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North Hills Monthly

Mow No More: Yardens and Outdoor Living Areas Replacing Local Lawns

Feb 27, 2019 12:16PM ● By April Johnston

Outdoor living spaces are taking the place of lawns. Photo courtesy of Funyak Landscapes

When Anne Bacher purchased her Ambridge home, the yard was pristine, with a lush blanket of green grass and expertly coiffed shrubbery.

She immediately ripped it all out and started over—without grass.

Bacher is one of a growing number of people in western Pennsylvania trading in the traditional suburban lawn for something more high-concept and low maintenance.

For a few, the decision to forgo a lawn is aesthetic. They prefer the color and texture of plants over a sea of green. Some are looking for high-end extensions of their living areas, complete with patios, fire features and custom lighting. Others are simply looking for any way to ditch the never-ending burden of mowing and fertilizing.

For Bacher, however, the choice to give up grass was tinged with idealism. Grass, she says, saps the soil of nutrients and offers little in return. But the fruits, vegetables and herbs that she’s planted in its place have not only enriched the earth, but provided plenty of fresh food for her table.

“I try to make it so every space has something growing on it,” Bacher said.

And she’s largely succeeded, though it took some effort. After ripping out the grass and shrubs, she had to fortify the soil, using decaying leaves, food scraps and grass clippings. “You’re trying to recreate what naturally happens on the forest floor,” she said.

Once the soil was ready, she began planting. While some of her friends in the Ambridge Area Garden Club use pots or raised beds to do their growing, Bacher prefers planting directly into the ground.

Five years into her “yarden” experiment, the front yard boasts raspberry bushes, onions and pollinators, like echinacea, which her neighbors will tell you bring gorgeous goldfinches flocking in the fall. The backyard is a plethora of produce, including squash, baby eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, beans, figs, lemons, and more.

She uses rain barrels to do her watering and compost to create her topsoil. “It’s really beneficial because you can grow food in your yard that you can’t get in the store and it’s cost effective, depending on how successful you are,” Bacher said.

But there’s also something about getting outside and putting your hands in the earth, breathing in the scent of fresh herbs and knowing that what comes out of the ground is what goes into your body.

“It’s a sense of being in sync with nature, with the universe,” Bacher said. “When the sprouts start to come up, I look and look every day. It gets me every year, every time.”

She’s not the only gardening advocate in town. Ambridge has a healthy and growing number of gardeners—many of whom sit on the Committee to Clean and Beautify Ambridge or belong to the garden club—tending to plantings around the borough and renting raised beds behind the municipal building.

“The best way to start is with little things in pots,” Bacher said. “Put them wherever you have some sun and just grow into it.”

For those who want to forgo grass but don’t have the patience for planting—in yards or in pots—Jawn Funyak of Funyak Landscapes in Mars has some suggestions.

Funyak and his brother, Joe, started their landscaping business in high school mowing area lawns. Today they specialize in creating outdoor living spaces. Much of their work focuses on extravagant extensions of the home, with full kitchens, heaters, speakers, lighting, retractable blinds and the ever-present fire feature, which allows customers to enjoy their outdoor spaces nearly year-round.

“We create an oasis where you can go every day, and you don’t have to go on vacation,” Funyak said.

Increasingly, customers are filling in the areas around their outdoor living spaces with river rock, lava rock, mulch, ground cover, pavers, swimming pools, putting greens, bocce ball courts …basically, anything but grass. Two of the most popular options are xeriscaping—a kind of landscaping that requires virtually no watering, making it low maintenance and drought tolerant—and artificial turf.

Yes, artificial turf. It’s come a long way. 

Really.

“Years ago, it kind of looked like bad indoor/outdoor carpeting,” Funyak admitted. “But now it’s a popular way to convert areas into what still looks like green space, but you don’t have to mow it and it won’t get brown spots from your pets.”

The outdoor living area and its accompanying lawn-less landscaping options aren’t always cheap—some customers have been known to spend 20 percent or more of their home price. But Funyak said that many of his clients are looking at their outdoor spaces as investments, both in their homes and in their lives.

“There’s a real value to it,” he said. “It’s an environment where people really want to be and eat and hang out. It’s a place for families to gather, and you can’t put a price on that.”