Eco-Friendly Grass Alternatives For A Low Maintenance Lawn

Alternative lawn

Beautiful grass lawns have been the norm in American lawns for decades. But that beautiful grass doesn’t necessarily grow everywhere, and it takes a lot of lawn care, including fertilizing, watering, mowing, and weeding, to get it looking its best. This is why many homeowners are looking for more eco-friendly grass alternatives for a low-maintenance lawn.

Here are the best eco-friendly grass alternatives for a low-maintenance lawn.

Southern shield fern fronds
Southern shield fern
Photo Credit: Mx. Granger / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Native Plants

The nice thing about native plants is that they grow naturally in a particular region or geographic area, which means that they require far less care to thrive. These are an excellent choice for low-maintenance lawns and even help promote yard biodiversity. Some popular native plants include:

  • Ferns offer gorgeous large green leaves for outdoor yards. There are 380 species of ferns in North America and they are adapted to nearly every environment, so you should have no trouble finding ferns for your yard.
  • Moss loves wet, low-fertility soils. Moss grows right on top of the ground and is an excellent no-mow option that can cover the entirety of your lawn.
  • Sedges come in many varieties and are famous for their easy-to-grow, low-maintenance, and grass-like appearance. They do well in both the sun and the shade.

Native plants usually require little to no maintenance or fertilizer and are great options for no-mow or low-mow lawn strategies. To find out which plants and grasses are native to your region, check out the National Wildlife Federation.

Red fountain grass
Red fountain grass
Photo credit: Clyde Robinson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Ornamental Grasses

These grasses are popular for those who want a full yard that requires essentially no upkeep. Ornamental grasses can grow and adapt to many different soils, help with erosion control, and most are drought resistant. There are both warm-season and cool-season ornamental grass options available.

  • Mexican feather grass is a beautiful, flowy, low-maintenance option for dry areas. Not only is it drought-tolerant, but it can also reseed naturally to grow its long locks again.
  • Red fountain grass is recognizable for its colorful reddish foliage. This ornamental grass prefers full sun and well-drained soils and is primarily located in Florida.
  • Western wheatgrass is a native perennial known for its long, coarse stems. It can grow well in many soils and is a low-maintenance, drought-resistant grass.
Blue grama
Blue grama
Photo credit: Matt Lavin / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Native Grasses

These bountiful grass types are found naturally throughout the US. Most native grasses are ornamental grasses meaning they are also low maintenance and offer sustainable landscaping. There is a wide variety to choose from for both warm-season and cool-season that give your lawn an attractive look. It helps that most of these grasses are drought-resistant.

  • Red fescue is a cool-season grass best known for its soil stabilizing abilities. It is a bunch grass that prefers full sun but can tolerate partial shade and requires little watering.
  • Buffalograss, a warm-season perennial, is a great low-maintenance option for those in hot and dry states looking for a drought-tolerant grass solution.
  • Blue grama is found most commonly throughout the midwest. It is a warm-season, drought-tolerant bunch grass that can grow in just about any soil.
Creeping thyme
Creeping thyme
Photo credit: Andrea_44 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Ground Cover Plants

What’s amazing about ground cover plants is that they’re low-lying plants, so you’ll never have to mow. These include creeping jenny, creeping sedum, and creeping thyme. Notice how they are all “creeping.” This refers to how they grow outward instead of upward.

  • Creeping jenny is a perfect choice for homeowners with a lot of shade. These ground cover plants not only grow in the shade but will also tolerate moderate foot traffic.
  • Creeping sedum, also known as “hens and chicks,” is a succulent known for its ability to store water. These prefer partly shady areas but will not survive in full shade. They do well in just about any soil as long as it is well-drained.
  • Creeping thyme does well in very sunny climates with well-drained soil. These plants do not do well under foot traffic but put out blooms of beautiful lavender flowers starting in the spring.
Raised garden bed with various flowers planted
Photo credit: Ofer El-Hashahar / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Landscaping Beds

Landscaping beds are an eco-friendly lawn alternative that can vary depending on what style you want your lawn to have. These work well if you’re wanting a green lawn but have poor soil. There are a few different kinds:

  • Mulch beds work well as a lawn substitute. They can take up portions of your lawn that are difficult to grow or mow. Choose from mulch such as pine bark, pine straw, and recycled municipal mulch.
  • Flower beds, though not entirely low-maintenance depending on the flower, can provide large sections of your lawn with bright colors instead of more grass you need to mow. Flower beds can also help the pollinators in your yard.
  • Rock beds are relatively new to landscaping but are a welcome addition. These allow you to conserve water while showing off your creative rock arranging side.

Little-Mow/No-Mow Lawn Replacements

Every year in America, watering lawns takes nearly 3 trillion gallons of water, says the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This is why some homeowners have decided to change part or all of their traditional lawns to no-mow yards. You’d have less yard work to do and you would also be conserving water.

These no-mow lawns come in four different groupings:

  1. Unmowed grass left to grow wild: Original grass left unattended to grow naturally
  2. Low-growing turf to grow wild: Specifically planted low-growing turf left unattended
  3. Native or naturalized landscapes: Native plants replace grass and thrive in their local conditions.
  4. Landscaping beds: Flower beds, vegetable gardens, fruit-bearing trees, and shrubs take the place of turf.

