Greater Boston - What can I turn my front yard into?
January 24, 2018 7:40 AM   Subscribe

What can you turn a front yard into that won't be out of place in Boston that isn't lawn.

I hate lawn. Lawns are featureless and water sucking. So being a native of Australia and adopted native of California my first instinct is to turn everything into crushed rock, ground cover, and succulents. But it occurs to me this strategy will fall flat on its face here in Massachusetts.

So what can I turn a front lawn into that isn't a lawn?
posted by Talez to Home & Garden (46 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Having grown up outside Boston (and living in Cambridge now), but also having spent five years in the Bay Area, I totally hear you on the water suck that are lawns. You don't really see xeriscaped yards here, but the idea that comes to mind is to plant more interesting things than just grass.

For example, about two thirds of the yard around my parents' house is a sort of terraced hill thing (sidewalk, retaining wall, flat soil, incline, flat soil and house) and a few years back, they gave up on lawn there, and planted a bunch of fruit trees, herbs and other things. They're really happy with it... even if this last fall meant that they had more apples than they could shake a tree's worth of sticks at. But now no one needs to mow the hill, and the water goes towards something more useful than grass.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 7:46 AM on January 24, 2018 [4 favorites]


Raised garden beds. Or any garden bed; in some areas like Somerville, it's cool to have an overgrown vegetable garden that people can't complain about, because you're growing organic food and that's good.

Asphalt, for an extra car.

Crushed rock or shells is not out of place around here.
posted by Melismata at 7:47 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Dude, you need a Blessed Virgin Mary in a Bathtub. It's practically a requirement for any front yard in Massachusetts.
posted by briank at 7:47 AM on January 24, 2018 [22 favorites]

You can grow a surprising amount of food here. In my neighborhood, which has a fair number of first-generation Greek immigrants, there are lots of front yards that have been fully converted to vegetable gardens. In summer there are abundant tomatoes, squash, eggplants, peppers, beans, lettuce, carrots... it's amazing how much you can grow in a small plot or even in containers like plastic buckets.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:48 AM on January 24, 2018

This was my old front yard: Not a lawn

It was definitely different from the neighbors, and when we sold, the first thing the new buyers did was put in a lawn, but we liked it.

Basically a "formal landscaped garden".
posted by gregvr at 7:49 AM on January 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

The first thing that came to mind for me was ferns, particularly regional options. I love the way they look out around cabins with otherwise thin coverage and some rocks and so forth.
posted by mr. digits at 7:49 AM on January 24, 2018

One note: the planting suggestions you’ve received so far demand more water than my established upstate New York lawn does (I don’t water it at all). I’m all for doing more interesting things with land, and am slowly reducing the size of my lawn with other plantings, but they often require much more time and water than lawns do.

A patio made with pavers or bricks is more common in the Northeast than crushed stone. For ground covers, periwinkle and pachysandra are easy to grow on my property.
posted by metasarah at 8:00 AM on January 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

groundcover, flagstones, a bench under a tree...
posted by acm at 8:02 AM on January 24, 2018

Response by poster: Caveat: the front yard is a good quarter acre. We're on 1.7 acres out in Chelmsford.
posted by Talez at 8:10 AM on January 24, 2018

How big of a lawn are we talking about? Very few houses in my neighborhood (in Somerville) have lawns except mine (and our lawn is a sad example - it has never been watered or fertilized that I know of, and it looks it) - lots of raised mulched beds, patios, and a couple of houses with honest-to-god astroturf and fake flowers.

On preview, I see your answer. I mean, you could just let your lawn be. Don't water it (sometimes it will look bad, other times better). Slowly put more interesting things on your lawn, but covering a quarter-acre is hard. You could put a huge ridiculous circular driveway, maybe?

Second question, I suppose, is how much are you looking to spend on this project? Because not watering your existing lawn is FREE!
posted by mskyle at 8:10 AM on January 24, 2018

Response by poster: We already don't water the existing lawn given that we get ridiculous amounts of rain even in summer. The driveway runs up one side of the block to the attached garage.

