There is a significant movement underway by American homeowners to plant alternatives to grass in their yards. Replacing your lawn with eco-friendly lawn alternatives has many benefits and eliminates the hassle of mowing, fertilizing, watering, and applying dangerous pesticides.
Since the mid-1940s, Americans have felt culturally obligated to carpet their properties large and small with monoculture grasses. This continuous-look-of-a-park esthetic evolved for many reasons, among them a desire for suburban uniformity, and a desire by wealthy Americans who wanted to replicate the lawns of the vast estates they witnessed when traveling in Europe.
Had it been confined to estates, it might have been fine; but now that grass is the most cultivated plant in the world, it’s a problem. Fescues, Kentucky Bluegrass, Zoysia, and the many other domesticated turf grasses of the American lawn don’t manage water well or support wildlife to any degree. They also require extraordinary effort to maintain with regular mowing, high volumes of water, weeding, and feeding. The problem comes into sharp focus when you multiply it by 40 million acres and the fact that turf grasses are cultivated on more acreage than U.S. farmers devote to corn, wheat, and fruit trees combined.
Why replace your lawn?
- Support biodiversity in your home landscape
- More effectively manage stormwater runoff
- No pesticide or fertilizer applications improve the quality of local waterways
- Shady areas, rocky areas, and steep slopes are difficult to grow turf on
Many homeowners recognize the fragility of the local ecosystem and its importance in combating climate change. Some have made a decision to resist the cultural obligation of the traditional green lawn; others want to add more biodiversity to their backyard to support wildlife and local pollinators; many don’t want to deal with the lawn maintenance; some don’t need a play area for kids. No matter the reason for reducing or eliminating your lawn, the benefits are many for your health, local wildlife, and the local environment.
It should also be said that no matter the size of your lawn – from a postage stamp to a rolling field, what you do with it impacts your local ecosystem in many ways.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates (citation removed from EPA website):
- For every hour of operation, gas-powered lawnmowers emit 11 times more air pollution than a new car.
- Mowers, edgers and leaf blowers emit 27 million tons of air pollutants and contribute significantly to smog in some areas.
- Americans spill 17,000,000 gallons of gasoline annually when refueling their lawnmowers and other garden equipment.
- More than half of the American households with a yard or garden use chemical fertilizers and 90 million pounds of insecticides and chemical weed killers, many of which have significant, known human health risks.
- Chemical fertilizers and pesticides contaminate natural habitat and waterways and seep into homes and drinking water.
- 9 billion gallons of water are used EACH DAY to irrigate lawns, which is a poor use of a precious resource, especially during droughts.
How to replace your lawn
What grasses or perennials you replace your lawn with depends on the area you live in, the type of soil, if it’s steep or flat, the amount of rainfall, whether the area is sunny or shady, your tolerance for maintenance, and what you like to see out your window every day. You can choose native grasses that require mowing once or twice a year, sun-loving walk-on groundcovers, mosses for shady areas, or clovers for the same areas you used to broadcast grass seed. Or you could just let it go wild, “weeds” and all and let nature sort things out (in reality, many of the so-called weeds are native plants and will sustain a vast number of local pollinators like bees and moths).
Replace your lawn slowly and make it personal
We’re so used to seeing that patch or swath of green in front of and in back of our homes, it feels downright radical to replace it. It also may seem daunting as that’s all you’ve ever known and where do you start? My advice is to start small and take it one step at a time – replacing your lawn doesn’t have to be done all in one season.
In my experience, I’ve been slowly replacing my lawn since I bought my home. There’s been no great landscaping design effort, just a slow buildout of garden areas that served one purpose or another. Over the years I’ve added a shade garden under 2 Quince trees, created a pollinator garden anchored by a River Birch tree, added 6 raised garden beds for fruits and vegetables, planted trees on the leeward side of my home, and slowly enlarged the border perennial beds, now planted mostly with native perennials. My wife used to joke that the only reason I was making larger garden beds was that I wanted to mow less grass. Well, she was partially right. Besides less mowing, I wanted to create a space as environmentally responsible as possible on my own little patch of earth. My yard supports more wildlife and manages more rainwater and storm runoff than it ever did before. And it’s only 1/4 of an acre. Imagine if we all did the same? You’ll be surprised by how much you can do with even the smallest parcel.
When replacing your lawn, use native plants for your region as often as possible. They will thrive with little maintenance once established and will support local wildlife and pollinators who have evolved alongside the plants. The types of plants to replace your lawn listed below are general guidelines.
