On Your Turf: 5 Small Space Urban Garden Lawn Care Tips

April 25, 2019 by


In urban areas where outdoor space is limited, you won’t typically find front gardens carpeted with the large, uniform, smooth lawns more commonly found in suburban neighborhoods. But a small area of lawn could work.

Why have lawns gotten a bad rap the past few years? A Science study found that households in arid regions of the U.S. direct 75 percent of their water use to watering the lawn. With the impact of climate change, we collectively pay a price economically and environmentally for maintaining these lawns. Does that mean you need to totally eliminate turf from your landscaping scheme? Maybe not. Balance is key.

As an alternative to the complete lawnscape, consider a garden plan that includes beneficial and sustainable alternatives to compliment your patch of grass. Perhaps allocate a space for a vegetable garden, plant a prairie garden with some native plants and ornamental grasses such as blue fescue (one I particularly like), designate an area for compost, and keep a portion of the garden for lawn. Such a plan also addresses efforts toward the conservation of bees and monarch butterflies and helps to maintain a healthy biodiversity in the garden.

But even the smallest patch of lawn can make gardeners anxious. Homeowners know they need to mow the lawn, but they just don’t want to do it. Many don’t really understand how to care for that patch of turf, and busy urban dwellers are worried that even with a small lawn, the maintenance will eat up a lot of their free time.

Like many things in life, a little planning will go…a lawn way.

1) Have the Right Equipment
Begin with the right tools. First on the list, of course: a lawn mower. With a small urban garden, a push-behind mower will be adequate. For those with a medium to large yard, a riding mower may be tempting, but a self-propelled mower might also meet your needs. Chances are you don’t have the kind of sprawling lawn and mixed terrain that requires a lawn tractor.

You’ll also need a string trimmer (commonly known as a weed eater) to do edging work around fences, sidewalks, walls, and garden beds. You can minimize the amount of edging work by installing mowing strips. If you’re planning on fertilizing or spreading any grass seed, you may want to get a spreader. Other tools to consider include a rake for leaves, a rake for soil, a spade, a garden hose, a sprinkler, and, if you have trees or shrubs, pruning tools.

2) How to Mow
Lawn care isn’t as simple as just cutting the grass. There’s a right way and a wrong way to mow and knowing the difference can save your grass (no near pun intended.) Never mow your lawn while the grass is wet because it makes the it more susceptible to disease (and it can be slippery and dangerous for you). Never cut more than a third of your grass’s length. If your grass is really long, you can set the mower on the highest setting, and then do another pass a couple of days later to get it down to its normal manicured length.

3) Plant Right
You probably already know that flowers and vegetables in prepared beds will grow best with healthy, nutrient-rich soil. Minimize the amount of gardening work by planting perennial species. Prune your spring-flowering shrubs and trees right after they stop flowering, and your summer-flowering shrubs and trees in the late winter and early spring. Cover freshly seeded areas with a thin layer of soil or stray (not hay, which can contain seeds of its own). When planting outside of prepared beds, try to keep soil disruption to a minimum, since it can encourage weed growth. Top weeds before they seed to gradually remove them from your lawn.


4) Establish a Seasonal Lawn Care Schedule
A seasonal lawn care schedule is a gardener’s best friend. Overseed in the spring to treat bare and thin patches. Aerate the soil yearly to help roots grow deeper and make the grass stronger. Fertilize in the spring and fall. Rake leaves in the fall and use them to make leaf mold for your vegetable and flower beds.

5) Keep It Simple
Don’t go overboard. Spend the first season getting to know your grass and thinking about where you want to put in new beds. If your grass goes brown during the hottest part of the year, it’s a sign that you’re growing a cool-season grass that should be replaced with a warm-climate variety, like St. Augustine. Pay careful attention to which parts of your lawn get the most sun and which parts might be better-suited to shade-loving plants.

Test your soil to better understand its pH and health. You may want to amend the soil. Just as you’re limited to growing plants, grass and shrubs that will thrive in your growing zone, the same goes for growing a species of grass that will do well with your soil type.

Some Cool Resources
Consult the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map to find out which grasses, perennials, trees, and shrubs thrive in your area.

The American Horticulture Society’s Plant Heat Zone map indicates the average number of days each year that a given region experiences “heat days”–temperatures over 86 degrees (30 degrees Celsius.) The zones range from Zone 1 (less than one heat day) to Zone 12 (more than 210 heat days). A “heat day” is the point at which plants begin suffering physiological heat damage.

All images, Robin Plaskoff Horton.



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