordes visitors every year, with everyone flocking to Chelsea or Hampton Court to admire perfect examples of pretty much every type of flower.

Exhibit of Alliums at Chelsea
One of my favorite exhibits at Chelsea
Love this display at Chelsea


At Hampton Court Flower Show in July 2019
At Hampton Court Flower Show, I saw this Allium ‘Forelock’ which I am going to plant next year
An array of lavenders at Hampton Court Flower Show, 2019
Display of glads and dahlias at Hampton Court
Recreation of Beth Chatto’s dry gravel garden at Hampton Court Show

Bringing tour groups of like minded gardeners to the UK each year has become a ritual as I like to take part in the enthusiasm and passion that residents have for such a rewarding hobby. I find that American gardeners can be just as passionate about gardening but it isn’t as ingrained like it is in England.

Chartwells’s border of nepeta and lambs ears was one of my favorite vistas

Status Vs Oasis 

One big difference between English and American gardens is how the American perceives the garden as a status symbol and the English native sees the garden more as an enjoyable oasis to putter around in. The Americans do love the lawn with vast expanses devoted to it. Having English roots, the lawn is really not as significant in any other culture.  Mown grass dominates any American “yard” or public space currently, but I see meadows creeping in taking the place of grass. But in England, meadows are everywhere, even in graveyards!

Instead of manicuring graveyards, meadows grow up around the gravestones
Meadows are everywhere that there is open ground: here is a graveyard in Bury St Edmunds

Another difference is that Americans call it their “yard” which has negative connotations and not a “garden” like the British. The British are all about the love of gardening and being horticulturalists. Americans are more about “curb appeal” and how their yard will appear to the neighbors. So, you could say that the Brits express themselves through how they decorate their garden with plants and structures, which is connected to their home, but Americans are more into the low maintenance and the utilitarian aspect of gardening and showing it off.  They just want it to look good outside and retreat into their homes. As a landscape designer in the business, I can attest that most people do exactly that.

Where else would you see a monk made out of twigs? Seen at Hampton Court


Garden centers are another good example of the difference between the US and the UK.  Nurseries in the UK are destination trips that include several on -site restaurants, clothing, child care, and other amenities, But in the US the nursery is more about buying plants and gardening tools and then moving on. I see that changing gradually with some great garden centers that have popped up in recent years in the US. Check out Escape to Surreybrooke .

Dobbies is a great destination garden center located in Scotland

Societies & Organizations

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), sponsors of the famous RHS Chelsea Flower Show, offers access to more than 140 gardens around the UK. Just a comparison: There are about 20,000 members of The American Horticultural Society and over 500,000 members in the Royal Horticultural Society!  The RHS motto is “Gardening for all,” and the society’s goal is to help both professional and amateur gardeners with inspiration and advice.
I recently visited Wakehurst, a RHS garden, which had a fabulous ‘Satomi’ Kousa dogwood blooming
Border at Wakehurst, RHS Garden

Trends-Stumperies, Meadows, and Naturalistic Plantings

A whimsical, but practical garden feature unique to England are stumperies. An intentional arrangement of woody plant material left over after removing stumps and large limbs or any re-purposed wood, these structures can make interesting decorations in a garden. Creating a habitat for mostly shade loving plants like ferns, a stumpery is only something I encounter while in England. Displaying interesting architecture of roots and trunks, the vertical use of space creates perfect pockets for plants to thrive in microclimates. An ingenious use of  stumps that would otherwise be trashed, stumperies can be awesome structures.

Old stumps create habitats for ferns
Stumpery at Arundel Castle

Stumperies, first created in 1856, are enjoying a resurgence in popularity and there are stumperies everywhere in England. I expect soon to see one here in the US.  The trends in gardening are about 5-10 years behind here.

Meadows and naturalistic plantings are in vogue in England and I saw them everywhere, especially at the Hampton Court Flower Show. Queen Anne’s lace, which Americans consider a weed, was planted in naturalistic plantings and there was even a lovely pink variety.

Pink Queen Anne’s Lace in a natural meadow at the Hampton Court Show
Pink Queen Anne’s Lace
There were meadow pocket plantings at the outdoor seating areas at Hampton Court


A North American native to the western US, Penstemons were probably my top flower that I saw this past July. UK gardeners have taken this US native and made it their own with new cultivars that I was salivating over and cannot find here, like ‘Laura’, a white with an edging of pink. And don’t get me started on Delphiniums! They are just over the top!

Penstemon  Laura
Penstemon at Wakehurst
More Penstemon!
Delphiniums at Savill Gardens near Windsor

For my next garden tours, I will be traveling to Portugal and Madeira in March 2020 and Ireland in September 2020. Go to my trip tab to see the itinerary for Portugal/Madeira. Ireland is being made up right now and I should have it available soon.