Consider these alternatives to a grass lawn
Groundcover alternatives to grass
Native groundcovers adapted to your region are a great choice to replace grass, as they spread but don’t grow tall, needing no mowing and little to no maintenance. These are especially effective on slopes, rocky areas, shady areas under trees, and strips along driveways. Groundcovers are also effective for outcompeting weeds, but usually require weeding until they’re established in a few seasons. Avoid invasive groundcovers for your area, as these non-native species can out-compete native plants and quickly take over, reducing opportunities for local pollinators.
Plant ornamental grasses
Native ornamental grasses can be a beautiful choice as they grow at different heights, have different textures and colors, have different growing habits, and offer a vastly beautiful choice than typical lawn grasses. They’re also low maintenance, resist drought, will grow in nearly any soil no matter how poor, rarely require fertilizers and have few pest or disease problems. There are ornamental grasses for sunny sites and shady sites. Generally, ornamental grasses need to be cut or mown once a year and then left to grow.
Plant native trees
Native trees are an excellent alternative to lawn, as they help to reduce climate change by storing carbon. They also protect your home from the weather when sited correctly to take advantage of winter sunlight and cool the house from summer heat. Native species are best adapted to your local climate and usually have few pest or disease problems.
Let moss grow in shady areas
Moss grows in areas that are damp and shady – the opposite conditions of what turf grasses need. Moss has no roots and takes in rain, dew, or surface water through its leaves and stems. In dense, shady areas, you might want to embrace the moss and let it grow naturally instead of fighting it year after year. Moss does an excellent job in fighting erosion in shady areas of your landscape and will never take over your lawn, as it can’t tolerate open sunny areas.
Expand your vegetable beds or border beds
Expanding your vegetable garden beds or perennial border beds is a great way to slowly reduce your lawn. You can also consider installing a pollinator garden to feed local insects like bees and Monarch butterflies. Start small by pulling your border beds out 1 foot this year, add new native plants or move some established plants around, and see how you like it. Perhaps add another foot the following season (this is why I use simple bricks for my borders). Pollinator beds can be added anywhere you like – at the base of a tree or in an open sunny area to create a meadow. Before adding any plants, research native plants for your area to keep maintenance to a minimum and feed as many insects as possible. You’ll also find that a pollinator garden is a songbird magnet, as where the insects live, birds will nest.
Lawn alternatives for shade
You can struggle for years to grow grass under a tree. But in the end, your success depends on the type of tree, your soil, how much shade the tree throws, how dry it is under the tree, what animals dig or root around there, and the root structure of the tree. Many times you’ll have more success planting shade-loving groundcovers or other plants for shade like native hostas, Virginia Bluebells, bleeding hearts, toad lilies, astilbes, moss or ferns.
Add a rain garden or rainscaping
Rain gardens or rainscaping are useful for slowing down areas that experience erosion or gulleys from rainwater runoff (think steep slopes or areas of your lawn where water pools). Slowing down rainwater saves lawn and gardens below the rain garden, aids infiltration of rainwater into the soil, and serves as a wildlife habitat. Native perennials, shrubs, and trees are used to effectively manage the stormwater. Check with your state about tax credits for a rain garden, as it helps to manage stormwater runoff. See the Chicago Botanic Garden’s guide to building a rain garden.
If you have a large sunny space create a meadow
Meadows are an excellent choice if you have a very large lawn that receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day. Meadows are just about the best option for supporting wildlife as they provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, and pollinators. A meadow should contain 50-70% native grasses and the remaining percentage flowering native perennial plants. Meadows can be a challenge to establish and require significant maintenance the first 3 years until they’re established. During this time, they’ll require frequent weeding and regular mowing to keep local weeds in check. But once established, the meadow will only require occasional mowing as the mature plants will choke out any local weeds.
Create a no-mow lawn
No-mow lawns are also an option for a large area and you won’t need to do a thing. Simply stop mowing it, let the grass grow, go to seed, and let it become naturalistic. During subsequent seasons, it will go through the natural stages of succession, as one type of vegetation will follow another. Grasses and herbaceous plants will be followed by shrubs, followed by tree seedlings, followed by mature trees, followed by woodlands. You will have to keep an eye on the area for invasive plants and weed them out. But you won’t have to worry about local weeds, as they’re part of the succession cycle.
Try Xeriscaping in hot, arid climates
Xeriscaping is a style of landscaping which uses plants where water is in short supply or not easily accessible to use for irrigation. It’s also referred to as drought-tolerant landscaping or water-conserving landscapes.
What about synthetic turf for my lawn?
Artificial lawns with synthetic turf are not a sound ecological alternative to natural surfaces. While fake grass will obviously eliminate the cost and work of watering and applying pesticides and fertilizer, they will not support wildlife, pollinators, or soil health in any way. So unless you live in a ballpark or athletic facility, homeowners should steer away from synthetic turf. Additionally, most synthetic turf is made of nylon, polypropylene, and similar materials, which means you’re basically covering your soil with plastics.