Lawn Alternatives

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Lose the Lawn covered the environmental and economic impact of American lawns. But what alternatives do you have, that are as attractive and enjoyable?

Has anyone ever told you, “My yard is my sanctuary”? What picture comes to your mind when you hear it? A uniform close-cropped expanse of grass? Or something more serene and unique?

Beware the HOA

First, a word of caution. If you’re among the 1 in 5 Americans who live under a Homeowners Association (HOA), you must tread carefully. If you violate their landscaping rules, the HOA could take any number of measures, such as:

  • Hire a lawn care service on your behalf and send you the bill
  • Fine you
  • Suspend your rights to common areas
  • Take you to court
  • Put a lien on your property, and even foreclose on it

Some of the suggestions below are more HOA-friendly than others. If you’re in an HOA, please read your Covenants, Conditions, & Restrictions (CC&Rs) carefully before changing any landscaping.

A Note to Desert Dwellers

This post is written primarily for regions where the natural landscape is either forest or plains. In other words, where green things sprout up naturally. If you live in the desert and you’re still maintaining grass, please switch to desert landscaping ASAP! Lawns and desert don’t mix. I’d recommend the following books to get you started:

With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s move on to the fun part: options for a budget- and eco-friendly yard.

Option 1: “Lazy Lawnmowing”

The easiest, least radical way to save time, money and pollution? Instead of once a week, back off to mowing every two weeks. Just like that, you’ll cut your fuel and labor expense in half. A recent study in Springfield, Massachusetts found that yards mowed every two weeks attract more pollinators than those mowed weekly. But don’t push it farther than that. After three weeks, the grass grows too long for bees to reach their coveted clover.

Option 2: Flowering Lawn

This is the more intentional version of “Lazy Lawnmowing”. For a flowering lawn, overseed or replace your turf with flowering plants that need less frequent mowing. These include the obvious clover, but also lesser-known species such as lanceleaf and calico aster. See the University of Minnesota Bee Lab website for more details.

Option 3: No-Mow

Skip mowing altogether and let all or part of your yard transform naturally into a mini-meadow. You can speed this transformation by sowing seeds such as a Wildflower Pollinator Mix or Bird and Butterfly Mix. Or follow the guidelines in The American Meadow Garden by John Greenlee. He purports that “a meadow isn’t a random assortment of messy, anonymous grasses. Rather… regionally appropriate grasses combine with colorful perennials to form a rich tapestry”. Doesn’t that sound majestic?

The laziest approach: just let your lawn go unmowed and see what comes up. This is the approach we took at our previous house. The former owner had mowed the entire acre lot weekly – ugh!

We decided to draw a virtual line in the grass, halfway between the house and the road, and mowed only from the house to that line. We also mowed just a few feet behind the house and let the rest of the backyard go completely. Within a few years, we had a lot more privacy. We had saved countless hours and gallons of gas. And we got to enjoy the wild orchids, wild blackberries, and native grasses that decided to take root.

Another variation, described in The Guardian, is to mow only in autumn, to mimic traditional hay-cutting. Just be sure to remove the clippings. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with a yard full of rotting debris.

In any case, the “no-mow” approach provides tangible benefits to your immediate environment:

  • Habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife
  • Better stormwater control
  • Less soil erosion.

A meandering path or two can help you fully appreciate your meadow. Maintain paths by mowing, or by laying down recycled stepping stones that mimic railroad ties or flagstones. The easiest, fastest option for straight paths? Roll out a weather-resistant cedar pathway or permanent mulch pathway.

Option 4: Ground Cover

Like the flowering lawn option, ground covers can replace all or part of your turf. The difference is that ground covers grow only a to a few inches tall with no mowing required. My personal favorites are creeping thyme, bunchberry, and Caucasian stonecrop.

Which ground covers will thrive in your yard? To find out, you’re best off consulting the experts at your local greenhouse. They’ll know what grows best in your area, and with your sun and soil conditions. They’ll also help you avoid introducing species that are invasive to your area. The book Covering Ground by Barbara Ellis offers a wealth of ideas as well.

Option 5: Mulch

Mulch is your best friend when it comes to trees and shrubs. It helps prevent weeds, retain moisture, and improve soil health. Placing mulch around the base of tree trunks also protects them from other plants – and the mower. Mulch comes in a variety of colors to complement your house and landscaping. Once again, your local garden center can help you figure out which type of mulch is best for your specific needs.

Option 6: More Trees and Shrubs

Chances are you already have a few trees and shrubs in your yard. But the more you plant, the bigger your no-mow zone, especially if you spread mulch between them. Space trees and shrubs at their closest recommended distance so there’s a smaller area to mulch.

In fact, a large enough cluster can even create a mini “woods” in your yard. That not only gives you a bigger no-mow area, but you can avoid raking or leaf-blowing there too. Yet another benefit: It’s a convenient place to train your dog to do its business. No more yellow spots in your grass or unexpected “presents” under your feet.

Aside from pruning them every so often, trees and shrubs are virtually maintenance-free. Plant trees from tall, leafy species on the sunny side of your house. As they grow, their shade will keep your home naturally cooler in the summer. Shrubs provide extra privacy and places for kids to hide-and-seek – unless that’s the dog’s bathroom area! Both provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. Flowering varieties attract pollinators and can produce a bounty of fruit for your family and neighbors.

Option 7: Traditional Garden

When you hear the term “garden”, what image comes to mind? Beautiful blooming flowers, or delicious fresh vegetables? Both can be labor-intensive, yet rewarding. And neither must be relegated to the back yard alone. Backyard gardens are great, but why not take the bold step of adding a vegetable garden to the front yard?

Tending a front yard garden is a great way to meet your neighbors and bring your community together. In fact, that’s the goal of the Food is Free Project: to grow “community and food while helping gain independence from a broken agricultural system”. And if your house is the only one with a front yard garden? There’s no better way to get on your neighbor’s good side – yes, even your lawn-addicted neighbor – than with an assortment of fresh, home-grown produce.

For more info on the topic, I’d recommend:

Option 8: Hardscaping

Have you considered expanding your deck or patio, or adding a gazebo? You’d have a smaller area to mow and more space for seating and entertainment. Wouldn’t you love to have dinner or breakfast outside when Mother Nature allows?

Hardscaping does have a couple of downsides. It’s by far the most expensive option up front. It shrinks your yard’s total growing space and provides no net benefit to the environment.

The good news is that it’s not an all or nothing deal. You can expand your patio space while also choosing one of the options in other areas of your yard.

Make It Your Own

This brings us to the best part about lawn alternatives. You can mix and match options to create something truly unique. Perhaps expand the patio near the house. Add a meadow with a meandering path in the sunniest part of the yard. Nestle a swing between two shade trees, among the shrubs, mulch, and ground cover.

Be creative! The possibilities are nearly endless. Before you know it, you too could claim that your yard is your sanctuary. And you’ll wonder how you ever found joy in that boring, uniform expanse of grass.

Thanks for reading, and for taking the next step to becoming SuperGreener!
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One Reply to “Lawn Alternatives”

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