REVOLT – Alternative to a Lawn, Step 2: Prep and Planting Groundcover

The lawn replacement continues…

By mid June we had our ducks in a row. Dan and I had already agreed that our groundcover selection to replace the lawn had to be evergreen to provide year-round interest. Going with 28 flats of Hedera helix ‘Baltica’ (English Ivy), the groundcover was ordered. We already had proof of how tough it is and how little water it needs once established because it’s thriving on a slope in sun/part shade in our own backyard already and at a client’s house. It only took one growing season to fill in there and it’s the same conditions in the front yard.

 My theory is if a planting area or bed is prepared well, that’s half the challenge for the reward of a successful planting. So we called in Jeffreys Creek, one of my landscape crews, to get us off to a good start and do the heavy, up front work for us.

DAY 1 – Prep the planting area:

8 am   Landscape crew arrives with a sod cutter to remove the lawn, install metal edging (to contain the Ivy groundcover from the existing perennial and shrub beds) and spread and till in organic compost.












We thought this was the perfect opportunity to extend the Flatstone Walkway from the front entrance to the left side path, to be able to walk completely around the house on hardscape material – the above right photo shows the 4 foot wide space allowed for the path to be added later.

1 pm   Planting area is finished being prepared and is ready for planting.

 DAY 2 – Plant delivery:

Plant flats are delivered from the nursery, but ground conditions are too wet for planting following 2 days of rain. In the gravel driveway “holding area“, I kept the flats watered daily until the next weekend.

 DAY 3 – Planting the groundcover begins:      

Dan and I planted 18 of 28 flats the first day. As we planted, I watered in small sections at a time. Aside from watching our own progress, the best part was talking with curious neighbors that passed by (in cars and on foot) and explaining our vision for the yard. Our neighbor across the street is still scratching his head (he loves mowing his lawn). I think he fears he’ll never get to see Dan again if he doesn’t have the lawn to mow once a week.







Day 4 – Planting Completed:

We really had a system going by now. He would dig and I would plant, then we would switch so our backs would hold up longer. We planted the last 10 flats in record time as we chanted, “No more mowing”.

 Day 5 – Irrigation:

Our lawn already has an irrigation system, so it only needed to be modified by adding drip hoses in rows every 2 feet between the new groundcover plants. This was added as a new zone to be controlled separately from the other plant beds of shrubs & perennials. To establish the new plants, we set the timer for 1 hour in the early morning, 3 days per week – hoping that Mother Nature would help us out on the watering and not have to actually use the irrigation so much. We lucked out – what followed was several more weeks with consist rainfall that really helped the plants take hold.

 Day 6 – Mulching:

Without a workable weekend in site, I had to go it alone for 4 hours on a weekday to spread the bagged Coco Mulch. Now this was back breaking work, getting in between each Ivy strand, keeping a consistent depth and spreading it evenly. I used a small hand rake to spread it and keep from pulling out the delicate plants. Although Coco Mulch is organic, gardeners should use caution using it around dogs and cats – see


 Well, it was a labor of love, now the hard part is done. With a weekly liquid fertilizing through July and 15 minutes of weeding per week, the ivy groundcover should be well established by fall and filled in completely by next summer.

 Our weekends are now filled with other events (and projects), but outside our own yard the “mow & blow” landscape crews and neighbors continue cutting, edging and blowing 7 day a week starting at 7 a.m.  Will it ever end? It has for us.

 Stay tuned for Alternative to a Lawn, Step 3 – All grown up!


REVOLT – Alternative to a Lawn, Step 1: Making the decision

I hate to bring up an out of season subject like SNOW, but remembering the piles of snow we had in Ipswich this past season seems a perfect place to start this particular topic and the beginning of our latest landscape project. Take a look at our front yard last winter…


 Now that is some serious snow…and it only gets worse in our small backyard. I mean, how high can I actually raise the snow shovel above my head to get it to stay on top of the already humongous pile anyway?  OK, back to why I’m bringing all this up. 

