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Cedar Rapids man rethinks a 'beautiful' lawn

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Scott Overland doesn’t buy into the popular perception of a perfect lawn — that of sprawling, manicured green grass mowed twice a week and watered three time — and he hopes others take his lead.

The Cedar Rapids man considers himself a hobbyist gardener, and for the past several years he’s been letting his yard go.

“The whole emphasis is on planting things that if you don’t want to spend much time on, you don’t have to,” he said.

Overland, who by day is vice president of investments at Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust and a Cedar Rapids City Council member, stopped watering.

He mows less. He doesn’t trim bushes or weeds minamally. Mulched, uncollected grass clippings has replaced fertilizer, and parts of his lawn has been turned over to wildflowers and ground cover.

But, from the curb or up close the yard on Crescent Street SE hardly looks like an unkempt jungle, nor is it patchy and dead.

“It’s pretty drought resistant,” he said.

Not spraying has drawbacks, such as wild violet and dandelions spreading in the lawn, but you get past that, he said.

It’s not as if Overland is an absentee homeowner, either. He works in his yard a few times a week, but just on things like changing out plantings to try something different or digging up more of his lawn rather than weeding or pruning.

Overland has pulled five large section out of the lawn — about 20 percent — and turned them into garden beds. It’s not that he never mows; he just has less to mow.

It’s a matter of working with what he has, he said.

Tall trees block the sunlight, so grass struggles in some sections, which would normally mean constant attention, lots of water, seeding, and fertilizing. Instead, he’s planted low maintenance vegetation, such as hostas, deep-rooted perennials, and rose of Sharon bushes, which accent the front stoop.

They thrive in the shade and don’t need much water and keep weeds at bay, he said.

A new oak tree is starting to flourish in the front yard. Towering old maple trees and hemlocks line the north property line with two 15 foot tall red buds in the understory. The red bud limbs and leaves hang over a drooping broad-leaved ground cover in the side yard.

The back porch is the best spot to enjoy the yard as well as the birds — even an occasional blue jay or oriole — that occupy his handmade birdhouses. Immediately adjacent the porch is a wildflower bed where butterflies and honeybees flutter between phlox, aster and black-eyed Susans.

“We don’t need to go to the park necessarily, we can just sit back here,” he said. “The misnomer is if you put all of these things in, you will have to spend all of this time maintaining it, and that’s not the case.”

Drainage problems helped kick-start the new yard philosophy. He worked with a landscaper to lay a new walkway that forms a giant “Y” extending from the front yard to back along with drainage tiles to pull water away from the foundation.  

Water can pool in a French drain in the grass. Plantings with long root systems absorb rainwater to hold it on his property. He’s never had stormwater audit, but he said little runs off during a storm.

A worker from a nursery came out to give general advice on what to do with the yard. Research, trial and error, and imagination have taken over from there, Overland said.

As a member of the City Council, Overland has been steeped in discussions about stormwater runoff, flooding, water pollution, a $100 million backlog in stormwater infrastructure needs, and efforts the city is undertaking to deal with it.

The city has restructured stormwater fees to charge more to those properties that send more water into the sewer system. A proposed topsoil rule would require housing and building developers to leave topsoil when finished to help properties retain more water and filter out toxins.

The discussions has hit home with Overland, who see homeowners approach to their yards as a way they can be part of the solution rather than the problem. That’s why he hopes more people give the non-conventional beautiful lawn a try, he said. It actually looks pretty good.

“This is something people in newer areas could do with their yards,” he said, noting people with compacted, clay-based ground might struggle with his approach. “It’s a game of inches.”

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