Grass or weed?
June 5, 2008 9:57 PM   Subscribe

Why can't I have a weed lawn?

I like walking on my lawn and playing with my dogs on it. I like the anti-erosion benefits of grass, and that it keeps us from tracking dirt into the house. But I like most green things, and I see little reason to invest the resources and energy a grass lawn requires if there are other options. I've read a bit - some of it on AskMe - about alternative lawns. I've considered mint, creeping thyme, chamomile, etc., but none of them has seemed quite right.

While tending my lawn this week, someone suggested I pull the clover and plaintain weeds that had taken over some parts of it. I thought, why should I pull them? They're green, they're hardy, they do what my lawn does on their own without the hassle. As long as I contain it, are there any reasons I shouldn't have a weed lawn? Has anyone tried this, on purpose or by accident?
posted by walla to Home & Garden (44 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Our lawn is mostly "weeds" (tons of clover and grab grass, mixed with a few patches of real grass and a sprinkling of dandelions). It wasn't on purpose, it's just that keeping up a perfect yard of grass is costly and labor intensive. Our theory is, if it's green and it looks decent once it's mowed, why worry about it? I'd rather spend my time outside tending to my flower garden and vegetable garden, and enjoying letting my dogs romp around, without fretting about whether the grass looks immaculate.
posted by amyms at 10:05 PM on June 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

Our lawn is pretty much a fungal colony, topped with moss and clumps of crabgrass. We just keep it mowed and it looks more or less like a grass lawn. But I live in Portland, where having a brown lawn 9 months out of the year is more than acceptable. As long as you are happy and think it looks good, go for it!
posted by peep at 10:09 PM on June 5, 2008

I'm not sure about plantain weeds, but clover is a perfectly acceptable ground cover. Farmers and gardeners plant clover as a cover crop to improve their soil. If you want to mow it, clover will grow back well. There is even a school near here that has a section of clover lawn, which looks quite nice.
posted by ssg at 10:11 PM on June 5, 2008

Yeah my Dad has the same thought process as amyms, clovers, crab grass and some other random weeds and grass. If its green its good enough for him. My Dad planted some grass seed but then figured that letting the weeds take over was much easier and he could spend time on other things.
posted by lilkeith07 at 10:11 PM on June 5, 2008

"weed" is kind of all-purpose. Some plants are more voracious so if you let them grow, they could sorta take over, and make it harder for you to keep things trimmed, etc. But when my family lived in maine, we had three fields and a lawn area, and we mowed the lawn area regularly, while the fields just got plowed & baled for hay.

So the fields were long grass for hay, but our "lawn", such as it was, was whatever grew there, and that certainly included lots of clover, dandelion & chamomile. Burdock was a little bit of a pain when it sprang up as it could get caught in hair and on clothes... And then there's concern over poison stuff... but it never would have occurred to us that we pull the weeds from the lawn - we weeded the garden, but the lawn we just trimmed, and it worked for us.

However, this was kinda farm landy, not suburban. It certainly didn't look like a golf course or anything. But I always liked it better, seemed to have more character (but I'm biased, having had my childhood with it)
posted by mdn at 10:15 PM on June 5, 2008

My lawn is pretty much identical to anyms's, right down to the dogs and other priorities. But in the 4 years I've owned my house, one thing I've noticed is that as the grass gives way to more weeds, especially if I don't water it enough, the erosion gets worse. My theory is the thatching and root systems of grass are far more effective in keeping topsoil in place than opportunistic weeds. So if you let it go long enough, you're eventually going to have a sand yard.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 10:17 PM on June 5, 2008

I ended up with a weed back lawn back in 2006. It sucked. Mowing it was a hassle, it was all greasy and stemmy and yucky.

There's nothing quite like a nice luxurious green grass lawn.
posted by tachikaze at 10:19 PM on June 5, 2008

I have a weedy yard, and I think it's a problem for a couple of reasons:

1. It looks worse than grass when not mowed, and I suspect that there is a high correlation between people who don't care if their yard is weedy and people who don't mow every single week. But maybe that's just me.