After that much snow comes spring (eventually) and the dreaded snow mold that we always get on the small lawn area in our front yard. Wait – I forgot to say that our lawn was already stressed from drought last summer accompanied by a town watering ban from June through September. Not to mention the grubs, who found those conditions perfect for digging in and eating the grass roots, killing every blade. By fall, the only green to be seen was clover and the crab grass and violets that moved in from neighbors on all sides. What a mess. The long New England winters offer a lot of time for dreaming and planning changes for yards and gardens.

 As you can see, things didn’t look any better in the spring. These photos were taken in early May.


For years I’ve been preaching to my clients, “Give up on that lawn, there are so many alternatives that would be more interesting and creative, less work, and much less expensive in the long run. Aren’t you tired of paying that mowing service or spending your limited free time mowing the lawn? Not to mention having to endure listening to the “mow & blow” landscape crews who invade suburban neighborhoods everyday of the week (and weekends, and at 7 a.m. no matter what day of the week). Oh, and keeping an eye out for little white flags that warn of toxic chemicals just laid down on that green carpet lawn that will harm your children and pets when you take a walk around the neighborhood.”

OK, enough preaching. I’ve talked the talk to many of my clients…now I’m walking the walk.

Thinking it would be hard convincing my husband to go along with this idea, I toyed with many planting alternatives to replace the lawn before I shared my idea with him. Unlike most men, who have a male bonding thing going on with their lawns, I thought Dan could handle the implications of no more lawn to mow! Like…

  •       No tune up of lawn mower each spring
  •       No running out of gas to fill the mower
  •       No spreading lime to sweeten our acidic soil and keep the moss out
  •       No organic weed control (which barely controls weeds anyway)
  •       No organic fertilizer applications 2-3 times per season
  •       Less water usage
  •       No contributing to noise and air pollution
  •       More room in the shed with the lawn mower gone

 He was in. He cleaned the shed and gave away the mower. Now we were both committed to this project.

Check back next week for – Alternative to a Lawn, Step 2: Removing the Lawn


Learn more about Lawn Alternatives:


FIELD NOTES: Building Bones in the Landscape

As a designer, I always get inspired by visiting great gardens.  Olmsted gardens are some of my favorites.  Frederick Law Olmsted, that is.  He had a way of making a property or park remarkable no matter what time of year you saw it…Central Park is a great example.  The reason for this is “Great Bones”.  I’m not talking about the bones on the models from Paris Fashion Week (way too skinny)…garden bones are a whole other subject (let’s call it “beefing up”).

Last winter, we visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC – an Olmsted Garden. It had snowed 8 inches 3 days before we got there, which totally shut down the town of Asheville. When we arrived at the Biltmore property, it was buzzing with tourists again, mostly at the mansion. Not me, I was fascinated with the gardens and magnificent views blanketed with the snow. That’s what I mean. The garden was even interesting in the winter…because of the bones. The stone walls that enclosed each garden, the carved sculptures and fountains, the intricate pergola structures, the massive tree groupings off in the vista…it was all there. 

The Rose Garden Pergola - winter

Ponds, sculptures, hedges - winter




Weeping Hemlock and path - winter

Rose Garden - winterWeeping Hemlock and path - winter


Just like this massive property, a great garden design can be traced through elements that make up its “bones”. You’ve heard the phrase “she has great bone structure”? Well, it’s the same with gardens – it’s the bone structure that creates year round interest in a garden.


Use of the following elements can “beef up the bones” in your garden:

Structures – Arbors, Trellises, Obelisks, Gazebos, Sheds

Specimen Trees and Shrubs

Conifer groupings or hedges

Walls, Walks and Pathways

Garden Ornaments                                   

Well, we just returned from our second trip to Asheville (we loved it so much the first time). I just couldn’t resist seeing the Biltmore Gardens in spring. Our timing was great, catching the final days of the annual Flower Festival on the estate grounds. The bloom season there is 1 to 2 months ahead of the Northeast, with Azalea, Rhododendron, Kousa Dogwood, Weigela and Roses all in bloom on May 1st. Even the potted annuals were thriving in the 75+ temperatures. Compare the springtime photos (below) to the winter views (above) and you will see the “great bones” of this garden.