We have three random species of Apple trees in the front yard. I just feel like I could be doing something better to steward the land other than to let it remain a faceless piece of suburbia.
posted by Talez at 8:24 AM on January 24, 2018

Response by poster: This is literally the view from my front door.
posted by Talez at 8:27 AM on January 24, 2018

Response by poster: The theme is just so, Nebraska in Massachusetts. A flat slab of grass with a couple of trees peppering it.
posted by Talez at 8:29 AM on January 24, 2018

When I've looked at this, the verdict has been: a benignly ignored lawn (never watered, mowed at the longest interval) is about the easiest and cheapest solution for a big space.

If you put in a bunch of landscapey plant stuff, it will need maintenance - gardens need weeding pruning mulching fertilizing dividing, mulch needs replacing, plants that grow and spread easily (many "groundcovers") can become a nuisance and hard to control, etc. Something like seagrass/sea oats can work with minimum work. A "wildflower meadow" may work depending on your local regulations about how high your grass can be - this usually goes better in backyards than front yards, and tall grass can harbor ticks, which may not be desirable.

I guess the question is, how much money (or personal work) are you looking to spend on installation and then maintenance? If you're comfortable paying someone to do the install and then regular maintenance, you have a lot more options than if you're looking for simple and cheap.

Do you want to be able to use the yard for eg letting the kids/dogs/etc run around, or is it only for looking at?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:33 AM on January 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

(Or, obviously, if you're someone who likes/will do the recurring outdoor work like weeding, pruning, mulching, etc, then you have a lot more options again)
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:34 AM on January 24, 2018

Native plants/natural landscaping! Can be as manicured or wild-looking as you like, and supports local wildlife (especially pollinators that are struggling). Easy to maintain once it's established. Looks like there's a good resource for Massachusetts.
posted by Empidonax at 8:36 AM on January 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

We're in a somewhat similar situation, albeit with a smaller yard and in a much warmer climate. Our process so far has been to slowly but surely replace grass with a combination of native trees (Southern magnolia, eastern redbud, cabbage palm) and non-native but fruiting trees (loquat, grapefruit), and native bushes that will eventually get huge and will aggressively outcompete the grass (beautyberry, sea grapes, and oak-leaf hydrangea).

I don't know much about Massachusetts plant types but you guys apparently have a native plant society that could give you ideas for what types of local, low-maintenance plants to plant in lieu of grass. A good native-plant-focused nursery in your area might also be able to help you conceptualize what to put where, and how to time your planting to maximize benefit (I assume you're not planning on spending $10k all at once to completely redo the yard).
posted by saladin at 8:37 AM on January 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Email the UMASS home gardening extension to ask them this question! My thought was to ask what drought tolerant (aka doesn't need you to water it) native ground cover you should plant, but I bet they will have a lot of suggestions beyond that, too.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:37 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm not really in it for landscaping. More like idly thinking about trying to reforest the front yard. But do people do that out here?

I just hate lawns with a burning passion.
posted by Talez at 8:40 AM on January 24, 2018

To be clear, I'm not talking about "landscaping" in the active sense of the word. I'm talking about strategically planting some trees and shrubs such that, as nature begins to take its course, you end up with a nice-looking "naturalistic" yard that also happens to be very low-maintenance and attracts native butterfly species and all that good stuff. No mulching or pruning or any of that shit.
posted by saladin at 8:48 AM on January 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

Ideas: Walking labyrinth (flat), garden maze (half-height hedges, would look cool from your door) (planting and training something like lavender for the hedges would be pretty, fragrant, and good for bees and birds), open as well as shaded seating areas (benches, screened gazebo with a game table or a swing), a Little Library box with a bench, a small garden plot close to the door, fire pit/chiminea with seating, and low-growing non-grasses for any remaining green areas: clover, creeping thyme, prostrate rosemary... but consider how you want to use the space, and how much a non-lawn will cost to undo for any lawn-idealizing future buyers.

