A lush garden of native plants in front of a brick suburban house in Pittsburgh

A suburban lawn can be a garden ❁

Designer Elana Schlenker on transforming her Pittsburgh yard into an ecological oasis.

Why do most Americans live in homes surrounded by short-cut grass? As one Redditor put it, “Because we’re consumers, and we’re too busy selling our labor to spend time growing shit.” Honestly… can’t really argue with that. However, there’s more to unpack here.

Grass lawns first became a thing when, in 17th-century England, wealthy landowners began hiring extra hands to mow their properties as a way to showcase their status. Then, with the birth of American suburbia in the ‘50s, “lawn culture” took off and became a class-spanning, ingrained social norm that most people still don’t question.

Right now, though, ecologically attuned people are realizing that there are very few benefits to keeping a closely mowed lawn. They’re also discovering that installing native plants is a fantastic way to keep yards low-maintenance, save water, prevent erosion, and support biodiversity. That’s why California, for example, offers tax rebates to people who replace their turf lawns with more sustainable landscapes.

While shifting our collective mindset away from lawns will take time, each person who rips up the sod in their yard brings us one step closer to a new, permaculture-inspired, biodiversity-supporting norm. Happily, this is exactly what Elana Schlenker has been up to with her lawn in Pittsburgh, PA. Ever since she moved into her house six years ago, she’s been on a mission to turn her half-acre plot into one massive ecological oasis.

Elana is one of my favorite graphic designers (you can scroll her IG to get a sense of her colorful, fun, elegant work… highlights include art directing for the NYTimes, a far-out, 600-page book about Florida, and a Paul Simon album cover, no less). She was also a Strange Foundation resident back in 2019, and when she arrived, the trunk of her car was filled with perennial seedlings for me—including lupine and yarrow, two of my favorites. I immediately wanted to be her BFF. (As an aside, we’ve also been scheming up a way to make a creative gardening book together. If you’re a publisher, hit us up 😛)

In the below conversation, Elana shares how she first dug into this long-term gardening project. We also discuss some of her favorite tools and resources, and ponder whether she’ll ever achieve her long-term gardening vision (hint: it might not matter).

I hope you enjoy this first interview in the Imagining a Garden series. If you do, go ahead and share it with a friend (or frenemy) who might also enjoy it. Thanks!

— Willa

Willa: Let’s start at the beginning. Are you a life-long gardener, or is this a relatively new thing for you?

Elana: My only exposure to gardening as a kid was my grandparents’ modest backyard veggie patch. I was not very interested in it at the time, though it must have had some impact, as anytime I smell a tomato or pick a pea pod I think of my grandfather. 

I also remember receiving a sapling at school on Earth Day, planting it in the backyard and having my dad promptly mow it over. This was probably my first and last gardening attempt until around 2011, when I moved into an old warehouse in Greenpoint where I had access to a big rooftop. I tried to make a garden up there, which turned out pretty sad actually. At one point the building next to mine caught fire and the whole garden burned up. But it was still really fun, and I got excited about what it could mean to have my own space to grow things.

In 2018 I moved to Pittsburgh and bought the house I live in now. I never really thought owning a home would be in reach for me, but moving to Pittsburgh made it possible. I gravitated to the house I’m in now—despite the fact that it’s a few minutes outside the city, in the suburbs—because of its outdoor space, which includes about a half acre of flat land. When I moved in, it was mostly all grass with some mature trees, but bit by bit, I’ve been turning the whole yard into a giant garden.

How did you get started? Did anything in particular help you get going with this vast undertaking?

I’m a self-taught graphic designer, and when I was starting out I spent tons of time reading and trying to educate myself on the basics. I took the same approach with gardening, devouring every book I could get my hands on until I started to feel like I had a decent grasp on things. To take it a step further, I even went through a Master Gardening Certification program.

What exactly does a Master Gardening program cover?

The class met every week for three hours, over eight months. It was me with mostly old ladies. [Laughs] The curriculum was similar to any crash-course gardening book you would read, covering soil, perennials, pruning, propagating, etc. There was a primary instructor, as well as different lecturers. One day a guy came in and lectured on lawn care… I thought that was the least interesting class. 