Ponds, sculptures, hedges - spring

Wisteria Pergola - spring







Weeping Hemlock and path - spring

Rose Garden - spring



Learn more-

FIELD NOTES: Starting With A Landscape Plan

BEFORE - Entry Drive at a newly constructed home

Do you ever hear a friend or neighbor — a would-be gardener — express frustration? “I tried to do it myself. But I don’t like the results. I’m wasting my time. And my money. It’s just not working.”

 Usually these are enthusiasts — and it could be you or me — who have jumped right into a project. They have lots of energy. Plenty of ideas. And now they’re lost or frustrated.

Why? They’re working without an important landscaping tool. (And I don’t mean a wheelbarrow or a gardening trowel/shovel.)

What’s missing? They started without a landscape plan. Really…it’s one of the most basic tools for reaching a successful conclusion to an outdoor project, no matter how big or small.

 Think of working on your yard as similar to taking a journey. Would you head out on a trip without a map or driving directions from Google? Or you’d use your GPS system (mine has a fabulous British accent) programmed with the address of your destination.

My point is that you’d use step-by-step guidance on how to travel safely and arrive successfully. You’d use a map to get you there: start to finish.

Landscape Master Plan

 A landscape plan works the same way. It’s a “big picture” of how an outdoor space will function and look when it’s been fully planted, landscaped and built out. It provides a map of where important elements of the landscape will go. It’s a flexible timetable of what steps to take first, and how to fill in the details later. It’s the basis for a realistic budget that allows for big purchases as cash flow permits.

During construction of the walk and entry drive

 Landscape plans help you identify and determine locations for major elements such as:

  • Structures (ex: decks, gazebos, trellises, arbors, sheds, fences or walls)
  • Major plantings (ex: trees, hedges, locations for shrub and flower beds or vegetable gardens, areas of open lawn, etc.)
  • Hardscape materials (ex: driveways, walls, walkways, paths, pool decks or patios)
  • Garden features (ex: rock garden, cutting garden, herb garden, water feature, pond, etc.)
  • Focal points (ex: vertical or cone shaped plants, large boulder(s), statue, sculpture, birdbath, bench, etc.)

 Remember that old anecdote about filling a jar with rocks? It works best when you put in the biggest stuff first, and then the medium-sized stones, and then the smallest pebbles.

 Think about the major features of a yard in the same way. If you know where the main elements will fit into your yard (like a swimming pool or a garage or a vegetable garden), then you’ll make space for them. And you’ll fill in the details around them.

 You can safely invest in each phase of work, when you know that everything has a place. A landscape plan assures that all the parts work together. For example, you’ll know that the fence you add this year, and the shade tree you plant next year, will all contribute to a safe and fun outdoor play area for kids and dogs. And you’ll be sure that your garden is planted where the children and pet are less likely to dig for buried treasure, and pull up expensive bulbs and tubers instead!

 With a step-by-step guide in hand, you can do the work at your own pace. You can do it all at once or over several seasons or years. Maybe you put in the front walkway one year and the shed another. Maybe you plant one large shade tree, and then add a pond the next season.

Completed entry drive with plantings (1st year)

 Sometimes, when you identify a few major projects, the landscape plan helps you save money by taking advantage of having big equipment on site and addressing different projects all at once. Who wants to have a backhoe in their yard any more than necessary? (And I’m not talking to 3-year-old boys or heavy-equipment operator wannabes!)

