Saturday, May 1, 2021

Our freedom lawn

We let our lawn go wild!

When we first moved into our house, the lawn-care guys who had worked for the former owner stopped by to offer to continue their services. When I refused, they said that without their poisons (fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides) and their specially-formulated fertilizer and weed & feed applications that our lawn would die. Well, as it turns out, a few months later some brown spots did develop, but they were soon taken over by other plants, which those lawn guys would probably have condemned as "weeds."

A close look at most places in our lawn shows
a patchwork of many different plants, but from
a distance it looks nice and green.

Over the years, the diversity of our lawn has increased dramatically and now there are more than 100 species of plants, including a fair proportion of that original St. Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum) in some areas. Most of the time our lawn looks just as green as our neighbors' poisoned yards. Later, I learned that the term for our mow-what's-there lawn is "freedom lawn," a mowed area that is free from:
- pesticide applications, including insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides;
- synthetic fertilizers;
- over-seeding of winter rye to keep it green all year; and
- over-irrigation.

How did the obsession on having perfect lawns get started?

Much like formal gardens, the all-American lawn is a centuries-old leftover from British and European nobility when a large lawn indicated wealth. Lawns didn't gain popularity in this country until the early 1900's when the American Garden Club set the standard with their annual contests for the best looking yards. At that time, there were push lawn mowers and garden hoses to make the maintenance manageable. But Americans' real love affair with lawns began after World War II when developments were built to house families of returning soldiers and where each household had a small lawn that was mowed with a hand-pushed lawnmower. Upon the invention of gas-powered mowers the lawns grew larger and even larger.

Because it's not easy to maintain a monoculture of turf grass in Florida, where insects can attack and weeds can intrude in a blink of an eye, most Florida homeowners hire lawn-care companies to do the work. They routinely apply landscape-wide pesticides including insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides, and since those poisons are not good for grass or for the soil ecosystem, they then apply synthetic fertilizers to keep the grass alive. Also in the winter, when lawns would normally go dormant in Florida, they often over-seed the whole lawn with winter rye grass seed, so the lawn stays unnaturally green, and so the lawn guys will have something to mow throughout the winter—a type of job security.

With continued applications, the soil becomes more inert so that it serves only as an anchor for the turfgrass instead of a supportive growing medium. And the treatments for the lawn will continue to weaken its web of support for sustaining life. When the turf finally dies, the homeowners are often required to replace the whole lawn with new sod to start the process all over again. Isn't this the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and each time expecting that the results will be different.

In addition, there have been significant, destructive environmental consequences due to lawn chemicals. They wash from our landscapes and pollute our waterways turning them green with slime or causing toxic red tides as algae reacts to all those nutrients. They also pollute our aquifers, which is the source for 90% of our drinking water. In several areas in the state, there are fertilizer bans throughout the wet season and year-round regulations disallowing synthetic fertilizers with phosphorus, so the NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) numbers fertilizer bags may look like this: 16-0-8 or 15-0-15. You should know that while these synthetic fertilizers provide a quick boost for the turf growth in the short term, in the long run, they are harmful to the soil ecosystem and they readily wash through the soil into the stormwater systems.

In addition, the landscape-wide insecticide applications kill our native bees and other beneficial insects and destroy their habitat, which is mostly in the ground. The lawn care companies install little signs advising that for three to five days after application, that you, your kids, and your pets are not to walk on the lawn. This means that they admit that these poisons are not good for us or our pets.

Many millions of gallons of water are wasted
on lawns. We can do better than this.

Today, roughly 30% of the water used in urban and suburban areas in the eastern states goes to landscape irrigation, mostly lawns. And in this century, the lawn acreage around the country is so vast that it is the largest irrigated crop in the country with five times the acreage of corn, the second largest crop. In Florida alone, there are more than four million acres of lawn, and while this number includes golf courses, a significant portion of this total is homeowners' lawns.

In these days of extended droughts and water restrictions, reducing the size of our lawns and modifying lawn care for what's left make good sense for many reasons.

Freedom lawn conversion strategies

A highly-maintained, poisoned, over-fertilized, and over-irrigated lawn, is likely to have turf grass with short, weakened roots. This is due to the frequent close-cropped mowings, the frequent pesticide and synthetic fertilizer applications, and the frequent irrigation. The turf will have become highly dependent on that intense lawn care, because those treatments will have impaired the underlying soil's ecosystem. The soil in these cases probably serves only to anchor the turf in place.

