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Eco-Friendly Alternatives to a Grassy Lawn

Lawn & Yard Care

By Linda Ly

Americans have a love affair with sprawling green lawns. Though they were originally created by European aristocrats in the 17th century as status symbols and “pleasure grounds” for royalty, lawns have become both a symbol of the American dream as well as an unnecessary burden for today’s homeowners. The mowing. The watering. The drought (in some regions). And the fact that a perfectly manicured lawn does little to support the local ecosystem—all of these reasons factor into a growing interest in alternatives to grass. If you’re looking to cut down (no pun intended) on grass while still maintaining a green landscape, here are four eco-friendly options.

1. Groundcovers
Groundcovers are plants that sprawl across the ground but never grow tall, thereby eliminating the need to mow a lawn. Options in this category include low-maintenance plants that spread to form thick carpets, smother weeds and fill in paths.

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In hot, dry climates, look for fast-growing, drought-tolerant lantana or stonecrop succulents (sedums), which require moderate watering with a sprinkler or watering nozzle when young, little watering once established, and no supplemental watering in fall and winter. Perennials like sweet woodruff and lily-of-the-valley do well in shady gardens, where they grow into thick canopies of leaves and flowers that need low moisture. Another shade-loving groundcover, moss, thrives in cool, moist areas. Creeping herbs like thyme and oregano can quickly cover an area with dense, fragrant foliage, while their flowers provide food for pollinators.

2. Clover
This easy-care lawn alternative is often planted as a green manure to fix nitrogen in the soil. It grows quickly, suppresses weeds, enriches the earth and aerates the soil with its deep root system. While newly planted clover requires watering twice a week (try the garden setting of your watering nozzle), it needs little to no watering once it’s established. You can also skip the fertilizing and cutting. It stays green year-round and tolerates dog urine. While not as durable as grass, it can handle a small amount of foot traffic. Dutch White clover is the most common variety for lawn plantings, though the taller Red Clover and Yellow Blossom varieties (which grow 18 to 36 inches) are more suitable for a “wild pasture” look.

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3. Ornamental Grasses
Drought-resistant ornamental grasses grow well in sunny areas and seldom require fertilizer. They’re a popular choice for “no-mow lawns,” as most ornamental grasses are bunch or clump grasses, forming distinctive tufts or sweeping stands. Clumps propagate by seed, and thus don’t put out rhizomes or stolons that creep across the ground like traditional grass. Some clumps, such as fine fescues, can blend together into a smooth surface that resembles a traditional lawn, while others, such as deer grass, produce tight bunches that retain their shape as they grow larger. When choosing an ornamental grass to replace your lawn, be sure to choose a type that’s appropriate for your region (that is, don’t grow a cool-season grass in a warm-season area). It’s also important not to overwater, and do trim it back to reduce the amount of seeds it produces. Native grasses are always a good bet, as they’re adapted to your climate and require the least amount of maintenance.

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4. Native Perennial Beds
Does less work, less attention and less water sound appealing? Then a native perennial bed is the perfect replacement for your lawn. Native plants have evolved with the local ecosystem and provide food and habitat for local birds, butterflies and bees. They need little by way of care once their roots are established, and they thrive in native soil so there’s no fussing with amendments. Ask your local garden center, cooperative extension or native plant society for recommendations on flowers and shrubs that work well in your yard. For ease of upkeep, go with plants that don’t need to be pruned and don’t require staking as they grow. While the benefit of perennials is not having to replant year after year, they do need to be divided occasionally to maintain their health and appearance. The upside to all that is you’ll have divisions (or “plantlets”) that you can give away to friends to plant in their own yards.

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