Breaking Lawn Addictions

Louise Placek, Native Plant Society of Texas
LMUD Open House presentation, October 19, 2023

When it comes to altering our environment, lawns are king.

Lawn (turf) grass is the most irrigated plant in the United States, but provides the least ecological habitat potential. It’s also big business with millions of pounds of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides applied to lawns each year. Much of this is leached into our water supply by rainwater runoff and over irrigation. But where does this standard come from and why is it still so prevalent? It’s time to reconsider our relationship with the space surrounding our homes. 

Timeline of Grass Lawns


The middle English word launde originally referred to a glade or opening in the woods, but was later designated as artificial stretches of land that resembled such glades. These open spaces around wealthy homes became popular in Europe. The trend was brought to North America during colonization in the 1600s. At the time, livestock was used to keep the lawns tidy, but the native grasses were devoured so colonists imported more familiar grasses from Europe to replace them.


With the sturdier, “better behaved” imported grass becoming more readily available, figureheads such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson popularized the concept of large, sweeping lawns of grass, eventually becoming a status symbol for the wealthy. These vast landscapes were maintained by laboring over scythes to cut the grasses.


A more efficient, horse-drawn “mower” was developed to maintain the swaths of grass, followed by a mechanical mower that first gained popularity in Britain and was brought to North America around 1870. Around this time, a popular book by Frank J. Scott called “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds” popularized the belief that manicured lawns “make you a model citizen.” Soon afterwards, in 1871 a patent was granted for a water sprinkler connected to a garden hose, utilizing the wide-scale access to city-supplied water made newly available to all homes.


The lawn care market became big business and an established part of American culture. Golf started gaining in popularity which required turf tough enough to withstand the demands of the sport, causing lawns to get “better” for everyone. Chemicals, better mowers, and other equipment plus an increase in information about lawn care took off. Ted Steinberg was one critic of the trend, stating grass lawns were “an outdoor expression of 1950s conformism.”

Why do we (still) love lawns so much?

  • We equate green with nature: with the majority of us working inside all the time, it’s soothing to come home to an expansive green lawn.
  • Lawns are no-brainers: landscaping requires a lot of education and planning, but turf grass you just lay it in the empty space and then routinely water, mow, and fertilize it. If you don’t have time to maintain it, you can easily hire someone else to do it for you.
  • Lawns are the standard: Lawns are expected, and even required by many homeowners associations (HOAs).
  • “It’s what we’ve always done”: Most people don’t really care what their yard looks like as long as it’s tidy so are unaware of how harmful these swaths of cultured green spaces are for our health, our environment, and nature as a whole.

The term ‘wildscaping’ simply means landscaping with plants that attract wildlife, including birds, small mammals, beneficial inspects (pollinators), and butterflies.

Louise Placek, Native Plant Society of Texas

Wildscaping with Texas Native Plants

Thankfully, there is a better (less-boring and eco-friendly) alternative to yards covered by expanses of green grass and one that requires a lot less ongoing maintenance: “wildscaping” with native plants, after the initial installation, takes very little upkeep and provides food for butterflies and other beneficial insects (pollinators) as well as habitat and food for birds. Many people think native plants are boring, but this is absolutely not the case: there are a plethora of Texas native annuals and perennials that give you color and interest throughout every season. To get started, first consider the different types of plants:

  • Annuals: plants that live out their entire life cycle in one season. They are great for giving your yard color in the spring until the larger perennials fill out. Wildflowers are an example of annuals; I suggest a good mix from a trusted source (such as Native American Seed Farm in Junction, TX or Wildseed Farm in Fredericksburg, TX) and broadcast onto loose soil in the fall or early spring.
  • Perennials: plants that live for years, such as trees, woody shrubs, and most groundcover. Some may lose their leaves (deciduous) in the winter or experience extreme stress from heat in the summer, but the living structure withstands, while others remain the same year-round (such as evergreens).
  • Biennials: plants that live approximately two years, producing foliage the first year then going to seed the second year. Parsley is an example of a biennial as well as some other herbs and wildflowers.

Native plants can also produce fruits and vegetables. Fruit trees (such as peach, plum, persimmon, apple, pomegranate) and vegetables (such as chard, cabbage, and parsley) can be intermixed with native shrubs and trees or in their own beds.

If you are new to gardening, or new to Texas (and therefore not used to the particulars of our climate and environment), stick with the plants that are easy to grow then move on to more challenging plants as you gain confidence. A few more suggestions:

  • Start slowly: Add a few plants one year, giving them space to grow, then each year, add another few plants. Vary texture, colors, shapes, and sizes to add visual interest. Get ideas on what they look like full grown by visiting gardens like the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. You can also just walk around your neighborhood and take pictures of plants that are thriving.
  • Buy from nurseries that sell Texas native plants: Soil in Texas can vary from rocky to clay to sand and everything in-between, so knowing the environment of your area will also help give your new plants the best opportunity to thrive. Local nurseries will carry what works in your area and can help in your plant selection process. Show them your photos or ask them what may work best in your yard.

In summary: discover new plants, think outside the box, and look for new and interesting landscape opportunities. Enjoy the beauty and freedom of your new and inspired piece of Earth.