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 keep it up.
Many times lawns go largely unused without much function, according to the University of Maryland Extension. But what if you could find a lawn alternative that remains beautiful with low maintenance, is drought-resistant, and doesn’t need the mower every week? You’d probably be the only one in your neighborhood with something different and something everyone talks about.
You’d also be conserving water. Every year in America, watering lawns takes nearly 3 trillion gallons of water, says the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Golf-Course Look Isn’t for Everyone
“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. “I’m guessing that people choose alternatives to grass assuming they don’t feel like mowing anymore or using chemicals to keep it nice.”
She admits her own low-maintenance lawn looks green and nice from a distance. She does water it so it doesn’t get brown. But, dotted with crabgrass and other weeds, it is far from the “perfect” lawn. She just keeps it mowed short to make it look like a normal lawn from afar.
Depending on where you live in the country and what type of yard you own, a number of lawn alternatives could serve you well along with the environment and your bank account. If you still have kids or grandkids who need a backyard play area, a traditional lush turfgrass does not have to reign supreme. Plenty of other alternatives remain that you can walk and run on and be proud of.
Pappas says choosing the right lawn replacement has more to do with what you plan on using the area for and if you will have a lot of foot traffic, shady areas or sunny areas. You might want flower beds for pollinators, gardens for vegetables, or just a really cool hangout for friends.
In one of the Pittsburgh parks, they planted red fescue groundcover.
“It’s really beautiful, but you can’t play on it like a regular lawn. It gets 6 inches high and flops over. You can’t have a kickball game on it,” she adds.
Picking a Lawn Alternative
Getting rid of all your lawn or a portion of it can be time-consuming and possibly back-breaking with shovels and spades. But installing something besides a traditional lawn might pay off in the long run and give you better satisfaction — or at least your Sundays off from mowing.
Ask a professional at your extension service or lawn care store about native plants, ornamental grasses, native grasses, ground cover plants or other turfgrass alternatives in your area that will help replace your straggly, struggling lawn.
Grass Alternatives by Region
Here are some choices for best grass alternatives for certain areas of the country:
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. Mulch beds can take the place of portions of your lawn that are difficult to grow or mow. Choose from mulch such as pine bark, pine straw, and recycled municipal mulch.
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, other native plants with gravel or rock gardens can help with filtration, conserve moisture, and reduce runoff once it does rain.
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 at all, so it takes in all that rainwater through its leaves and does great in shady damp areas. Clover, which can cost as low as $1 per 1,000 square feet, is good for clay soils and grows 4-8 inches high, according to the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science & the Arts.
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; bottlebrush grass for areas of part shade; or 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.
Ground covers come in a lot of textures and colors for this area some with flowers and berries, says Conserve H2O. Many of these allow for walking on or 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.
Little-Mow/No-Mow Lawn Replacements
The NRDC explains that some homeowners have decided to change part or all of their traditional lawns to no-mow yards. These no-mow lawns come in four different groupings:
- Unmowed grass left to grow wild.
- Low-growing turf grasses requiring little grooming, most are a blend of fescues.
- Native or naturalized landscapes where the grass is replaced with native plants and climate-friendly ones thriving in local conditions.
- Flower beds, vegetable gardens and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs taking the place of turf.
Plant-Free Lawn Alternatives
Two other no-mow options require no plants at all:
Porous pavers and spaced wood decking can not only add appeal and entertaining spaces to your yard, 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.
Synthetic lawns continue to grow in popularity with a 10-15 percent growth annually, explains HouseLogic. The materials it is made of include colored nylon, polyethylene, or polypropylene. To put down artificial grass on a 500-square-foot yard is $6,250 but only $185 for natural sod. But the fake grass is free from expenses for 15-25 years. The lawn care for real grass continues with watering, mowing, and fertilizing.
One of Pappas’ friends tried to transition from a lawn to white clover. But she abandoned the idea after a few years. You have to think through what it will look like in a few months, and a few years, she adds.
“Settling for an imperfect lawn isn’t such a bad idea. If you don’t need a ballfield, then you can turn some of your lawn into garden beds or plant some ground covers,” she says.