The best strategy after stopping all the pesticide and synthetic fertilizer applications, is to ease the strain on the grass. Here are several steps to more sustainable care:
- Mow less often and set the blade on your mower to the highest setting (usually four or five inches) and leave the clippings in place. This extra leaf area (where photosynthesis takes place) allows the grass to create more sugars for itself. The longer grass and the clippings shade the soil, which helps the soil hold its moisture and reduces the heat fluctuations.
- Gradually shift the irrigation so that you water deeply once a week, but only when needed. This encourages deep roots.
- Even after years of poison applications, a soil ecosystem will begin to recover by itself as soon as the poisons are stopped. You can hurry the recovery. For the first year or two, in late fall and/or early spring (but well outside our five wet-season months: June through October) apply 1/4" of compost on the lawn and gently water it in. The compost offers some nutrients to the soil, but unlike synthetic fertilizers, the compost with its millions of microbes will become part of the soil and will help repair the soil ecosystem. The compost will also add humus to the soil so it can retain the moisture for much longer. Healthy soil can better support the plants. Also, this natural, light amount of fertilization means that the grass will grow slower than when fed with multiple synthetic fertilizer applications during the year. And ending where we began: This less-fertilized lawn won't need to be mowed as often.

Reducing the lawn

There are two main methods that we've used to reduce our lawn acreage over the years. One method we used was to just stop mowing like the whole front area that I wrote about in From lawn to woods: a retrospective. The second method has been to actually remove lawn, especially around the edges. Our lawn area is now about half of what it was when we moved in and the new edges have been designed with gentle curves and no vertical edges so the mowing is easier and so that no follow-up trimming is needed.

This illustration of a grove built around a lawn tree is in
"The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape."
After the new plants adapt to their location,
this area will be better for the tree AND
provide good habitat for birds.

If you're beginning lawn reduction in your new Florida landscape, where's the most logical place to begin? Removing lawn from around trees and wooded areas is a probably the best place to start the process because trees and lawns are not good neighbors for several reasons:
- Trees and shrubs have much more leaf surface area than mowed grass. This means that their transpiration rate is much higher. (Transpiration is the process of water being soaked up by the roots, being pulled up through the xylem tubes, and evaporating into the air through the stomata--leaf pores.) So in the contest for water from the soil, the trees will always win.
- Most trees have shallow, wide-spreading roots that increase in girth each year and many tend to emerge above the soil and eventually interfere with mowing. This is a more serious problem for some trees such as maples.
- Both evergreen and deciduous trees lose their leaves or needles at some time during the year. Some trees, such as our southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) lose their leaves all year long. These leaves or needles tend to smother the turf grass if not raked away, but if they fall into a group of understory plants, then the fallen leaves serve as a natural mulch, just as Mother Nature intended. A good rule of thumb is to use the leaf drop area as a guideline for the minimum no-lawn space, but if the yard is a large expanse of lawn, you could add several compatible trees and shrubs surrounded by bunching grasses and ground covers. Make the edge of this grove easy to mow with wide-sweeping curves and no vertical sides.

Removing lawn from around trees has to be done by hand, because you can't kill the grass using herbicide, thick mulch, solarization, or sod cutter without damaging the tree. I usually use a claw or cultivator to catch and pull out the long runners of the St. Augustine grass, but the bunching grasses may require a different removal tool. Either way, take note of where the tree's main surface roots are located and it might make sense to dig out holes in the spaces between the roots when you find them to help you visualize where to plant the understory vegetation.

Other areas suitable for lawn removal include next to fences, tool sheds or other out buildings, in sunny areas where you could grow vegetables. You don't need to do it all at once. Do what we did and work on removing lawn little by little as you have the time and energy.

Replacing lawn with ground covers

Sunshine mimosa is a beautiful and hardy ground cover 
that occurs naturally in most of Florida.

There are quite a few options for non-lawn landscapes, but for areas where you want a lawn-like landscape for openness and visibility to a view or for safety, here are two tough native ground covers to consider:
- Sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa) is a vining ground cover that makes a great lawn alternative in locations that are mostly sunny and it takes moderate foot traffic. It has pretty pink flower heads that are borne on five-inch stalks. Because it is a legume and fixes nitrogen, it will grow in lousy soil. While it does take a while to get it started, it stays low enough so it can be mowed several times per year to keep the other plants cut back while it's filling in. After it's established an annual mowing is probably all that is needed.  Sunshine mimosa, a lawn alternative for Florida

- Fogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) is also a vining ground cover that makes a great lawn alternative and takes moderate foot traffic. Once established, it is drought tolerant, salt tolerant, and tolerant of a wide range of conditions, from dry to wet. It's also called capeweed, turkeytangle, or matchweed. The last name is because the flower heads, consisting of a purple center surrounded by tiny white flowers, are the size and shape of a match head. Some people in HOAs trim it back with a string trimmer once or twice a year for a neater and denser texture.