2. Some of the more invasive stuff has moved into my neighbor's yard from mine. They haven't said anything to me, but I feel guilt.
posted by not that girl at 10:20 PM on June 5, 2008

Go native and landscape your lawn with native grasses and plants.
posted by wfrgms at 10:23 PM on June 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

Moss lawns are pretty low-maintenance, apparently.

I think you may need shade, or you'll have grass coming out that you'd have to weed. :p
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:26 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I read about someone who just rototilled their yard once a year.
posted by mecran01 at 10:27 PM on June 5, 2008

I wanted to pop back in with a story about my dad (RIP) and his obsession with his perfect lawn. He kept his lawn immaculate and weed-free with the assistance of one of those chemical lawn services. They came to spray their noxious liquid once a week. Back when I was a mouthy and know-it-all teenage environmentalist, I decided it was time to speak up.

One weekend, while the chemical service people were doing their thing, I gave my dad an impassioned speech about how he was contributing to the poisoning of our ground water, fouling the lakes and rivers and endangering wildlife, etc., etc... I went on and on, as only a high-strung teenage girl can do when she's righteously indignant, and when I was done speaking, I kept eye contact with him, hands on hips, daring him to refute me.

He smiled at me, with a twinkle in his eye, and sighed "Yeah, you're probably right, but I've got a damn good-lookin' lawn."

At the time, I was infuriated with him, but 20-odd years later, now that he's gone, it's a moment that I remember with great affection for some reason.

Maybe my carefree attitude toward my own lawn is my subconscious way of making reparations to Mother Nature for all the damage my dad did.

So, anyway, the point of my story is to bring up the environmental benefits of taking a more laid-back, natural approach to your lawn decisions.
posted by amyms at 10:32 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

The drawbacks are:
- weeds grow unevenly, making it necessary to mow more in order to create a uniform appearance.
- weed seeds will go into your neighbors' lawns, which could make them upset
- less curb appeal
- more pollen (bad for people with allergies)
- poisonous plants can invade
- you can run afoul of your city's noxious weed laws

I, too, think that lawns are over-rated and I am in the process of cutting up the sod and planting other landscaping materials.
posted by Ostara at 10:33 PM on June 5, 2008

I've got an outbreak of Speedwell in my lawn this year. It has beautiful tiny purple flowers, doesn't grow over 4" and has populated some areas where I have a hard time keeping grass alive. They tell me it's a weed and needs to be controlled but I'm still trying to figure out what the downside of allowing my entire lawn to be taken over by this supposed weed. The idea of having a 4" lawn that never needs cutting is pretty appetizing but there doesn't seem to be any examples of people doing this anywhere on the web so I assume that means it doesn't stay green all summer or dies in the winter like crab grass. I think that's the main reason people take care of their lawns - because once grass goes into its dormant phase it pretty much stays green all winter.

Anyway, since this is a lawn thread on a progressive forum I thought I'd mention that I got a push reel mower last week after getting sick and tired of sucking in fumes and not being able to listen to my ipod while mowing and man I wish I had done this two years ago when I first moved in. It literally takes me half the time due to the fact that it's 1/4 of the weight and it's a totally pleasant experience compared to the gas mower. I don't understand why people continue to use gas mowers when the technology of push reels has made them more efficient.
posted by any major dude at 10:34 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, another thing I bought last week in an effort to keep my lawn chemical free is this.
Get one, your back and ground water will thank you.
posted by any major dude at 10:37 PM on June 5, 2008

Depending on the mix of weeds and when the snow recedes after winter is over, you may wind up with large patches of dirt. We had snowfall after snowfall after snowfall here, and one of the weeds that was a major component of one section of the yard just gave up and all died off. The only thing that came up was dandelions, which looks terrible, but if I pull them up, they will look even more terrible.

I'm renting from a professor who requested that we not use any chemicals on the lawn, so I just throw down grass seed everywhere and hope that it grows enough to compete with the mess of weeds.
posted by the_W at 10:45 PM on June 5, 2008

In New England, at least among long-time residents, crabgrass lawns are the norm, and watering a grass lawn is seen as downright weird.
posted by zippy at 11:04 PM on June 5, 2008

A lot of people just default their lawn to more or less what you're talking about. If weeds get out of control it can become pretty noxious for a neighbor: it's that "containing it" thing you mention that's the rub.

