How To Right-Size Your Lawn: In Defense Of (A Little) Turf

Something amazing has happened. I no longer loathe my lawn.

For nearly ten years, I have hated my lawn, and muttered curses at the landscaper who insisted that, “with small kids, grass really is the easiest thing to maintain,” before hydroseeding everything in sight.

Lies, damn lies.

How To Right-Size Your Lawn

I am no shirker. In fact, I like physical work. I haul heavy things, move rocks, rake compost, pull weeds, build trellises and garden beds, muck out chicken coops and horse stalls for the manure – all without complaint. I can deal with all manner of wiggly, creepy, bug-like creatures without shrieking, and I never, ever worry about my non-existent manicure. I am not, in a word, a girly-girl.

But I just don’t do mowing. Put a gas-powered mower in front of me and I totally pull the gender card. “Um, honey? Maybe you should mow…sorry, that’s a guy chore.”

This is of course ridiculous. There is nothing sex-specific about the ability to cut grass. You know who mowed the family lawn when I was growing up? My mom.

But it’s the whole pull-start engine thing. I don’t like any machine that requires a bent-over row to start. I might possibly picture rocks flying out of the lawn mower at high speed at my child’s head. I might possibly be a little scared of the whole contraption. Maybe. But if you say so, I’ll deny it.

Whatever. This is the only thing I “pull girl” on, and I’ve made my peace with it. Many years ago, I made my unwillingness to use our perfectly good gas rotary mower known to my husband. In those days he was routinely working from 6 am until 11 pm, and he made equally known his unwillingness to spend any of the precious non-work hours he had doing anything except spending time with his wife and then young daughter.

And so we perma-lent the gas mower to friends and hired a yard service, and for well over half of the ten years that I’ve hated my lawn, a hired someone else has been mowing it. Every year, the lawn shrank and the garden grew, and the yard service people had a little less to do. Periodically I would call up and renegotiate my monthly rate because, well, the job was literally shrinking every fall and spring.

I’ve been laying in my plan for ditching the lawn service completely for awhile now. I thought the solution to the lawn service dilemma was a push mower, which did not intimidate me at all, but I wanted to try out push reel mowers before making the big plunge. I put out a plea on Freecycle for a push mower. A nice older lady happily gave me a gorgeous and, as far as I could tell, barely used mower that cuts like a dream. I ran it through the paces once or twice and was sold on the concept.

Push mowers are fun! And easy! And not scary or noisy or gross smelling! This was clearly the lawn answer I’d been waiting my whole life for.

Push Mower

Everyone can safely mow at once now.

But then I totaled my car, had eye surgery and couldn’t see for several months. The second half of 2012 became like lost time. Plan delayed. Lawn guys kept. Life on triage.

Until a few months ago. In one big final cover up, Homebrew Husband and I smothered a big stretch of useless, hard-to-mow, sidewalk-adjacent lawn with cardboad and woodchips.

Woodchips over grass

Got rid of the last of the useless grass by smothering.

And in doing so, we reduced all the lawn on our property to this. One smooth, unbroken bean-shape of grass. That’s it. All the lawn in this picture is all the lawn we have. It’s about one-fifth of what we started with nearly ten years ago, maybe less.

Easy to Mow Lawn

A right-sized lawn: about 1/5th of its original size.

To put it in perspective, the main lawn used to stretch in a wide ribbon to the cedar hedge way, way in the back of this photo. The shed, greenhouse, chicken coop, hugelkultur beds, etc. – that was all grass originally. And then there were vast islands of grass elsewhere on our property that did nothing except piss me off.

Lawn before perspective

This pretty much all used to be covered in turf.

Now, there are no weird hard angles to manage, no slopes, no stupid little fjords of grass that need special back-and-fill mower negotiation. It’s simple to mow. It’s big enough for kids and chickens and projects but small enough for me to push-mow while my son plays near me. No rock-brainings possible.

Kids at play

The grass is great for the kids, but they don’t need more.

Our lawn is, finally, after a decade of chipping away at it, right-sized. So I made the call and let the lawn service go, which saves us some serious cash every month.