Plant-Free Lawn Alternatives

Two other no-mow options require no plants at all:

Hardscape with chairs
Hardscape
Photo credit: Field Outdoor Spaces / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Hardscaping

Porous pavers and spaced wood decking can not only add appeal and entertaining spaces to your yard, but they also allow rain to pass through them and soak into your ground, according to the booklet on Backyard Makeover by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in Maryland. This allows for less erosion and runoff.

Backyard with artificial turd and a patio set on a deck
Artificial turf
Photo credit: Perfect Grass / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Artificial Turf

Synthetic lawns continue to grow in popularity with a 15 percent growth from 2017-2020 and a forecasted growth of 5.7 percent from 2020-2022. The materials it is made of include colored nylon, polyethylene, or polypropylene.

To put down artificial grass, on average, is $12.33 per square foot installed. In contrast, professional installation for sod will only set you back $0.87 to $1.76 per square foot. But the fake grass is free from expenses for 15-25 years. The lawn care for real grass continues with watering, mowing, and fertilizing.

“To have that perfect golf course aesthetic with your lawn can be tough and takes a lot of lawn care,” says Carol Pappas, master gardener with Penn State University Extension Service in Pittsburgh. Artificial turf gives you an alternative to a high-maintenance lawn that looks great and offers the look of a perfect lawn without the continual inputs.

Grass Alternatives by Region

Here are some choices for best grass alternatives for certain areas of the country:

Southeast

A wildflower mix that fits your climate could be a good choice, the NRDC says. You need to weed out existing vegetation that would rob your wildflowers’ sunshine and water. Some of the more common groundcovers include sunshine mimosa, Asiatic jasmine, and perennial peanut because they are drought-tolerant, according to the University of Florida Extension.

Southwest

Pappas believes when you are in a desert or water-conservative area, lawn alternatives should be your first choice. THE NRDC says that western states continue to have extreme drought, and the governments there have even given rebates to convert from lawns to drought-tolerant landscaping.

Using succulents and other native plants with gravel or rock gardens can help with filtration, conserve moisture, and reduce runoff once it does rain.

Midwest

Embrace your moss if it’s growing in your lawn area, says the University of Maryland Extension. If it’s growing heartily, that probably means the ground is not suitable for turfgrass. Moss doesn’t have much of a root system, so it takes in all that rainwater through its leaves and does excellent in shady, damp areas.

Northeast

Choose a ground cover native to your area. In Maryland, that includes the moss phlox, which sprouts pink or white flowers in spring. It does well in full sun and on slopes or in rock gardens. White ginger is also a good choice, according to the University of Maryland Extension.

You can opt for a landscape design with ornamental grasses, which require less water, or bottlebrush grass for areas of part shade. You could also use edible landscaping with raised bed gardens or in-ground gardens.

Pappas adds that Georgia blue Veronica is a low-growing and durable ground cover with little maintenance. “It’s beautiful with pretty blue flowers in the spring,” she says.

Pacific Coast

Ground covers come in many textures and colors for areas along the Pacific. Some come with flowers and berries, says Conserve H2O. Many of these allow for high foot traffic or are used as footpaths because of robustness and softening cushion.

Some can be planted to copycat the look of actual turf grasses. Hardscapes such as rocks, concrete, and wood for pathways and patios can take up some of your grassy areas and add special effects to your patio.

FAQ

What is the Cheapest Alternative to Grass?

Moss, landscaping beds, and low-maintenance plants are the cheapest alternative to grass. The less care a plant needs, the less money you’ll spend on it.

If you want to keep a small area of grass for the dog, that may be a healthy compromise between a low-maintenance lawn and leaving room for Spot to romp and play. A DIY sod job will set you back between $0.30 and $0.83 per square foot.

What are Drought Resistant Grass Alternatives?

Creeping thyme and sedum are good drought-resistant alternatives. Both ground cover plants thrive in sunny climates and well-drained soils.

How can I Make My Lawn More Eco-Friendly?

Use native, low-maintenance, and drought-tolerant plants for a healthy ecosystem. When fewer resources are needed for lawn upkeep, the more eco-friendly the yard is. It also helps promote pollinators.

Maintaining An Eco-Friendly Lawn

Transitioning from all grass to healthier grass alternatives is no small feat. But putting in the effort now means less work, less water, and a greener planet for tomorrow. Are you wanting to convert your lawn but aren’t sure where or how to start? Contact a local landscaping pro to get you away from grass and into greener grass alternatives.

Main image shows a mix of thymes, creeping Jenny and Potentilla Nana planted by Maryland gardener Susan Harris. Credit: Susan Harris / CC 2.0

LawnStarter writer Abigail Evans updated this article.

Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson, an experienced freelance writer and former award-winning newspaper reporter, writes for National Association of Realtors and many state Realtor magazines. She lives in Illinois with her high school sweetheart and loves cooking, swimming, traveling and spending time with her grandchildren.