You could get your tree fix by putting small trees in pots, and putting them on small pedestals in the center of several separate activity spaces.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:50 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Dude, don't fall into the trap of thinking non-grass is more work than grass, that's a lie perpetuated by Big Turf.

There a million better ways to steward the land, you are right.

For specific plant types that can take traffic, check out

Yes, you can reforest/aforest your lawn. There are several ways/speeds/costs to chose from. I'd be partial to natives or near-natives that also make food for people or wildlife. So e.g. you can't do American Chestnut due to blight, but there are some really great back-crossed hybrids on the market. Hazelnuts would be great in your front yard.

In general, check out for great info on native, low-maintenance gardening.

Pollinator gardens can be far less work than lawns if done right (link also has other good info for planting in mass).

Thank you for wanting to do better, this can help your carbon footprint, your water budget, your hvac bills, your soil quality, etc etc.

Fight the turf-industrial complex! It's silly and wasteful, and it's killing our native ecosystems that we depend upon.

That's all I have off the top of my head, but I'm happy to consult further via memail.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:51 AM on January 24, 2018 [7 favorites]

A meadow but with some formality - am mobile @ moment and have little time but:
Consider making strips of meadow with grass paths between, so grass @ the roadside (is there a sidewalk?). Each meadow strip has a tree in it (which keeps tree healthier too) plus a wider strip up on main lawn.
What are the spacings between the trees from the road edge backward?
There's a plant/s called Rhinanthus / yellow rattle (Mass. has it's own endemic) which suppress grass and help with keeping meadows richer.
More this evening.
posted by unearthed at 8:58 AM on January 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was thinking more trees, or shrub/vines/arbor stuff. Why not go full orchard? I think that would be very Massachusetts.

You'd have to make sure the fruit didn't all fall to the ground and attract critters, but I think you could manage that, especially if you plant stuff that your neighbors would enjoy.

If you end up with too much fruit or nuts, you can always donate to a food bank. If that's too much trouble, plant varieties without very attractive fruit.
posted by amtho at 8:59 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I also think you should aim for native trees, shrubs, and smaller perennials. I live in WA state, so a very different climate, but my native plants do much better with benign neglect. Since you're looking to ditch the lawn, see if your city/county has grants for homeowners who convert their lawns to something called 'rain gardens' - the rain garden absorbs runoff rather than letting it pollute waterways/ocean.
posted by stowaway at 9:00 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, sounds like trees are what you want. Lots of different ways you could go. Pines will grow fast. Fruit and nut trees will give you fruit. Maples for syrup and pretty fall leaves (your neighbors might not like it if you have a lot of leaves that end up in their yards). A little cluster of birches could be lovely.

I think it's going to be a long process, though - you won't be able to go from lawn to "happy native forest ecosystem" overnight, or even over 5 years.

Also what direction does your house face, and what is your window situation? Planting a lot of trees in front of a south-facing wall could drive up your heating bill (but reduce your AC bill, if applicable).
posted by mskyle at 9:07 AM on January 24, 2018

The term you're looking for is "permaculture." Permaculture involves planting native, drought resistant species that require minimal care once they get going. The aesthetic can range from wild to formal, and people also often seek to integrate useful plants, like vegetables, herbs and fruit trees. A few examples.

You can do this yourself, and the classic book to get started is Gaia's Garden. However, I'd definitely recommend involving a landscaper to at least help you set the plan, and contacting the local native plant society, as recommended above, is a great first step.
posted by veery at 9:36 AM on January 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

I live in MA, and while I am not the gardener in the family, my spouse talks a lot about it so I've picked up some, and he hates grass, so is really interested in alternatives. You might want to look into permaculture if you are interested in reforesting. I look at your yard and see an amazing amount of space to grow food; that's what we (uh, my spouse) would do. That could be an orchard (that's what would be my first pick! cherries! apples! peaches!), could be bushes like blueberries or raspberries, could be more typical gardens of tomatoes, corn, lettuce, kale, whatever you like to eat, etc. You could plant clover, or a lot of native wildflowers. I don't know what the rules are in Chelmsford (you should probably doublecheck town bylaws) but out here in WMA it's pretty much anything goes, so go for it! Reforest the hell out of that yard!