And in paring the grass back to just what makes since for our family, I’ve found myself really - shockingly - appreciating this patch of turf. Which doesn’t mean we’ve gone all putting-green fussy about our lawn. There are weeds mixed in with the grass and we won’t win any Home & Garden awards in summer when we let the lawn brown out instead of watering it.

But I love this little round of lawn now. It feels just right.

Turfgrass is usually portrayed in our community as the enemy of productive space, and I get why. I remember every single reason I hated my huge swath of stupid, useless, pain-in-the-ass grass. But now that my own personal lawn is right-sized for our life, I find there are very justifiable functional reasons to have a patch of grass.

Awesome, Functional Things About A Right-Sized Lawn

  1. Chickens grazing – better quality eggs and lower feed costs. (Plus chickens “pay it back” to the grass with manure that eliminates the need for supplemental fertilizer.)
  2. Kids running and climbing – happy kids within earshot means more time for gardening.
  3. Backyard Picnics – keeps dinner messes outside, cuts down on clean up time inside.
  4. Reading on the grass in the sunshine – keeps the need for therapy at bay!
  5. Space to assemble – roll out concrete mesh, put together new raised beds, hang plastic cloching material or row cover fabric up to dry before storage, etc.
Our hens love pecking at blades of suburban "pasture."

Our hens love pecking at blades of suburban “pasture.”

How Much Is Enough?

So how can you know how much lawn is right for your family? Well, if you are like me, just keep making it smaller until the hatred goes away and then you’ll know you are at the right size.

But if you are in a planning mode, a few things to consider:

  • All manner of creatures like a glade. Your lawn can be like your home’s glade. Try to figure out how large a glade your creatures will really benefit from. Are any of the following creatures members of your household: kids, dogs, chickens, other animals? If so, maintaining a slightly larger lawn might be worth it to you.
  • Site considerations: slope, shade and boggy-soil are the enemies of a healthy, easy-to-maintain lawn. Why fight to grow a lawn on a shaded North-facing slope that never truly dries out? Find a more appropriate groundcover. Maybe try Sweet Woodruff instead.
  • Construction considerations: if you do a lot of productive garden projects, like we do, having a flat level patch of ground for building, assembling, etc. can be invaluable. We find it’s easier to build our raised-bed boxes on the lawn and then just carry them into the garden area than to attempt to build in the more confined space of the garden.
  • If you live in urbia or suburbia, there is really no excuse to have a lawn so large it requires a mini-tractor to mow. I might go so far as to say there’s no excuse to have a lawn so large it requires anything other than a manual push-mower. If you live in the country, your grass can be as large as your flock of sheep need.
Concrete mesh on lawn

A flat piece of grass makes a great surface for rolling out concrete mesh and doing other garden projects.

So, for the first time in about a decade my goal is not to kill more lawn this fall. Amazing!

How much lawn do you have? Does it help or hinder your garden goals?

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Comments

  1. How funny, I was just thinking this exact same thing a few days ago. Must be a spring in the PNW kinda thing. I especially like #4. :)
    I have about half the backyard in grass and I’m thinking it might be nice to have just a little less.

  2. Even a lot of grass suddenly becomes productive space with some ducks or geese (paired is better). You no longer need to mow and can occasionally eat your lawnmowers.

  3. I have about 2 acres of grass and probably 5oosq m of ‘lawn’ but on paper it’s a lot less – it’ll take me a few years to translate the paper version into reality though. We have a ride on, a push mower and two guinea pigs in a movable cage – guess which has been mowing more grass lately?

  4. Push mowers are awesome! I’ve been using mine for years. They work best on smooth ground since the it’s the turning of the wheels which drives the cutting blades. If you have lots of little bumps and holes it will be a little tougher to mow because one of the wheels loses contact with the ground. You also need to mow a little more often since push mowers have trouble cutting really tall grass at all and normal tall grass is harder to push through. You don’t have the power of the gas motor to just muscle through it so try to cut it a little before it looks like it needs it. That seems to be about every other day this time of year.

