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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. Although originally created by European aristocrats in the 17th century as status symbols, today’s lawns are a symbol of the American dream. Unfortunately, they also can be a source of unnecessary burden for homeowners, which has led to a recent, and growing, interest in alternatives to grass in backyards. If you’re looking to cut down (pun intended) on your grass while still maintaining a luscious green landscape, we’ve got some great eco-friendly landscaping options for you!

1. Groundcovers

Groundcovers sprawl across the ground but don’t grow tall, eliminating the need to mow, providing the perfect alternative to grass. This category includes low maintenance plants which spread quickly, smother weeds and fill in pathways.

The climate you live in and the layout of your landscape will ultimately determine which groundcovers will perform best in your yard. If you have a bright, sunny area to fill with groundcover plants, there are a lot of options, including:

In hot, dry climates, look for fast-growing, drought-tolerant lantana or stonecrop succulents. They require moderate watering with a sprinkler or watering nozzle when young, but need little water once established, and no water in fall and winter months.

Shady areas are no problem. Perennial groundcovers, such as sweet woodruff and lily-of-the-valley, thrive in shady gardens where they grow into thick canopies of leaves and flowers. Shade-loving groundcovers require low levels of moisture, so they can greatly reduce water usage.

2. Corsican Mint

This fragrant garden herb not only smells good, but also makes an excellent flowering grass alternative. The small, rounded green leaves act as a lush backdrop to its tiny purple flowers. You may have heard that mint spreads like crazy – but Corsican mint is considered a well-behaved creeper. It won’t take over your entire landscape overnight.

This perennial groundcover does well in low traffic areas, since while it can handle light steps, it won’t tolerate excessive foot traffic. Its flexibility is a bonus as it can be planted in both full sunlight and light shade, as long as the soil is moist and fertile.

3. Creeping Thyme

Have a lot of foot traffic? Creeping thyme is an ideal groundcover for high traffic areas. Growing only 2 to 4 inches high, this versatile herb requires no mowing, little watering and needs very limited care. Not only can it take a little neglect, it will grow anywhere – full sun, partial sun, full shade – creeping thyme is not picky.

4. Clover

Clover is an easy-to-care-for lawn alternative that’s often planted as a green cover crop to fix nitrogen in the soil, but it can also act as an ideal eco-friendly landscaping option. Clover grows quickly, suppresses weeds, enriches the earth and aerates the soil with a deep root system.

Newly planted clover requires watering twice per but needs little to no watering once it’s established. It’s a groundcover that stays green year-round without fertilization or mowing – the perfect plant-it and forget-it option for your green space.

Dutch white clover is the most common variety for lawn plantings. Love the wildflower look? Check out red clover and yellow blossom varieties (which grow up to 36 inches) – they’re perfect for that “wild pasture” look.

5. Ornamental Grasses

Drought-resistant ornamental grasses grow well in sunny areas with little watering and no fertilization. They’re a popular choice for “no-mow lawns,” since most ornamental grasses produce attractive clumps of grass in sweeping tufts. Some varieties, such as fine fescues, grow closely together and blend into a smooth surface that resembles a traditional lawn. Others, such as deer grass, produce tight bunches that retain their clumped appearance for a unique landscaping texture.

When choosing an ornamental as your grass lawn alternative, be sure to choose a variety that’s appropriate for your area – a cool-season grass for northern regions and warm-season grasses for southern climates. Native grasses are always a good bet since they’ve already adapted to your climate and will generally require the least amount of maintenance.

It’s important not to overwater ornamental grasses. Attach a hose and sprinkler to a timer so you can perfectly regulate the amount of water the area gets based on its need. Once the area has filled in appropriately, trimming will reduce the amount of seeds produced.

6. Evergreen Moss

Moss remains green all year long, thrives in the shade and grows well in virtually any soil. Providing a soft carpet, moss is a low maintenance option if you’re looking for alternatives to grass lawns that don’t take much work or effort after planting. It requires no mowing, weeding, watering, fertilization or pest prevention – simply sit back and watch it grow.

Most gardeners don’t realize there are many varieties of moss available for groundcover. Acrocarp varieties grow in attractive clumps, while pleurocarp varieties spread out in a thick, flat carpet. Different species provide an endless shade of green, from golden shades of pale green to beautiful deep emerald hues.

7. Native Perennial Beds

A native perennial bed is a perfect eco-friendly grass alternative. Native plants have evolved with your local ecosystem for optimal survival. They provide food and habitat for local birds, butterflies and bees. Native plants will thrive in your local soil, requiring little fertilization or care.

Ask your local garden center, cooperative extension or native plant society for recommendations on native flowers and shrubs that perform well in your area. For ease of upkeep, you might want to go with plants that don’t need to be pruned and don’t require staking as they grow. While the benefit of perennials is that they produce year after year, the downside is they do need to be divided occasionally to maintain the best health and appearance. Just consider it free plantlets you can spread throughout your garden or give to friends to plant in their own yards.

8. Artificial Turf

You can’t get much more low maintenance than artificial turf! With zero maintenance needed, artificial turf has stepped out of the 70s and transformed into a modern eco-friendly landscaping option. It requires no mowing, watering, fertilizing or weed control, and its many varieties are incredibly life like. You have to inspect it very closely to tell it’s not real grass.

With just a little planning and some thoughtful planting, you can create a lush green yard that is eco-friendly and virtually maintenance free, providing you with a gorgeous space to enjoy. And best of all, you’ve got plenty of grass alternatives to choose from!

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