Why it's time to change what's beautiful in the front yard

Article By:

Studio Manager—Winnipeg | Landscape architect

Many people find maintaining their yard an enjoyable and satisfying experience. It provides an opportunity to create and cultivate, to get away from daily routines and enjoy the outdoors.

In a year from now, my family and I will move into a new development where we will get the opportunity to experience a similar feeling in developing our home's green space. As part of our homeowner requirement, we must finish our landscape within one year of possession. Not that I mind, like many others, I enjoy the opportunity to be creative and innovative. I also want to refrain from implementing a traditional grass lawn in the front yard for something that is more resilient and sustainable.

You can trace the origins of the traditional grass lawn back to Europe where the affluent and wealthy kept conventional grasslands on their properties. Immigrants from Northern Europe then brought the idea to North America, carrying seeds with them as they settled on the continent. However, the concept of keeping lawns well tended and weed free didn't become a staple for the average North American until the middle of the 20th century, when land developers began building affordable suburbs in the United States. Over time, these early suburbs became models for development across the continent and the standard of beauty for front yards everywhere.

I remember how I would look forward to cutting the front and back yards for my parents growing up. I enjoyed using my dad’s push mower because I could feel the engine’s vibrations on my hands and the sounds of the motor and the whirling of the blades, as the smell of fresh grass wafted in the air. I would push it across the yards sometimes in linear patterns and other times in circular patterns, trying to create designs in the grass. Then afterwards, I would poke my head out the window a bunch of times to admire my work.

However, now a couple of decades removed from those lazy summer days, and having practiced landscape architectural design for nearly a decade, I’m more aware of how important it is to reduce our consumption of energy and natural resources and invest in more sustainable and resilient technologies. The traditional grass lawn requires a lot of maintenance to retain its polished look. Time and energy are not just relegated to the beginning when you water the ground to help establish the sod or germinate the seed but also after the grass has sprouted and the plants have bloomed. People will spend a lot of time watering and mowing to ensure their traditional grass lawn retains its vibrancy without understanding that there is a more natural and less expensive way to keep their lawn. I want to shift the paradigm of beauty from a typical formalized landscape with a beautiful green lawn to one that is more naturalized and informally designed.

Therefore, I look forward to creating a design that is distinctive—the way the naturalized landscape in Manitoba is. I want it to exude beauty and sustainability and express the spirit of the place in which we live: the prairies. I think this feeling is brought on by a shift in thinking that I want our family to feel closer to the land and not try to control it, but allow it to flourish naturally.

Establishing a new paradigm of beauty
“We are only brief guardians of these portions of land we call our gardens. We do not and cannot truly own them. Our bodies are made of the earth and return to it eventually, but the land will always remain alive. Everything we need to, and all that nourishes us comes from the earth, her soil. The atmosphere, the sun and the stars beyond. We are simply walking pieces of the earth.” – Mary Reynolds

Irish Landscape Designer Mary Reynolds’s quote derives from The Garden Awakening, which has continued to resonate with me as it challenges my idea of what kinds of relationships we can have with nature. It made me imagine what coming home and seeing a vibrant bed of wildflowers, filled with butterflies and birds fluttering around the yard, would look like. Not to mention, that a scenario such as this would require little to no maintenance (no mowing!) and reduce the need for watering (saving you money). I could relax on my front porch instead, looking out onto our prairie-landscape yard, sipping a cup of coffee and spending time with my daughter.

Furthermore, as a design professional, I would like to extend this thought process towards the projects in the future, including large green spaces such as parks and boulevards that are present in new developments, so both the costs and the carbon footprint of those projects can be reduced. I feel that it's vital we shift our notion of what is considered beautiful in green spaces. To do so, we must reduce our use of sod, when possible and make a concerted effort towards including more native plantings in these projects, like native grasses and wildflowers, so eventually, when they are turned over to the city, the cost of maintenance will be significantly reduced.

However, personally, I can ensure that our front yard will be designed using natural grasses and plants and I will take pride knowing that in a small way I am helping make a more resilient and sustainable place that we will call home for a long time. I can close my eyes and see myself coming home to this naturalized landscape and feeling satisfied. I look forward to discussing with my neighbours about the plants we selected, hopefully inspiring them to do the same so that we can all design for a better world.

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Winnipeg, Manitoba
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