Of all the picture-perfect lawns I've seen, some of the most puzzling are located in ditches. Yes, some folks are spending time, energy, and resources to keep their ditch bottoms covered with short green carpets of turfgrass. Are they doing it for the rest of us? I don't know about you, but when I see a person riding their lawnmower into their ditch, rather than thinking, "What a good citizen and neighbor," I generally imagine the fabulous garden that could be growing in that ditch. Or sometimes I just think, "Ooh, I hope they won't tip over."
If you get no pleasure from maintaining the lawn in your ditch, here's a suggestion: convert it to a beautiful low-maintenance garden that will benefit you and your local environment too.
The Benefits, In a Nutshell
Swale Gardens (also called Bioswales) are added to landscapes to help channel stormwater runoff. Like their popular Rain Garden cousins, they collect rainwater from nearby roofs, pavement, and/or lawns and absorb that water into plants and soil. Unlike Rain Gardens, they also direct the flow of the excess water.
A well-planted ditch makes an ideal Swale Garden, which will benefit you and your local environment by:
- absorbing runoff,
- preventing erosion,
- improving water quality,
- capturing atmospheric carbon,
- helping to control populations of pest insects,
- adding biodiversity,
- beautifying your landscape, and perhaps even
- making it more comfortable and healthy for you, while
- reducing your weekly yardwork.
They Work in Dry Climates Too
In arid landscapes, you can easily spot the waterways--even when they contain no water--because they support relatively lush plant life. You'll see stripes of green winding down reddish slopes and snaking through flat, tawny plains.
Bioswales mimic these waterways. Their physical shape allows them to catch more water than flat gardens. Being self-watering, they offer dry-climate gardeners a prime opportunity to grow a wider variety of plants with less work.
Redesigning Your Ditch
Whether your ditch flows for months on end or only fills occasionally, take advantage of its aqueous bounty. Add rocks and plants to slow the flow; this gives soil and roots more time to soak up more water.
What to plant? Trade that lawn for ornamental flowers and grasses, woody plants, and plants native to stream banks and shorelines in your region; these will develop deeper and denser root systems over time, so they will be able to absorb more runoff each year. (Frequently cut lawns can't expand their root systems because they keep losing their leaves to the mower blades.) Include moisture-loving shrubs and trees to anchor the banks against erosion.
Now's your chance to increase your garden's biodiversity -- that's right, you'll be needing some new and different plants! If your Swale Garden is bordered by lawn, you can plant "indefinite spreaders" in it and use the mower to contain them. (In a dry climate, control spreading plants by refraining from irrigating outside your Swale Garden.) Also plant tall flowers... and for once, you'll get a chance to look them in the eye.
Well-chosen plants will attract animals as well. Native plants create the most effective wildlife habitat, as your local animals have evolved alongside the plants. Berry-producing native shrubs are particularly valuable for adding bird habitat to your yard, while native flowers and grasses will invite pollinators, butterflies, and insect predators.
Comfortable, Healthy, Beautiful
Your new garden--unlike the lawn it replaces--could make a friendly screen for a seating area. More and taller foliage will trap airborne pollutants and oxygenate the air, making it healthier for you to breathe, while underground roots and soil will remove pollutants from stormwater before it recharges nearby lakes, rivers, and aquifers.
As with any conversion from lawn to garden, planting your ditch gives you a chance to add colorful blooms, fragrances, fluttering and swooping creatures, seasonal changes, and winter interest to your yard. The window that overlooks your Swale Garden could soon be your favorite window!
Who knew that a ditch could be so rewarding?
Evelyn Hadden, founder of LessLawn and founding member of the Lawn Reform Coalition, is a nationally known speaker and best-selling author focused on low-maintenance, nature-friendly, soul-satisfying landscapes. Her book Beautiful No-Mow Yards will be published in February.
Be sure to read the other posts from the Garden Designers Roundtable's collective blogging event on the theme of Lawn Alternatives:
- Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA
- Susan Harris : Garden Rant : Takoma Park, MD
- Susan Harris : Gardener Susan’s Blog : Takoma Park, MD
- Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA
- Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT
- Saxon Holt : Gardening Gone Wild : Novato, CA
- Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA
- Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA
- Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX
- Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
- Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA
- Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
- Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA
- Ginny Stibolt : Florida Native Plant Society : Green Cove Springs, FL
- Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA
- Evelyn Hadden : Lawn Reform Coalition : Plymouth, MN
- Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN
- Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT
- Billy Goodnick : Cool Green Gardens : Santa Barbara, CA