    I’m not a Methodist but my grandparents were and I’ve always found their slogan to be very wise: moderation in all things. Replacing all your lawn with garden isn’t moderation.

    I have a standard 0.16 acre city lot and a (too large) house and (too large) garage and (too large) driveway. It still leaves me with a lot of grass to mow but I’m reducing it gradually. I started by putting in a 100 sq ft garden bed the hard way: double-digging. Lesson learned there. This year I put in 6 foot wide strips in the front and sides with sheet mulching and planted native shrubs and trees to make an edible hedge. Once that fills in I’ll start thinking about how much yard and garden I want.

  5. I have to admit, I love this post for a few reasons, that you won’t expect. First, I have the same girly reaction to mowers, tho I also have the excuse of severe allergies that come into full force if I actually have to mow. And my husband hates to mow – so we also have a lawn service (so I love that you did, too – it makes me feel better). Secondly, we have the exact same geodesic climbing dome, and we used to have the same plastic climbing thing until my son got too big and we gave it to some neighbors. Third, I would love to have a push mower, if I could ever get my lawn small enough. Tho I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that point, mainly because I would have to dedicate quite a bit of time to get rid of most of the lawn.

  6. I never even learned to use a lawnmower growing up–my parents’ gender role ideas were just that rigid! And of course, since I didn’t want to do another chore, I never insisted that they teach me. So that’s how I came to be 35 years old without knowing how to use a lawnmower. :P If we ever get our own lawn to maintain, I’ll definitely be looking at push mowers! That is, after I build all the raised beds in the land…. I do love the idea of lawn as glade too.

  7. I’ve not shrunk it to the point of using a push mower. We have 3 acres. At hone point I had a riding mower. When it died I couldn’t afford to fix it, so I got a $50 seocnd hand gas mower.

    And I mowed paths. 3 mowers wide. Takes 40 minutes to do the paths. Rest of it we’ve let go back to nature, with a zero tolerance policy on thistle. Now I know that we have 9 kinds of grass ranging from a delicate Tufted Hair grass that has seed heads that look like Tinkerbell sprinkling pixiedust to Reed Canary grass in the damper sections that’s tall enough that I look UP at the seeds.

  8. Your mention of north-facing, boggy areas are the only ones that grow decent grass in hot and dry Colorado. And I love the idea of shrinking the lawn until you no longer hate it. I’ve still got a ways to go.

  9. My mom’s property is 3 acres and about 90% of that is turf. It takes 3 hours every Saturday to mow it. I think she needs to read this post.

  10. I love this! We’ve been whittling away at our grass too and switched to a manual push mower a couple of years ago. No more stinky, smoky engines; no more complicated maintenance. We just finished (last night!) covering the grass in the parking strip and planting an assortment of trees, shrubs, and ground cover.

  11. So for that section near the sidewalk, how much weeding do you think the wood chips will need? You seem to use a lot on all those walkways, is that fairly low maintenance?

    I’m not sure how much maintenance the non-lawn options require–not even sure what-all my options are, beyond wood chips/beauty bark types of things.

  12. Next step, eliminate the mowing. Here’s how: http://www.earthturf.com/

  13. Hi All! Our home is no lawn and we love it. It was conscious choice as we do not have kids. We have rock/boulder garden front with some trees, meandering gravel path/plants/trees side yard and back yard is natural forest. We are now into year 3, 4 and 5 of different section and it is quite grown in thus shading out weeds mostly. We are thankful to not have to mow each week but I have always thought that if you have kids and/or family gatherings, then lawn is beneficial and it is truly the lower cost alternative (believe it or not).

  14. I LOVE mowing grass. Really. The smell of it, the flat plane of green, and the simple task of tidying up the yard rewards me. In a world that all often looks to be so disorderly, so out of our control, to mow the lawn restores a tiny bit of the balance. And it’s not just a guy thing.

  15. We have 1/2 an acre. I mow it with a push mower. I consider in penance until I can switch more of it to garden. The thing is my kids love it. We moved from a tiny house with a tiny yard to this one and they love to play frisbee, baseball, soccer etc on the lawn. And I have to say I kind of love that they love it. So I will keep pushing that mower and planning for the days I can swap out large swaths of it for gardens.