Trees or bushes that have fruit would take a few years to really produce, but would be so awesome long-term. We have 1/8 acre and currently have 1 cherry tree and are planting two in the spring, and about half a dozen blueberry bushes, plus four raised beds, PLUS room to run around and for a sandbox, so on 1.7 acres you could grow A LOT.
posted by john_snow at 9:38 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm in Lexington and have not yet watered my lawn in years and it's totally fine but this really will depend on neighborhood standards. You may not be able to get away with it. Also, a lot of MA towns will have watering bans in the summer, so it may not be an issue.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:41 AM on January 24, 2018

I'm going to take a slightly contrarian view: don't attempt to "re-forest". Mimicking nature is one of the hardest things to do in landscaping. If you try, you are liable to end up with an unsightly jungle. Instead, get some advice from nurseries and such about native species that are suitable for your yard, taking into account soil type, moisture, shading etc. — and then create a layout where you plant three or four varieties of things en masse in different areas, with some curving paths between them made of stone slabs or gravel. These plantings could include native grasses, groundcovers like vinca (not really native but all over the place in New England), low shrubs, and ferns. Incorporate a stone wall or other stone feature. All this will take some maintenance, but it will look great and won't require the demon lawn machine.
posted by beagle at 9:42 AM on January 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

You can plant as many trees as you want, from a fellow MAsshole. If you actually want to harvest anything from trees you'll probably have to spray (organics, if that's your cup of joe, but you're gonna have to do SOMETHING) and water at least for several years.

I really do think that the least maintenance intensive situation would be to establish a native meadow. It takes some getting going, you're going to have to keep it mown short-ish for a couple of seasons to let everything establish in the right proportions, but then you're looking at a once a year mow and AMAZING WILDLIFE. Seriously, you haven't lived until you have goldfinches fluttering about your meadow picking seeds out of flowerheads.

This is a good resource for the basics. Also this. This is a good resource for plants.

Tear up that lawn!
posted by lydhre at 9:45 AM on January 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Another warning about trees: on the south side they will shade in the winter but NOT in the summer when the sun is high and rising and setting to the north. Too close to the house and they eventually become dangerous in high winds. We have dealt with both issues.
Two large native shrubs that have done well for us in southern RI are clethra which has a lovely scent (but spreads by stolons) and spice bush which is food for the spice bush swallowtail butterfly (but make sure you get a male and female if you want berries).
The New England Wild Flower Society has a botanical garden in Framingham. That might be another good resource if you decide to go this way.
posted by Botanizer at 9:46 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

My grandfather ‘reforested’ his backyard in CT. All along the back fence he planted pines and other trees. Over the years you felt like you had no neighbors at all, it grew in so densely. As a kid I remember going into the ‘forest’ and exploring. In reality, it was probably 20-30’ deep. It was just wonderful!
posted by Vaike at 9:47 AM on January 24, 2018

Mimicking nature is one of the hardest things to do

Alternatively, letting nature take its course is the easiest thing ever, just stop doing anything. Trees and shrubs will sprout, grass will die off, succession will ensue, and the species that thrive will be the ones best suited for your particular yard. You'll have a young forest in just a few short years. I know because I've done it, albeit not in MA ;) You will have to keep your eye out for noxious invaders, but "unsightly" is not a word I'd personally use to describe forest regeneration.

Granted, this plan is not for everyone, but let's not act like natural=hard. If you don't want forest, just mow once a year, and you'll get an annual/perennial meadow.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:49 AM on January 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

I agree with "just do nothing". My dad turned a couple acres of lawn into pasture by just... Not doing anything. We had sheep on part of the land but for the other acres it was quickly reclaimed by nature and I don't think it looked bad at all. Also I grew up in an area in NE where not everyone had lawns.. people's yards were just dirt and moss and lots of pricker bushes.
posted by pintapicasso at 9:55 AM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also what direction does your house face, and what is your window situation? Planting a lot of trees in front of a south-facing wall could drive up your heating bill (but reduce your AC bill, if applicable).