I find I can maintain a nice grassy lawn at minimal effort, which entails keeping it long (3-3.5 in), leaving clippings on the grass (mulching mower a huge benefit there, otherwise you really have to keep up with the mowing), and a little minimal feeding, seeding, weed pulling (just noxious spreaders like dandelions and creeping charlie, I'd never bother pulling plantains or clover, and honestly I doubt I spend 5 hours a year on that). This is pretty close to a description of my approach, though mine contains slightly less granola and I'm not convinced of the non-value of overseeding (though I agree it's not a solution for a sickly dying lawn).

Chemical and watering intensive high maintenance lawns are weak and touchy, frankly, the cost of enforcing absolute monoculture. Healthy grass is quite resilient and competitive with weeds in your yard and can be maintained with a few hours a month.

Check other threads under the lawn related tags you used, there have been several good discussions of alternative lawns.
posted by nanojath at 11:57 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

your city's noxious weed laws

Many communities have these, but in general they don't stand up in court. The weed lists are frequently just cobbled together and don't have any ecological basis, so you ought to be able to find an expert witness ecologist or landscape architect who will defend your right to add some diversity to your front yard, especially if you are interested in planting native wildflowers or prairie grasses. If your subdivision has a more specific restriction on what you can and can't do, it might be harder to fight. But simply saying lawns must be "weed free" is not defensible, because a native wildflower is not a weed in any real sense.

Note that a wildflower meadow is not necessarily any easier to maintain. My old professor burns his front lawn on a regular basis to keep it healthy. So make sure you know what you're getting in to.

You could check out the Wild Ones for more info. Weed ordinances discussed here.
posted by BinGregory at 12:27 AM on June 6, 2008

Broad leaf "weeds" like the plantian you cites shade out the neighboring grasses, then they themselves die out leaving bare patches in your yard. You could encourage edible weeds like dandilion and start eating them though.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:24 AM on June 6, 2008

Every grass lawn should have clover in it. Saves bigtime on fertilizer: basically, if there's clover in your lawn, you don't need any, as long as you leave the clippings where your mulching motor mower or push reel mower drops them.

The main weed in my yard is the grass. Kikuyu is almost impossible to kill, and wins most inter-species contests.
posted by flabdablet at 4:32 AM on June 6, 2008

Your neighbors will not love you if you deliberately grow a dandelion lawn.

The little buggers don't exactly stay home, you know?
posted by rokusan at 4:34 AM on June 6, 2008

They do if you mow them as soon as they show signs of flowering, before the seed heads can develop. But all those plants with flat rosettes of leaves make ugly holes in your ground cover when they die.
posted by flabdablet at 5:17 AM on June 6, 2008

I've dug up my entire front yard, section by section, over the past few years and slowly replaced it with ground cover and mulch on one half, and a tree and pure white dwarf clover on the other half. Quebec banned pesticides and herbicides a few years back, so my former guilt at having dandelions on the other parts of the lawn has diminished now that they're freakin' everywhere. Plus I make dandelion wine, which I share with the neighbours to keep 'em friendly.

This, however, has led me to realize that grass is a weed, it's just a weed that some people find aesthetically attractive. But once you start trying to grow anything else, you realize that lawn grass is a bigger nuisance plant than dandelions, crab grass, or anything else: a sprawling, useless, rapacious waste of soil and nutrients that gives absolutely nothing back.
posted by Shepherd at 5:53 AM on June 6, 2008

my yard is full of buttercup, wild violet, wild strawberry (the tiny strawberries are in season right now and are pretty tasty), clover, oh yeah, and some grass (plus some dandelions, and what I guess are plantains, we always just called it sow's ear) some may not like it, but I like my yard to be more interesting than uniform grass everywhere.
posted by jrishel at 5:53 AM on June 6, 2008

Beware: my parents had a nice shin-high "native" lawn & a neighbor made the city come and mow it flat one day. No warning, just a postcard after the fact saying "your yard was a nuisance, so we destroyed it. Next time we'll fine you."