For more posts on my trips, go to Chelsea Flower Show: The King of Flower Exhibitions and Garden Trip-Chelsea and Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds.






Tragic, Moving, and Beautiful – Flight 93 Memorial

Flight 93 Memorial
Flight 93 Memorial

On a recent trip returning to Baltimore from Pittsburgh, I decided to stop at the Flight 93 memorial. I had no idea what to expect and was blown away at the beautiful and peaceful setting that is set amidst rolling hills and meadows. It is a reverent and uplifting space dedicated to the forty victims who died here.

Floral tributes left along the wall
Floral tributes left along the wall

 On our way home on Rt 30, you pass through quaint little towns, reaching the memorial after driving down a newly paved winding road to reach the crash site where the National Park service is building a brand new visitor center and parking lot.

New visitor center going up
New visitor center going up

A black sloping wall extends around the entire crash site field outlining the final resting place of victims. Only family members of the deceased can enter the crash field. A low viewing wall marks the edge of the crash site


Because of the huge impact of the plane slamming into the earth, almost everything vaporized. Only eight percent of the human remains were recovered, enough to match up and identify all 40 victims and 4 terrorists on the plane. All unidentified remains were placed in three caskets and buried near a large native sandstone boulder which became the collective headstone for the burial. A small plaque was placed on the back of the boulder that only family members can visit.  Victim’s families have keys to open the gate to enter the field to mourn their family members.

Large boulder marks where the plane ploughed into the ground creating a 50 feet deep crater
Path leading to area where victims remains are buried
Path leading to area where victims remains are buried


After gouging a huge hole in the ground, and spinning 180 degrees,  the cockpit and first class cabin broke off, and broke up into millions of fragments that scattered and scorched 8 acres of trees. The main body of the plane continued downward into the soft reclaimed mining soil and created a crater 50 feet deep and came to rest against solid rock below the surface. The black box was recovered 25 feet down in the crater in good condition.

Design Competition

The Flight 93 National Memorial design was selected from over 1,000 entries from 48 states and 27 countries in an international design competition. Originally designed in a crescent pattern, the design was modified to a circle because of an outcry that a crescent too closely resembled the red crescent used in Islamic culture.

The Shanksville site was commemorated in 2002, a national memorial, but lots of work is still going on. There are 40 maple trees planted representing each person that perished from the crash and a wall with the names etched in polished white marble for each victim. These walls align with the final flight path of the plane.

Memorial Wall
Memorial Wall

Field of Honor Plantings

According to the National Park Foundation website, they describe the “FIELD OF HONOR” as: “Measuring one-half mile in diameter and covering over 150 acres immediately adjacent to the Sacred Ground, the bowl-shaped Field of Honor links the entire memorial through sightlines and pathways. Once a surface coal mine, the field will be “rehabilitated” through the sustainable planting of native grasses and a mix of indigenous wildflowers”. The meadows are planted and are thriving.

Meadow plants
Meadow plants

Forty memorial groves of trees will be planted to honor each victim . Each grove is planned to contain 40 trees, such as Sugar Maple, White Oak, and Elm, for a total of 1,600 trees radiating toward the center of the Field of Honor.

Newly planted memorial trees
Newly planted memorial trees

A series of wetlands and ponds will be preserved as natural features in the design and construction of the memorial. One of the “leftovers” from the surface mining activities, the wetlands will be transformed into a self-sustaining natural habitat and aquatic eco-system.

Flight 93 memorial outdoor auditorium
Flight 93 memorial outdoor auditorium


The meadows surrounding the entire site were seeded on reclaimed mining land that was comprised of very poor soil and sloping grades. The steep slopes made the process of seeding in meadow grass and flowers difficult but was accomplished before the 2002 commemoration.

Teasels growing in the meadow
Teasels growing in the meadow

Tower of Voices

Also planned is a tower of voices and I will be sure to stop back when this is completed, probably by June 2015. Tall enough to be seen from the highway, the Tower of Voices will mark the entry to and exit from the park. Reaching 93 feet into the sky, the tower will house 40 aluminum wind chimes, which will serve as an audible reminder of the acts of courage of the passengers and crew, many of whose last contact from Flight 93 was through their voices on phone calls.

Tower of Voices
Tower of Voices

Here is a video of the memorial site which explains everything in more detail.


Wildflower Varieties Used


Rudbeckia triloba

Cardinal Flower





Joe Pye Weed

Curly Dock

Crown Vetch


Vipers Bugloss

Oxeye Daisy

Meadow Anemone

White Campion

Wood Aster

Evening Primrose


Blue Eyed Grass


For eyewitness accounts of the crash, go to https://sites.google.com/site/wtc7lies/flight93page1