Did you have to pass a test at the end, or did everyone who went just get certified?

There were a couple of tests, but it wasn’t rigorous. At the end there was a presentation you had to do, which had a strong science-fair vibe. In addition to all that, everyone had to complete at least 36 hours of volunteer work with local horticulture-related organizations.

So once you had a grasp on gardening knowledge, how did you get started with your yard? What was the first step?

I started in the most labor-intensive, but immediately gratifying way: By removing all the sod and working in some compost to build up the soil.

Then that first year, I mainly just planted trees and low-maintenance ground cover. I wasn’t sure what would grow well, so I was hesitant to go all in buying certain plants before I tried things out. 

In the second year I planted another batch of perennials, with lots of drought-resistant and salt-tolerant plants closest to the street (as those plants tend to get dusted by salt trucks in the winter).

By the third year, things had pretty much filled in, at least in my front yard. Now the work is mostly just dividing things that are getting too big, and continuing to expand the garden in the back of my house.

Year 1: Digging up all the sod, and adding a few select trees.

Now that you’ve hit your stride, what approach do you take? Do you follow a certain plan, or keep things more fluid?

Most of the time I feel like I’m sculpting more than planning. My strategy has been to pack everything I possibly can into my beds—first because I love a full garden, but second, because I’m still trying to experiment and see what works best here. My yard has all these different kinds of spaces, some of which are really challenging, with lots of dry shaded areas and places where deer always come through. So, I’ve kind of thrown everything at those spots to see what works.

When things are really growing and thriving, I’ll introduce a little more order by dividing plants in one area, and moving the extras to a less-established bed. I still have some big areas of lawn that I’m trying to convert, so there is always a new spot to move excess plants to. Perennial sunflowers and swamp milkweed seem to thrive no matter where I toss them and they’re great for pollinators so whenever I start a new bed they’re amongst the first plants to get chucked in.

I’ve found it especially satisfying to plant trees and other more structural plants that I can watch grow and turn into habitat for the wildlife over time. I’ve also been experimenting with bringing more edible plants into the garden. Two years ago I planted rhubarb in one of my flower beds and was surprised with how absolutely beautiful it looked all season long.

Lily the pup in Elana’s back yard ^

As a designer by trade, do you feel gardening and designing go hand in hand?

My designer’s eye definitely affects the choices I make in the garden, and I think the observational skills I’ve honed in my work make me a better gardener. But I’m most attracted to the ways that gardening isn’t like design. In the garden, I have to relinquish so much control and have so much patience. It’s become an important counter to my work life. 

I also love that when I’m gardening, my mind is fairly blank. The act of gardening takes up just enough brain power that that’s all I can really focus on, whereas usually with work, I’m juggling a million different things. In the garden it’s easy to forget about work—although when I’m working, I often daydream about my garden.

I’m the same way. What do you think pulls you into daydreaming about your garden? What makes it so fun for you?

Something I’ve realized about myself—and I don’t know if this is good or bad—is that I truly enjoy being productive. Even with things that are supposed to just be for fun, I like when I have something to show for my time. I love gardening because I’m always working towards something. I mean, I’ll probably never attain the final state, but working toward this larger vision that I have, and always chipping away at it, is so fun for me.

I also love how gardening is so time-based. You have to have faith in this future thing that you’re working toward. Recently I’ve been planting all these trees that grow very slowly. But in my mind, I can imagine what they’ll be like in 10 years. I often joke that if I could have any superpower, it would be to make plants grow as fast as I wanted them to.

That leads me to a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. For some reason, I feel this big rush to expand and improve my garden—like I’ve got to hurry and get all these plants in. But then I’m like, “Why am I rushing?” It’s not like there’s a deadline, or like the garden is for anyone else but me and my family—so why do I feel all this urgency to improve it?

Yeah, totally. It’s funny, people come over and will be like, “Oh, it looks so good.” I’m like, “Well, that’s going to look a lot better in five years.” I am so aware of what’s in my imagination, and it’s so apparent to me that I haven’t gotten there yet.