...point being, do not rely on having time to fight the city.

They can, and may, simply arrive and kill everything. Then you have to decide if it's really worth spending thousands of dollars to fight it out in court & ultimately have the city say "OK, sorry we shoulda warned you, here's fifty bucks for grass seed. See ya chump!"

Check, very thoroughly, how your city/town operates. Then assume the worst. If not, then don't use any expensive or rare plants.
posted by aramaic at 5:59 AM on June 6, 2008

You can have a pretty adequate lawn if you seed it in the late fall, make sure it gets some water during very long dry spells, and make sure the soil is healthy. Seed any bare patches and keep it mowed. I don't love dandelions, so dig them out with a spiky tool when I happen to notice a big one. I compost lawn waste, mostly leaves, and sometime the neighbors add grass clippings, and have used compost to improve the soil. I have tons of shade, so part of the lawn has lily-of-the valley, which is nice and does not need to be mowed. I have violets and clover, which I like, and plantain, to which I am indifferent. It's pretty low maintenance, supports worms, which support robins, etc., and looks okay.

Grass is used for lawns because it's sturdy. I haven't seen an alternative lawn that can be walked on regularly.
posted by theora55 at 7:01 AM on June 6, 2008

Why not have a lawn you can eat. I think grass lawn's are pretty much pointless, especially when you consider the resources some people waste trying to keep them alive. I suppose the nice thing about a weed lawn is that your resource consumption should be 0. But then, it doesn't provide all that much benefit either. The ideas of planting native grasses and wildflowers are nice though.
posted by NormandyJack at 7:31 AM on June 6, 2008

I'm in favor of weeds. They're especially great if you have kids. I have tons of fond memories of my childhood front-yard adventures: digging up wild leeks and putting them in mud pies, finding 24 four-leaf clovers in a day, eating handfuls of wood sorrel when science class told me they were edible, eating wild strawberries and spitting them out because they were nowhere near ripe.

A thick plush uniform grass lawn is aesthetically pleasing, but it's also pretty boring.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:46 AM on June 6, 2008

Yeah, weeds are awesome for kids, especially ones like milk thistle.
posted by rhizome at 7:56 AM on June 6, 2008

If you just let it go to weeds your neighbors and eventually the town will be after you. Clover in the lawn is a good thing and no one will (or at least should) complain about that. It fixes nitrogen into the soil and thus fertilizes the grass naturally. You will still need some extra fertilizer though. You can buy clover seed to get it firmly established. Dandelions are another matter, as are many of the remaining broadleaf weeds. Pull them out or kill them or face the wrath of your neighbors and town. You can plant native species and garden your plot rather than have a lawn, but just letting the weeds take over in the lawn will only cause trouble.
posted by caddis at 8:18 AM on June 6, 2008

Clover used to be the dominant lawn covering along with grass in this country until the 1950's. The guys who invented the first commercial weed killers couldn't figure out how to make one that killed weeds but left grass and clover alone, so they decided that leaving grass alone was enough and convinced everyone that clover was a weed that would attract bees and get you children stung and was therefore worthy of eradication. Just do a nice clover grass mix, it will be less maintenance, and you will have a healthier lawn overall, if you neighbors complain tell them to suck it.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:47 AM on June 6, 2008

What town's do y'all live in where just having "weeds" in your lawn is a crime? Or where it is necessary to fertilize your lawn? Seriously, every house on my street has either a "weed" lawn or mulch and carefully planted plants. Nobody has gotten in trouble as far as I know.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:07 AM on June 6, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks all - great ideas and comments here! I like the idea of mixing clover seed and maybe mint and some other yummy things with my grass and seeing what takes over. I hear clover is resistant to dog pee, which is a big plus for me, and personally I think it's pretty. I also have some kind of unidentifiable weed with pretty little purple flowers that grows on the edges and in sidewalk cracks - any idea what this might be and how I can cultivate it?

