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5-yrsBy Bruce Zaretsky

‘In recent weeks,’ wrote Bruce Zaretsky to open his On the Level column in the July 2009 issue of WaterShapes, ‘I’ve spent a good bit of time speaking to landscaping colleagues, garden clubs and symposium attendees about our general need to get smarter when it comes to how we think about landscapes.

‘This is all part of my perpetual campaign to convince everyone to use the right plants in the right places in order to save water, labor and the fuels consumed in maintaining them.  A big part of my pitch,’ he continued, ‘is [my objection] to installing large expanses of lawn just for the sake of having them.’


‘Some landscaping professionals don’t like it when I speak up or write about this, basically because many of them make good money mowing lawns.  But all I can say about a client’s desire for grass is, why? . . . In my book, [they are] undesirably costly, environmentally suspect, energy inefficient and hard to rationalize.  And besides, there are so many good alternatives!’  


‘I get so agitated with many of my colleagues [because they’re happy to] go out in spring, tear out clients’ lawns, top-dress the space with nice soil and then seed or sod the area.  It’ll all look absolutely great when the client signs the check, but by summer, areas under tree canopies will have begun showing signs of stress.  I can’t fault the homeowner for not knowing this will happen, but I do fault professionals who either don’t know any better (but should) or do know full well what will happen and take their clients’ money anyway.’


‘That’s one of the reasons why I spend so much time speaking to groups of homeowners as well as professionals:  My Big Idea, oft repeated, is that grass should not be planted in these situations.’   


‘Here in the northeast, for example, evergreen groundcovers such as Myrtle (also known as Vinca) and Pachysandra are quite popular and reliable and do very well in shade. . . .  All of the evergreen groundcovers spread relatively quickly and will carpet an area with a dense mat of foliage.  They will also suppress weed growth (although in my experience Myrtle can have a bit of an issue with grass growing up through it) and in time will require little or no maintenance.’  


‘What I look for are perennials that don’t grow very tall, but I’m not terribly picky.  . . .  As I see it, the most important feature of whatever plants I decide to use is that they must all do well in the shade of dominant trees.’


‘There are, of course, many other perennials that perform wonderfully in the shade of large trees or copses of trees.  With these possibilities, however, shade-tolerance is only one of the parameters I consider, with site moisture (wet or dry) being the other.  In most residential situations, dry is the norm.  Indeed, one of the reasons grass fares poorly under canopies is that the trees hog all of the water, so I’ve spent a lot of time evaluating plants that will tolerate shady, dry environments.’  


‘Damp or wet areas call for different plants, and my first choice is usually Astilbe.  I’m partial to this perennial because of its stunning plumes of flowers.  In addition, by mixing varieties and species, I can establish spaces that will have flowers from early June right through to the end of August – and even the spent flowers are spectacular.’  


‘This is just a brief sampling of what can be done as alternatives to the lawns that almost certainly will fail in deeply shaded areas.  These groundcovers are all easy to work with, solve substantial design problems and,’ Bruce concluded, ‘offer clients stunning vistas that will make them forget all of the frustration they experienced through years of trying to make a lawn thrive where it simply couldn’t make the grade.’

Do you share Bruce’s attitude about lawns?  If you do, what ways have you found to work with clients who have their hearts set of expanses of green?  If you don’t, how do you keep lawns from becoming long-term headaches?  Please share your thoughts below!


Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y.  Nationally recognized for creative and inspiring residential landscapes, he also works with healthcare facilities, nursing homes and local municipalities in conceiving and installing healing and meditation gardens.  You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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