The Un-Garden

paved front lawn

No, sadly this is not a parking pad.

If you have less-than-zero time to spend in the garden —yes, we know you’re out there— you may be tempted to do something like this: the front lawn version of “paving paradise and putting up a parking lot”. It’s obvious that this is not a green solution. When I see front yards like this my heart sinks. It’s tragic. The reasoning behind it is practical, and goes something like this: “I don’t have time. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want weeds growing there. I don’t want the hassle of a lawn. Obvious choice? Bricks or concrete.” Lawns can be a pain, and many people are quite rightly choosing to get rid of them. Yet, if it’s not an actual parking pad in front of your house, don’t treat it like a parking pad. (Hey, even a parking pad doesn’t have to be an impermeable slab of concrete. More on that in another post.)

It may be tidy, but a paved lawn is not green or sustainable. The massive amounts of paving and hard surfaces in urban spaces cause city dwellers to suffer even more from summer heat, due to the the urban heat island effect. Solar-heated, hard surfaces maintain heat around the clock, whereas natural substances like grass and leaves transpire, creating a cooling effect. A paved front yard only adds to the problem. Walking on main city roads in summer, with asphalt and sidewalks, can feel like like a blast furnace, while dipping onto a side street, with shade trees and front-yard gardens, feels ten degrees cooler.

Scientists believe that vegetation plays a large part in keeping an area cool through a process called evaporative coolingEvaporation is when liquid turns into gas. Plants take in water through their roots and depend on it to live. But after the plant is done with it, dry air absorbs that water by turning it into gaseous water vapor. The air provides the heat that drives this process, so during the process, the air loses heat and becomes cooler.

Runoff is another problem. Impermeable paving on your front garden doesn’t allow water to penetrate the soil, adding runoff water to overflowing city sewers in hard rain storms. Plus, if there are trees on your street, that water is being diverted away from them, instead of helping them flourish. Anything that you can do on your property to prevent water runoff is a good thing.

If you’re an Un-Garden type and you must have a surface that’s absolutely minimal, yet still provides the air cleaning and cooling that green stuff in the city does so well, here are green options that don’t involve time or weeding.

  • Think ground covers, perennial and annual plants are also a thrifty solution. Cheaper than concrete and bricks. Once established, they are as close to no-maintenance as you can get.
lily of the valley front lawn

Lily of the Valley provides a weed suppressing mat.

  • Plant no-maintenance and weed suppressing ivy or Lily of the Valley. You’ll also get lovely scented flowers in the spring. Both will flourish in shade or sun, and are drought tolerant.
  • Plant tough, shade-loving pachysandra. Weed suppressing, drought tolerant.
  • alyssum

    Mostly annual alyssum grows on this front lawn.

    Plant with annual Alyssum. One front garden in my neighbourhood is like walking past a scent box, in summer right through to fall, as the alyssum flowers’ wonderful honey scent wafts on the breeze. (It’s especially good in raised beds as the scent is closer to the noses passing by.) Alyssum is a self-seeding annual,  so it comes back every year like a perennial.

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