The front elevation faces north into the front yard but I have solar that covers 130% of my output and lets me cool using central air and heating is usually set to 65 degrees on natural gas.
posted by Talez at 10:14 AM on January 24, 2018

Turn your lawn into a meadow.
posted by poppunkcat at 12:44 PM on January 24, 2018

I'm in Maine. I have quite a bit of periwinkle/ vinca out front, which reduces erosion. If I don't mow the back a couple times a year, I get volunteer trees that will eventually require cutting when they cause trouble with the leach field, or are unstable in the sandy soil. I don't recommend this. You want trees, but you want to select them. I'd fill up that nice lawn with nut, apple, cherry, and sugar maple trees to harvest, a lilac border and a forsythia border because they're pretty and provide some privacy, and near the house, along any walkways, a deep border of hostas because they're low-maintenance and reliable and I've grown to like the way they look. Maybe some other shrubs, like holly, which is handy for holiday decorating. You want deciduous trees that will lose leaves in fall, allowing the sun to warm the house in winter, but shade it in summer. Maybe a few evergreens if you want to block wind on that north side. Just keep in mind that leaves must be raked, although I mostly leave them till spring when they will mostly have composted themselves. I live in an area that is mixed residential and woodsy and my neighbors haven't complained about the leaves or the dandelions. Once you get the woods thick enough, there will be little grass, and you can plant ferns. Your town or one nearby might have an arborist who can advise you and will be delighted to be asked, and will be bale to recommend a landscaper who will help, if needed.

My Dad died years ago, but when I drive by our old house, I see the many trees he planted all grown and that's a nice legacy.
posted by theora55 at 12:44 PM on January 24, 2018

If you want a small nod to the succulents of the yards you previously had, the prickly pear cactus is native to Cape Cod.
posted by carrioncomfort at 1:17 PM on January 24, 2018

Dude, you need a Blessed Virgin Mary in a Bathtub. It's practically a requirement for any front yard in Massachusetts.

Coming here to say this but oh hey you're in Chelmsford. So yeah I think maybe you need a lot more trees or something to cover like... a lot of that lawn like maybe juniper? I grew up right there and my folks did a lot of landscaping and it was mostly

- rhododendrons
- some raised bed with various flower-ish stuff in there
- lilac bushes
- junipers
- a pull-around driveway
- a few little sitting areas with all-weather furniture
- some potted large-ish plants
- meadow

All of this is labor intensive other than the last one. Keep in mind that in suburban MA "meadow" may not work with your neighbors though it's super plant/bird/bee friendly. You could mitigate this by putting up a fence and having it clearly be an enclosed meadow with stuff like birdbaths and wildflowers in it. Maybe get a certification that it's some sort of approved wildlife habitat area and people will stay off your back.
posted by jessamyn at 1:50 PM on January 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

What about a rain garden?
posted by goggie at 3:58 PM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lots of good ideas here, but with that much space, you have so many possibilities and it may just make sense to consult a bit with a landscape designer.
posted by Sublimity at 6:12 PM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Half of my back yard is juniper and I love not having to mow it.
posted by TwoStride at 7:21 PM on January 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Juniper is also great because if you WANT to fuss around with it, you always can, adding irrigation systems and pruning it and that sort of thing. Birds and other cute little animals (think chipmunks) love the berries and you can also use them to make ersatz gin. Usually you'd put them in with some sort of landscaping/earth moving but they can really change the whole look of a place for the better.
posted by jessamyn at 7:49 AM on January 25, 2018

Boston ivy?

I think whatever you do you should make a path of pavers from your front door to the street. Then if you decide to let the environment grow wild you have a little path to get through it.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:20 AM on January 25, 2018

PM me an aerial and I'll do a couple of useful scribbles of some possibles.
posted by unearthed at 11:31 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

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