7/30 Is It Time To Kill Your Lawn?



Just another little neighborhood in Portland OR, where residents have happily given up their lawnmowers. I recently survived a family trip to the Northwest with teens, and despite the incredible natural beauty we hiked through, Portland sticks in my mind. This post may seem like a digression from my usual subjects, but there’s a connection. Every little front and back yard is a fragment too, much like our forest on a tiny scale. It’s potential habitat for butterflies, bees, birds, snakes, lizards, box turtles… or it can just be lawn.

front yard on 92nd st. with Common milkweed, etc

I didn’t expect to explore urban habitat on our trip, but when the flight home was delayed as usual, we had an extra day to do something. The neighborhood near the Motel 6 didn’t look promising, with drifters and panhandlers hanging around the 7 Eleven as I started my morning walk.


Just a block into the neighborhood I encountered the first chicken coop along the sidewalk.


This neighborhood of small homes and flowery yards reminds me of Louisville’s Clifton, with residents by and large committed to growing all sorts of plants in their front yards and in the median between the sidewalk and street.


The largest Trumpet vine Campsis radicans, I’ve ever seen occupies the frontage of one home, with hordes of hummingbirds in attendance.

Nice selection of northwest native shrubs lines this median strip

Admittedly, Portlanders have more reasons than some of us to kill their lawns. The West Coast has a summer dry/winter wet climate, and lately the summer dry is getting longer and hotter. It was 98 degrees the day we were there, and residents were being asked to restrict water usage.

Something in the Mustard family growing in a front yard garden.
Apple tree spilling its bounty into the street.

The manicured emerald carpets so pervasive in the urban east are just not going to happen here. It’s led to a rethinking of personal landscapes – Portland’s apparently enlightened city ordinances, and live and let live attitudes are refreshing to say the least.

One of the reasons I’ve come to dislike lawns so much started with my first job, a paper route. In those days you still walked the route twice a day with a bag of newspapers slung across your shoulder. At that time, mid ’80’s, the Chemlawn craze was in full swing, and I still recall the nauseating smell of fresh chemical applications I had to tramp through day after day.

My front yard with Silky dogwood berries in the foreground, and Passionflower vines stitching it all together.

So it’s no surprise my front yard is an urban jungle. This streetside habitat would be right at home in Portland, OR, but in my supposedly hip Highlands neighborhood I’ve had plenty of experience with our local code enforcement. I responded to the first warning letter with a long email polemic outlining why I was in the right, as well as what native plants I was growing, and their value as pollinator or host plants. I never heard back.

The second time (reported by our next-door neighbor again) led to a great conversation with code enforcement officer Cindy, who was quite sympathetic and onboard with our habitat enhancement. We dug up some extra Milkweed and Passionflower for her garden, and she shared some good info for would-be front yard gardeners. First off, city code inspectors don’t drive around looking for problems; your lovely front yard habitat will only draw their attention if one of your neighbors reports you. Second, the only issue they really care about is tall grass – if the habitat looks decently well-kept regardless of how bushy, and you know what’s growing there and why – you are probably ok.

For more info on the front yard garden ethos, check out this great article:   https://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2008/09/is_it_time_to_kill_your_lawn.html

And though we like to say “Keep Louisville Weird”, that phrase was first printed on a bumper sticker in Portland OR. I’d say we still have a ways to go…

Young lady walking her snakes in Forest Park


9 thoughts on “7/30 Is It Time To Kill Your Lawn?

  1. Jim Sky

    Wonderful post. I guess that you probably cull out invasive plants in favor of natives. Assuming most people (myself included) aren’t well educated on native vs. non-native plants, do you think it better for them to let everything survive than to do the lawn thing? That would seem to give the invasives a place from which to spread, and yet some animals might still benefit from a more diverse flora, native or not.

    BTW. Did you get my message about the recent fish kill in the creek below the preserve?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Phyllis Fitzgerald

      Rosemary, my Highlands yard has been no-mow for over 30 years, with trees, shrubs, flowers, native plants of all kinds, and few-if-any invasives. A few neighbors have not liked it, but 9 months a year, it is colorful with flowers, greenery, and birds. I don’t let it get weedy, and people walk through to see what’s blooming. Eventually, most neighbors love it, and don’t even mind in winter when I put lots of leaves to build the soil on all of the planting beds. Most understand when I tell them that the leaves help build soil, and one neighbor asks how long before he is downhill from me. I have a sign out front from the National Wildlife Association identifying my yard as a “Certified Wildlife Habitat.” This explains a lot. I give regular “tours’ to garden clubs and individuals who like the concept.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. oneforestfragment

      Thanks Jim! Most everything was planted with natives from Dropseed Nursery, and they have spread, a lot. It’s so dense now that not many weeds get in. Some do, like the invasive native Beggarticks, and I pull most but leave a few. I did not get your message about the fish kill, but just read that it was caused by a leaking sewer line.


      1. Jim Sky

        Yes, it is really unfortunate that the creek undergoes these occasional catastrophes. It re-enforces your post about the need to get rid of lawns too, which encourage more run-off, herbicide usage, and nutrient caused algal blooms. Too bad Joe Creason Park is somewhat of a big lawn.


  2. tonytomeo

    At the end of the Victorian period, the newly founded Portland Rose Society wanted to plant roses in the parkstrips (between the sidewalks and curbs) of many miles of streets in Portland prior to the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition a few years later. I think it was a single cultivar, but I do not remember what it was. Anyway, that is why Portland (but not San Jose) is known as the Rose City.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. tonytomeo

        Roses are even happier in San Jose, so should have no problem with the hottest and driest weather in Portland. They naturally like warmth, and are less susceptible to their common diseases in arid climates.


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