Fogfruit is common throughout Florida
and will quickly cover the soil with its runners.

For both of these ground covers and for other crawling plants, when runners trail out onto sidewalks or driveways, don't cut them off, but bend them back onto themselves. This reduces maintenance chores, because each cut runner will produce two new runners in that spot, while a runner bent back into the ground cover will be growing away from the edge. This is due to auxin hormones in the plants. To learn more about plant hormones as it relates to gardening and maintenance here:  Plants have hormones, too

A black swallowtail butterfly on
tropical sage (Salvia coccinea).
Notice that our freedom lawn in
the background looks really good.

The time has come for Freedom Lawns!

There are sooo many reasons:
- Save time and money
- Provide a healthier environment for you, your family, and your pets
- Save water to help relieve the stress on our aquifers
- Reduce pollution in nearby waterways
- Reduce your climate footprint on our only planet
- Create good habitat for pollinators and birds

Won't you join us and liberate your lawn? Mother Nature will thank you in so many ways.

Some of my other lawn articles: Changes, Cutting edges, The lawn less mown.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt


  1. I love this. I'm slowly working my yard to be the same. Its mostly completed but I still have a lawn service. Eventually I hope to not need one when all of the lower growing plants take over the tall weeds & unwanted grass.

  2. We are at a point now where we can make a real difference in our front yard. My husband liked it "wild" but that meant lots of saw palmettos everywhere, and many climbing vines that took hold over the last few years. It was a jungle. Last month someone on our single-street subdivision (where my husband is president of the HOA) complained to the city, and we were asked to remove the invasive (which they called "evasive"!) vegetation and neaten things up. We went whole hog and chopped down most of the saw palmettos, which we know will eventually grow back, but we will keep in groups rather than letting them pop up all over.

    We barely had much grass to begin with, and a smattering of ferns, but now with the palmettos gone, 90% of our front is basically just bare soil now. Time for some groundcover! We would like to plant Sunshine Mimosa, but I believe we need to wait to plant after the heat of the summer, yes? I'm a bird lover and can't wait to go native, for that reason and many others. We're learning a lot on your blog.

    1. I'd go ahead and plant the mimosa now, because while it's hot, it's also our wet season so there would be less need for irrigation during the establishment phase. The mimosa will take a while to get its footing, but it will aggressively cover the soil. One idea in dealing with this, or other crawling plants, is to bend sprouts crawling onto sidewalks back into the ground cover. Don't cut them off because that will cause even more sprouting at those edges. Good luck with your efforts.

  3. We have a new to us property in North Oak Hill, Valusha. Where are my best resources for natives? I will be looking into rescue from to be developed land close by.
    Really is a great property with a lot of possibilities.

  4. I'd join your local Florida Native Plant Society chapter for good feet-on-the-ground information and resources.
    To buy plants, Go to to find a native nursery near you.

  5. The Florida Friendly law is supposed to protect homeowners from HOA harrassment. Also I have a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation with a script that you can download for free from the Florida Native Plant Society website. under gardening with natives. It downloads as a pdf file, but there is a link in there to the presentation.

  6. When we tried this we did not get beneficial ground covers. We got chamber butter and creeping beggarweed. How did you keep out those noxious invaders?

  7. Yes, we also have less-desirable plants in our freedom lawn. But over time, we have fewer chamber bitter plants as they've been crowded out by fogfruit and asters.

  8. How do you handle the grass that you do have when it gets too tall? Will ground covers eventually overtake the grass? I have some sunshine mimosa that is spreading but it is spreading within the tall grass.

  9. We mow our freedom lawn, but much less frequently than a highly fertilized lawn. We also have some sunshine mimosa creeping into the mowed areas, and it tolerates the mowing and as it spreads and gets thicker, those areas are mowed only once or twice a year to keep the tall weeds controlled.

  10. Your HOA has to adhere to FL Legislation - be respectful & let them know your intent -

  11. Hi, thank you for such a wonderful article! Do you have any resources for northern climates? I live in Connecticut.

  12. In our book, "Climate-Wise Landscaping," Lawns is the first chapter and provides lots of ideas for folks that live in various regions. For more information, go to this link:

  13. Where can powderpuff mimosa be found? I have had no luck.

    1. If you're in Florida, most of our native plant vendors have it or get it easily from their wholesalers. This link provides native plant vendors that have powderpuff in stock: If you're not in Florida contact your native plant group.

  14. We have a large area in our back lawn mostly shade from an oak we would like to cover. We had a fern garden but kept getting ground wasps that attacked us. Any idea on something we can put in?