 Here are a few insights I can offer for anyone who is considering work in their yard:

  • If it’s a renovation and you’re adding landscape elements to an existing site, you may want to keep some of the plantings or other structural elements. Identify what you like and what works, and save it. 
  •  If you’re starting work at a new location, take your time. Live there a while, and learn how you use the outdoor spaces. It’s okay to wait a year before you make big decisions about your lawn and your yard. You make more mistakes when you rush.
  •  While you’re living there, ask yourself big questions. Do you have children or a pet now or in your future? Do you want major elements like a swimming pool or a shed or a patio? Do you need a fence or shrub screen to create safety and privacy?
  •  Pay attention throughout the seasons. Look through the windows year-round, and see what the view is like. (Did you know that in the French and English tradition of gardens, landscaping decisions are designed to capture views — from indoors — of attractive outdoor spaces?) After all, in New England our seasons are extreme, so the views will change, and there will be times we’re grateful to look out the window from the safety of a warm indoor space.
  •  Know the site conditions before you start any work. Examples include: type of soil, problem drainage areas, the style of home and plantings that are in keeping with its setting, property lines and neighbors’ boundaries, views from inside and outside the house, and convenience considerations such as accessible storage and safe and easy access to and from a vehicle.

Entry Drive planting – 3rd year

 Did you know the cost of a landscape plan might be the equivalent of one large planting?  If the landscape plan saves you the cost of making one impulsive — and expensive — purchase that won’t take root, then it’s already paid for itself!

 If you want to arrive at your destination with the least number of detours and wrong turns, use a guide…invest in a landscape plan. (But you’ll have to use your imagination for the posh British accent!)


My size 10's hitting the deck

Is this a cruel joke? I was planning to open a client’s garden today, only to wake up and find 3 inches of snow had fallen overnight.  That Mother Nature, always throwing me a curve ball (no, I’m not talking about today’s opening game for the Red Sox). My husband, Dan, calls me a walking weather reporter once the outside work begins for the new season. Well, this year it’s going to be different – I’ll take it all in stride.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold's Promise'

When you look around the yard and see flowering shrubs, interesting stems and bark, plus bulbs poking through the ground on April 1st, who could really complain about the weather.  The Arnold Promise Witchhazel off our deck is really putting on a show against the evergreen behind it.  What a fabulous plant – it’s already been blooming for a month and its great attributes just keep on going through the fall.

Stewartia tree bark


All year long, I’m amazed looking out my kitchen window at the everchanging, peeling bark of my favorite ornamental tree, Stewartia pseudocamellia (Japanese Stewartia). Tucked into its given space, a walkway bed between the property line hedge and a trellis privacy screen, I can’t help but marvel at it every time I pass by. Come June, it will be prolific with “sunny side up” egg colored flowers, not to mention the fall leaf color – deep, maroon red.

Red Twig Dogwood is another showy shrub this time of year. The red stems really stand out set against the snow. It’s even more impressive used in mass plantings (the same for Yellow Twig Dogwood). For boggy wet conditions, I usually opt in for the native – Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’.

Cornus alba 'Elegantisima' (Red Twig Dogwood)

As plants continue to replace lawn in my yard (more to come on that), the five Red Twig Dogwood shrubs are doing double duty – looking great and soaking up water in a sloped swale.  Guess all this snow has to melt sometime.  Tomorrow I hope.

FIELD NOTES: First Week of Spring

Photo (c) Cynthia August Images 2010

I still have snow in my yard. Flurries the past few days, even though the birds are returning. What’s the deal? Well, it is New England!

I hoped to get my own garden cleaned up before I start on anyone else’s gardens, but there’s snow on the ground. Guess it’s like the cobbler and the shoes…when you’re a landscape designer, your own garden is sometimes the last to get attention.

Right now, I’m getting ready for the big seasonal push for maintenance of established gardens. As spring continues and summer unfolds, the work will change.

In the next few weeks, I’ll open perennial gardens for clients:

  • Cleaning up leaves from last fall
  • Cutting back roses and vines
  • Checking for broken branches and pruning shrubs
  • Pushing down the root ball of any perennials that heaved up out of the ground over the winter due to frost
  • Applying weed control
  • Connecting with clients for garden changes

In the spring, I do this work myself. Experienced seasonal team members come on board mid-June, so I’m solo for the first few months.

The work gloves are ready and my boots are laced up. Catch you soon!