FWIW, I've never used chemical fertilizers on my lawn, but I've found that chemical-free cotton burr compost is like steroids for grass and use it for seeding bald patches with a perennial rye grass/fescue mix. It came in thick and lush, even in the shade, and was long enough to be mowed 2 and a half weeks after planting.

I'm also in Chicago, if that makes a difference for which plants will thrive here. I absolutely love the idea of a wildflower yard, but considering I like to play with my dogs on the lawn I think it needs to be somewhat low-growing.
posted by walla at 9:57 AM on June 6, 2008

Response by poster: I just saw Any Major Dude's reference to speedwell, but I'm not sure this is my mystery purple flower. Mine has rounder, shinier leaves. Any ideas?
posted by walla at 10:11 AM on June 6, 2008

Whatever lawn approach you choose, check your local regulations. I came home one day to find a neon-orange "courtesy notice" on my door requesting that I mow my lawn or face a fine of $1000.
posted by dreaming in stereo at 10:18 AM on June 6, 2008

Your mystery purple flower could be creeping thyme. Even if it isn't, creeping thyme is a pretty good step-able plant and might be a good mix. And it smells nice when bruised. Mint is more aggressive and may become unwelcome fast.
posted by rosebengal at 11:41 AM on June 6, 2008

I have not read all of the posts above, but I wanted to suggets stepables (for ideas of what will survive some traffic).
posted by TheDukeofLancaster at 12:18 PM on June 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I don't think it's creeping thyme, but the thyme is beautiful and I will try adding it into my mix. TheDukeofLancaster, stepables looks awesome!!!! I will definitely check it out.

It never even occurred to me that the city might come after me about my lawn, but the Chicago area tends to be pretty strict about such things, so it's a good thought.
posted by walla at 2:34 PM on June 6, 2008

Could the purple flowers be creeping charlie? I always campaigned to just let that take over my parents' yard, on the theory that it's pretty and hard to kill and they wouldn't make me mow as often. Somehow, my dad never fell for it.
posted by beandip at 7:45 PM on June 6, 2008

No weeds, no grass, no mess. Simply turf.

Although, a baseball player once said, "If I can't smoke it, I don't want to play on it. And this stuff here ain't grass."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:18 PM on June 6, 2008

Or your purple flower could be Crown Vetch, or Dead Nettle. Depends how big it is, etc.

Whatever you do, don't pull your clover. Clover affixes nitrogen to the soil and actually feeds your lawn organically, saving you fertilizer money. Ignore your ignorant nosey neighbor.

Growing a nice, organic lawn is just as easy as the chemical kind of maintenance, I promise. And it's easier in the long run because as you build your soil, you do less work (the chemicals in synthetic fertilizers and pesticides kill all the microorganisms in the soil, making your grass weak and prone to disease. It's a vicious cycle). Here are the steps:
- rake the whole lawn and kind of scratch up the surface and reveal any bare spots.
- Just before weeds start to germinate, apply corn gluten at the rate of 20lb/1000 square feet. It keeps seeds (all seeds) from germinating. Wait 2 weeks.
- Aerate the soil. You can get a pair of shoes with these long metal spikes on them, and then just stomp around.
- top dress with about 1/2 inch of compost instead of fertilizer. (It'll look kind of funny, but just till it rains and sinks in.)
- reseed on top of the fresh compost.
SUMMER: If in the north, mow taller (2.5 inches). If in the south, mow lower. Don't mow when it looks like it won't rain for a couple days. Always let your grass clippings spray back onto the grass and become new compost.
WINTER: mow down to 2 inches.

I've learned a lot from, and from the interview that the owner Paul Tukey had with Kojo Nnamdi on our local NPR station.
posted by GardenGal at 8:24 PM on June 6, 2008

Another thing I learned from is that if your dog pee is creating bare patches on your lawn, you can feed them dog biscuits made with desert yucca, which helps neutralize it. I forget the brand, though.
posted by GardenGal at 8:26 PM on June 6, 2008

Response by poster: Yes, beandip - it's Creeping Charlie! I love it - I'm going to try to encourage it. It seems to thrive in edgings and cracks in cement, probably cool, damp spots.
posted by walla at 9:25 PM on June 6, 2008

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