    • If I mowed half an acre with a push mower I would make myself a tee shirt that said so, just to brag about that to the world. Strong work!

  16. Shanna R. says:

    I think it’s ok to call being a girl on killing rodents and/or rattlesnakes (we live in the mountains) as well as gas mowers.

    That said, push mowers are AWESOME! No stink, no gas mixing, no sound, light enough to lift over various tiers in one’s yard. Simply awesome. My thoughts are with you, your friend and her daughter. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to watch someone you love go through something so terrifying.

  17. Yeah, I’m with you Erica. I really hate grass and lawns even though I’m responsible for a monster yard right now. Little by little, it shrinks just like what you described.

    But – I have to admit it. My two little girls love to run around beneath the walnut trees with their shoes off in the summer. It’s awesome.

    Thanks for the pics, btw. It’s cool to see the references. Take care.
    pat

  18. great post! having 2 daughters I totally like a little lawn for them to play on. we have a pushmower too, I just find it doesn’t work with weeds very well (it doesn’t help that we our ‘grass patch’ is bumpy either. I happen to like dandelions though :)

  19. Hooray! When we remodeled in 2010, we ripped out our front lawn and replaced it with a veggie garden. We kept a tiny square, just big enough for a picnic blanket, because our son likes to picnic and watch the cars go by. =) Now we harvest gobs of artichokes, green beans, and strawberries from the area that used to be grass!

  20. Great post! I’m doing this and didn’t realize it. I hate mowing, so the garden must grow!

  21. I, too, hated my lawn. I have slowly been reclaiming it, while encouraging moss to grow over as much of it as I can. Now as it becomes more of a pleasant area rug and less wall-to-wall carpeting, I will stop thinking, “Until it’s gone!” and listen for the moment the hatred goes away.

  22. I’m on rental property now which could double as a horror movie for rocky, bumpy, uneven expanses of grass. Absolute barf.

    I’ll admit to you that I’ve got a little lawn envy happening. Especially since I just spent 2 hours on Monday choking on gas fumes and mowing that ridiculous weed-patch. SO DUMB.

    If I had my way, we would have a 16 foot square of grass ringed in all manner of edible plants and shrubs.

    *sigh*

  23. I have coveted a push mower for years, but our smallish area of green stuff kept short (it truly does not deserve the name lawn) is all tufts and hillocks and tree roots. I have an electric mower with a giant cord. I hate the noise. I hate setting it all up.This is one chore the husband does. I quite like the looks of lawn and would have more if it were less work. We are on 10 hilly acres, and the forest is reclaiming its own.

  24. Yep, same here. Hate to mow. The front yard was all shaded and ended up being mostly moss and weeds, so it got covered with mulch and bark dust. It now has a good crop of sedums, some ferns and is as happy as me. The back yard had a smallish patch of lawn that got even smaller with planting beds once the kids grew up and the swing set found a new home. I now have a 5 minute mow with an electric mower and I am in heaven.

  25. Well, I’m a woman, and I love to mow. My husband is deployed for at least 7 months of each year, so it’s a good thing I like mowing. I think of my lawn mower as my chief farm hand, and named him Lars, sort of like a motorized draft horse. Grass clippings (over newspaper) are my most successful mulch, so I think of the time spent mowing as a trade off in not having to weed. Also, if my garden becomes wildly unwieldy/weedy I can mow between the rows. I can also mow down/kill cover crops which leaves the residue to mulch slowly. And last but not least, I can mow over leaves, and they are nicely chopped for compost/chicken bedding.
    Oh, one more benefit of grass is that it is easier to see dog poop, yet keeps paws from getting muddy.

  26. Christina says:

    Our lawn is about the same as yours, maybe a little larger. We love our push mower too!

  27. Incredible post! You have excellent enclosure. I am also having bunches of problem with my grass size however you solved every one of them. Push mowers are amazing!

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  28. Christie says:

    What do you use to edge your garden? And how do you keep the grass from growing INTO the garden? I’m just trying to figure out those things for my new front yard garden!

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