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PHOTOGRAPH BY JEREMY SAMUELSON/GETTY

Stuff Only A Landscape Designer Knows

Make the most of a small yard, and give your lawn an extra edge with these insider tips.

May 19, 2015

With the need to keep chemicals out of the water system and the chore of routine maintenance (where do all the clippings go?),the term lawn has earned a reputation as a four-letter-word. But for all the debate about America’s iconic green stuff, a lawn is still found in most yards and, in fact, is often part of what people regard as a “garden.” As a designer, I’m often asked to include turf in a garden plan as a place for children to play (another reason to avoid harsh chemicals to keep it green and lush). My approach is to use grass as a dynamic garden-design element and not as the main feature or a way to fill leftover space. Less can be more, and if you design your little rug of grass carefully, it can be a very effective component. It is also one of the lowest-cost items in your toolkit for landscape design. Following are some of my best tips.

Shape It Up

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When grass is used as filler between garden areas, which it often is, it doesn’t add to the overall composition of your yard. A lawn dotted with poorly defined beds, scattered about in a seemingly random manner, doesn’t make good use of the space or the plants. Keep shape and order in mind for filler lawn (a strongly defined shape that is in balance with the other shapes in your garden), provide good drainage, and make sure it gets direct sun (your lawn will struggle to survive in shady areas).

Keep It Healthy

Grass needs to be healthy or it will only dilute the strength of your overall garden design. Some types of grass tolerate light shade (there are seed mixes available, like Pearl’s Premium Grass Shady Mix 5), but as mentioned, most turfgrasses prefer sun. Acknowledge the realities of your site conditions and follow good garden practice by using the right plants—including grass—in the right spot. Because turfgrass recommendations vary from region to region, a local garden center or botanic garden is the best place to investigate the right types of turf for the sunny and shaded areas in your yard.

Control Edges

Once you have defined the shape of your lawn on paper, it’s important to find a way to keep it defined in reality. Edging the perimeter of your lawn with a narrow band of stone that is flush with the ground, or surrounding it with a paved area, keeps the edges clean, sharp, and neat through the seasons. It also prevents your carefully designed shape from being overtaken by garden varieties that carve “bites” out of the lawn's edge, as flowerbeds and other plants are reshaped and tidied each year (something I think of as the Pac-Man lawn).

Do Something Unexpected

Now it’s time to play. One of my favorite tricks that I learned in England 20 years ago is to naturalize spring bulbs through turf. The effect is surprising and delightful. Keep in mind that bulbs do better in turf that is slightly hungry, so keeping lawn a little underfed not only cuts down on the need to feed but also allows the bulbs to thrive.