Cut the Grass – Make Your Garden More Sustainable

Triangle Gardener podcast logoGreen grass can be a thing of beauty but it also means time, resources, and sometimes a lot of work. Sustainable gardening strives to find the balance of how much work and resources are you able to put into maintaining your garden. Our Piedmont region is not ideal for either cool-season nor warm-season grass, so what is right choice?  Charles Murphy is here with alternatives to grass, which look great and are easier to maintain.

Garden Destinations logoThanks to our sponsor Garden Destinations Magazine for making this episode possible

  • Nearly 40 millions acres of turf surround US homes.
  • Warm-season grasses thrive in 80-95 degree weather, while cool-season grasses thrive in 60-75 degree weather. Neither is ideal for the Piedmont region.
  • During the growing season, grass needs approximately 1” of water each week.

As a service to our podcast followers, we offer a complete transcript of this show. 


Welcome to the Triangle Gardener magazine podcast. We’re your guide to enjoyable gardening in North Carolina. Today’s story is part of our series on sustainable gardening.  Charles Murphy is here to talk to us about lawns.  I’m your host Dan Mason.


You see, establishing and maintaining a lawn in our region of North Carolina can be an expensive and labor-intensive project due to a number of factors. 


But first a word from our sponsor who helps make this all possible.

Garden Destinations is a new digital magazine for travelers who want to experience the world’s finest public gardens and garden destinations. From their website, GardenDestinations.com, you can learn about unique gardens, get insider tips from expert travelers, and make plans to include these destinations in your next adventure.  Check them out at GardenDestinations.com.

Now, on with today’s story….


Hello gardeners. I’m Charles Murphy. Today we’re recording at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, North Carolina and I want to talk about changes you can make to your garden to make it more sustainable and enduring.

These days it seems like there’s lots of gardening advice touting sustainable strategies.  But sustainability is a simply a question of how much work and resources are you able to put into your garden to keep it going?  Over time, simpler and smaller wins out over bigger and more complex.

We’ll explore different ideas, but today I want to talk to you about one of the best ways you can reduce time, cost, and effort in your garden.

You see, establishing and maintaining a lawn in our region of North Carolina can be an expensive and labor-intensive project due to a number of factors.  One factor is soil type; Piedmont soils tend to be heavy, largely clay and acidic, all of which make growing a lush grass lawn more difficult.  A second factor is our local climate which has been characterized as “grass purgatory”, that is, too warm for cool-season grasses, and too cool for warm-season grasses.  That’s more of a problem with the cool-season grasses, primarily tall fescue blends, and can entail lots of TLC and water use.  Plus, the more lawn the more time spent mowing, meaning more labor, more expense and more air pollution.

Fortunately there are some good alternatives to an all-grass lawn which save maintenance time and effort, reduce water and fertilizer use, cut lawn mower time significantly and prove more sustainable over the long run.  And, some are more friendly to birds and pollinators.  Two examples are flower beds and ground covers.

Spring, summer and fall flowers do well in our area with relatively little maintenance.  Daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocus and some irises bloom from late February through April.  Sources of healthy bulbs are easily found in catalogs, nurseries and home improvement stores, and most bulbs will repeat bloom year after year with reasonable care.  Daffodils and tulips, to name two, come in cultivars that bloom at different times, grow to different heights and produce flowers from simple and classic to fringed, ruffled and doubled, and mass plantings of either can create a stunning visual effect. Most of the labor involved foes into establishing a bed and planting the bulbs, which should be done in mid-fall.  After that, a light fertilizing during bloom time is about all that’s needed.  All bulbs require watering in dry periods, but not nearly as much as grass.

Summer flowers – zinnias, sunflowers, daisies, Echinacea sp., bearded iris to name only a few – can be planted in mid-to-late spring and through May, and will bloom throughout the summer, and often into early fall.  Many of those are annuals, but bearded iris, peonies and day lilies are perennials and will multiply over the years.  The range of colors, sizes and flower types is huge, and seeds or bulbs and corms are widely available.

Then there is a wildflower, garden.  These can be especially attractive to homeowners, neighbors, and, most importantly to birds, bees and butterflies.  Seed packets are easily found, and bed preparation shouldn’t be a huge problem; after all, they are “wild” flower types, used to some pretty discouraging growing conditions.  Once started, they essentially require no maintenance, and many flowers in the bed will reseed themselves, providing the gardener with a ready-made perennial bed.

Alternatives to flowers, or additions to them, are ground covers.  These are typically low-growing plants, rarely more than a few inches tall, that spread on their own and, once established, require almost no maintenance.  Their biggest drawback is that they need discipline since some tend to spread indiscriminately, so confining them to a specific area requires periodic cutting back.  A few examples are ajuga, vincas (a,k,a, periwinkle) and phlox.  They can be established from samples taken from established beds (maybe a neighbor’s), and most spread fairly rapidly.  Making a bed is the biggest labor. As with bulbs, the bed needs to be composed of new topsoil or amended native soil.  Plants will need to be watered until they take root, but once established they can sail right on through our summers with little trouble.  Some ground covers do well in light shade or filtered light, so would be especially useful in those areas inhospitable to grass, and they require little to no fertilizer.

A lush, green, grass lawn is an attractive sight, and adds to what real estate agents refer to as “curb appeal”.  But in the Piedmont they are high-maintenance, and can be expensive to establish, plus they’re thirsty.  A mix of flowers, ground covers and grass provides as attractive an appearance, as well as more colorful, at a fraction of the labor and expense.  So, for a sustainable, attractive and low-effort alternative to all grass, consider one of these options.  You’ll appreciate it, and so will your neighbors.

I’m Charles Murphy. This is the Triangle Gardener.  We’re your guide to enjoyable gardening in North Carolina. You can find this and past episodes of our podcasts at the Triangle Gardener website, trianglegardener.com.


You’ve been listening to the Triangle Gardener. You can find this and past episodes of our podcasts at our Triangle Gardener website, trianglegardener.com.  Triangle Gardener, we’re your guide to enjoyable gardening in North Carolina.

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