Tired of mowing the lawn? Pave it over
Homeowners weary of yardwork are turning to "hardscaping," replacing grass and plants with low-maintenance stone or concrete. Some are keeping things green with fake vegetation.
Michael Kulik recently invited the bulldozers in to tear up his quarter-acre Falls Church, Va., backyard. The $90,000 redo he has planned will include a hot tub and gazebo, an outdoor fireplace and grill, a multilevel paved terrace — and very few plants.
Kulik, a professional photographer, says he was tired of spending hours every week trimming the azaleas and hollies and trying to get grass to grow under the oak trees. "For me, the backyard had become a war zone."
Here's what's on the way out in landscaping: grass, flowers and trees. Frustrated by extreme changes in the weather —flooding one year, droughts the next — some homeowners are simply giving up. They're replacing ferns and palms with lifelike fakes, pulling up the sod and putting down stone, concrete and other types of paving, and drastically shrinking planting beds.
"It's garden fatigue," says Bruce Butterfield, the director of research for the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt.
Lawn and garden sales have been declining, according to the group. Sales totaled $35.2 billion in 2005, down 4% from the year before. And it's not just the wiggy weather: Many homeowners are aging, says Butterfield, or are simply wearying of maintaining elaborate plantings or competing with the neighbors for the showiest roses.
Even professionals like Josh Dean, a landscape designer in Burke, Va., are paving over their green space. In January 2006, Dean replaced most of his backyard with a huge flagstone patio. "I was tired of dealing with the overgrown grass and poison ivy," he says.
Although the use of stone, concrete and crushed gravel on residential properties isn't new, the switch from landscaping to "hardscaping" has started to gain traction in the past few years, as more homeowners have begun to think of their gardens and backyards as outdoor rooms. David Watkins, the general manager of Merrifield Gardening Center in Merrifield, Va., says that a decade ago, the company rarely had requests to do hardscaping.
But now, many customers say they would rather spend their weekends relaxing and entertaining in these tricked-out spaces — complete with weather-resistant rugs, kitchens and built-in televisions — than pushing around lawn mowers and pulling weeds. In the past year, the company's hardscaping sales have increased 20%, even though the cost for paving is around $25 a square foot installed, more than 10 times the cost of sod. Customers want a low-maintenance yard, Watkins says.
Some want no maintenance at all. Last spring, businessman Kim Melrose spent $25,000 having the yard of his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., torn up so it could be paved with cream-colored concrete, textured to look like travertine stone. His yard has a pool, a covered barbecue, a kitchen with a dishwasher, a two-burner cooktop, a stainless-steel sink and a bar with granite countertop — and not a blade of grass.
"It's so easy to take care of," says Melrose, adding that now he can host parties of 50 people without worrying about what's being trampled underfoot.
Still, even a yard that's heavy on the hardscaping has its downsides. Unlike grass, paving that's been mortared in place is permanent — so if buried irrigation lines leak or electrical lines need attention, contractors will have to break out the jackhammers.
In addition, hard surfaces shed water rather than absorb it, which can create runoff problems; they're also prone to cracking in cold climates and are unforgiving on bare feet and dropped glassware. And they're not completely maintenance-free: Melrose, for instance, says that his concrete yard has to be treated once a year with a special sealant to protect the surface from the elements.
Trying to go inorganic can run afoul of city ordinances, too. Darren MacLennan, a software salesman, bought a home in Washington, D.C., two years ago that was shaded by two old oak trees. He aerated, mowed, seeded and fertilized but couldn't get anything to grow in his backyard except moss. Finally, he decided to have one of the trees taken down so he could put in a big flagstone patio and outdoor kitchen. To his shock, the city made him pay a fee of about $1,200 and plant seven saplings elsewhere on his property to make up for the lost mature-tree canopy.
"I wasn't very happy," he says.
Nevertheless, the quest for no-grow gardens has been a boon to companies such as Preserved TreeScapes International. The Oceanside, Calif., company sells artificial flora made from urethane — trees and plants that can be used outdoors — as well as real plants that have been preserved with chemicals and are suitable for covered areas like porches.
The company sells mostly to hotels and shopping malls, but in the past two years the residential portion of its business has grown to 20%, up from 5% in 2003. Orders from homeowners now number 10 a month for items ranging from $55 pots of preserved grass to $2,000 fake banana palms, says Raelyn Luckow, a design consultant for the company.
Though pricier than the real thing, the faux foliage will last for three years without fading, Luckow says. It's especially popular with second-home owners who don't want to deal with long-distance upkeep or the prospect of weeding on their vacations. "People want everything aesthetically pleasing all the time," she says.
One of the company's customers, Kim Fullerton, a Rosalia, Wash., dental hygienist, spent $300 on six fake ferns and a tiny artificial pine tree, scaled to match a 3-foot-tall mill house that she had constructed by her backyard pond to hide the pond equipment. Fullerton says she chose artificial plants because she was concerned that real ones would grow too big and that their roots would disrupt the carefully placed rock pavers and retaining walls around the pond. She's not going totally inorganic — she's got 48 acres — but she has discovered one unforeseen benefit of pretend greenery: "It's the one thing in my yard the deer won't eat."
Wearying of the green
Manufacturers are pushing new products for gardeners who just don't want to bother anymore:
San Carlos, Calif.
|$700 for a pallet with 33 mats, not including shipping||Real inch-thick flagstones backed with fiberglass webbing and set in interlocking 5.4-square-foot mats — each weighing 42 pounds — that can be mortared together. Sales are up 50% over 2005, the company says.|
|$30 for a mold; $30 for a mixer||A somewhat messy, do-it-yourself way to build a patio that resembles cobblestone or blocks. Requires rolling cement around in a small plastic mixer and troweling it into a reusable mold. Sold in catalogs and big-box stores.|
Preserved TreeScapes International
|$300 a linear foot||Homeowners use these plastic plants, made of urethane, to fill hard-to-water spots or to camouflage cable boxes and trash cans, the company says. Palm trees sell best.|
|$2.95 to $5.50 per pound, depending on the quantity purchased||This blend of slow-growing fine fescues, for those who hate yardwork but can't bear to part with the lawn, is the company's best seller. The name's something of a misnomer: To look manicured, the grass has to be cut at least once a year.|
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