I think for me, the rush is sometimes based around the fact that it is literally going to take that tree years to fruit, or to be the size I’m imagining in my head. So if I wait another year, it does feel like a setback—but at the same time I realize that one of gardening’s biggest lessons is that everything is in a state of flux. So I am trying to be more present and focused on the process versus the outcome.

Elana’s back yard ^

Do you feel like you’ve totally tethered yourself to your current house, by way of your garden? Whenever I imagine moving, I simply can’t fathom leaving behind my garden. So I’ll probably die here. [Laughs]

I do feel very attached to this garden. I would love to haunt it. I also sometimes wonder if I’ve added so much garden space to this property that other people wouldn’t want to buy it anyway. [Laughs]

I live in a suburban area where people mainly have green grass in their yards and that’s it—I even have a neighbor who moved in and ripped out a gorgeous old rhododendron because they were worried it would attract ants. People are so worried about attracting bugs and animals, and meanwhile, that’s the entire point for me. I find it so rewarding to see more and more life moving into this space that I’ve nurtured.

One thing I’m really proud of is that a year or two after I ripped out all the grass in my front yard and replaced it with garden space, my elderly next-door neighbor converted a strip of her yard into a garden. I was like, “I definitely nudged her to do that.” 

You’re a gardening influencer!

Yeah. I’m a suburban influencer, influencing my elderly neighbors. [Laughs] It is cool to see gardening catching on around me, though. When neighbors walk by—because my front yard is on a fairly busy street with people walking with their dogs and their kids and stuff—I’ll give interested people plants. I’m trying to spread the gospel a little bit. It helps me make friends in the neighborhood, too.

Can you share the basic premise of why you see a garden as a better choice over a mowed-grass lawn?

Lawns are a monoculture, supporting so much less life than a garden can. There’s also the fact that an established perennial garden takes way less energy to maintain than a grass lawn. While my front garden was a lot of physical work in the beginning, now that it’s established, I just weed it a couple times a season and don’t even water it. It basically takes care of itself.

How Elana’s front yard looks now, full of established perennials.

At this point, I’m curious where you see this longterm project heading. Do you have a final-form vision for your garden? And do you think you’ll ever get there?

The fun and the heartache and the challenge of the garden is, you can have a vision and then some unpredicted thing will happen and ruin your plans. I had this huge silver maple in my yard that was over 200 years old, which was shading everything. It was amazing, and then it started dying and had to be cut down. That was devastating because I loved that tree so much, and had basically planned my entire garden around it.

It feels like every year I get to the point of, “This year I’m approaching the baseline of my long-term vision.” Then something happens, and it turns out to not be true. But that’s the fun of a garden. It’s always evolving, you just need to keep responding to it.

What advice do you have for someone just getting started with a new garden, or with gardening overall?

Firstly, anyone can garden. That’s just the truth.

Secondly, try to think about what your garden looks like through the seasons. If you just go to a garden center in the spring and buy plants then, you’ll probably only have things that flower in the spring, and not a lot will be going on the rest of the growing season. So I would think about picking out plants two or three times a season, because then you’ll have more things going on throughout the year. That approach has served me well, even though I did it by accident because I was just obsessed with going to the garden center all summer long. [Laughs]

That was in the first couple years of my garden though, now a big goal for myself is not to buy plants. I’d like to just see what I can accomplish without spending money, because the more I plant, the more plants I have to divide and put elsewhere. I’m also trying to be more patient and try out other forms of propagation. I just took tons of cuttings from shrubs and trees around my yard—we’ll see what takes root.

A few last tips from Elana:

✱ Read Gaia’s Garden — This book has a crunchy name, but it’s a great, accessible crash course in permaculture practices. For example, it inspired me to build a hügelkultur 🙂 

Keep a gardening Google Doc — I keep a list of things I want to do or try, and make notes about what I’m doing, when. Because if something is happening in the spring, by the time it’s fall, I won’t remember.

Get a hori hori — This is my favorite gardening tool.

Find your gas lines before you dig — Learn from my mistake!

To read more conversations like this one, subscribe to Dark Properties: