If ever there was a place where a low-maintenance lawn would come in handy, it's at a beach house. While you're there, you have better things to do than wrestle a mower, and when you're not there, well, you're not there. And you need something that won't grow too wild, or burn out too quickly, in your absence.
Photographs by Erin Boyle.
During my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I had the utter delight of a six-night stay at my brother-in-law's family beach house (Above) on the Oregon coast. Built on a cliff overlooking the ocean, the house is an architect-designed but family-built compound of connected cottages constructed to replace the family's previous house that very nearly tumbled into the sea during the height of El Nino-related beach erosion in the 1990s.
Safely distanced from the seaside cliffs, the new beach house was completed over ten years ago and Molly, my brother-in-law's mother, has been nurturing its wild lawn ever since. Without dismissing the gleaming glass and silvery shingles of the house itself, I admit that the perfectly unruly lawn is what first caught my eye on this recent trip. I chatted with Molly to find the secret to her success.
When Molly first set out to develop the lawn, she sought the advice of her friend, John Brookes, noted garden designer, who advised her: "Just see what comes." The truth is that his words were partly friendly advice to let native plants thrive on the property, and partly an admission that he wasn't willing to take on the task of designing a garden by the sea himself. Salt air, a constant battery from the wind, and the added complication that beach homes aren't often a primary residence can make designing a beach house garden something of a challenge (just ask Justine).
Molly is nothing if not determined. And so she endeavored to create her own low-maintenance lawn using native seeds collected from seed savers in the area. Molly relied on lawn mixes developed by local nurseries. Nichols Nursery in Albany, Oregon, was the first she found. Their Northern Ecology Lawn Mix is $11.95 for a 1/8 lb. bag. More recently, she's used a mix from Hobbs and Hopkins in Portland; their Fleur de Lawn. A 1-pound bag is available for $29.95. As Molly explains, "My 'lawn' is a humble mix of whatever has survived."
The process was a slow one—with many of the seeds taking up to three years to germinate. Ten years in, the meadow largely takes care of itself. The family mows the lawn just twice a year, in the spring and fall, making sure that the plants have had ample opportunity to self-seed between mowings.
Above: Molly confides that maintaining a uniform height is a challenge in a meadow. The dwarf yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a solid addition that doesn't overpower the grasses, but adds a pleasant variation.
Above: This time of the year the meadow is filled with grasses, clover, and yarrow, but in the springtime, it's full to bursting with bright blue baby blue eyes (Nemphila menziesi) and buttercups.
Above: Stretching out in the yard in front of the beach house, the meadow might not be the best spot to play croquet, but its soft grasses are still perfectly pleasant to walk on in bare feet. You can take my word.
Above: Gratuitous sunset shot? Maybe. But just look at that sweet flowering lawn.
For more lawn-alternatives see Fields of Green: Five Favorite Lawn Substitutes.