10 low-maintenance lawn alternatives
This article was previously published on Elemental Green as "10 Low-Maintenance Lawn Alternatives" and is reproduced with permission. Read the original.
There’s nothing quite like a big, lush and beautiful lawn. Is there any better feeling than walking barefoot through soft grass, or laying out a blanket on the lawn and feeling the sun on your face? The perks of traditional turf lawns, however, come with some serious costs—like fuel for mowers, fertilizers, pesticides and watering, just to name a few. And it’s more than just money out of your pocket. Standard grass lawns are extremely tough on the environment.
They need frequent mowing and maintenance, resulting in toxic emissions (e.g., 17 million gallons of gas is spilled annually while refueling mowers). And they’re total water guzzlers—most lawns require about 1.5 inches of water per week just to survive! The developing water shortage crisis in the U.S. has prompted many homeowners to turn to low-maintenance lawn alternatives. And there are plenty of options—everything from clover as an eco-friendly lawn alternative and managed meadows to ornamental grasses and flower beds, all sharing sustainability as a common denominator.
Minimizing your turf lawn—or replacing it altogether—can be a major undertaking. Getting rid of all the grass and planting a new ground covering, even in a small area, is not a small project. But we’re here to tell you that it will absolutely pay off. In fact, in some cases, you’ll see a return on investment before the growing season is even over! And no matter your lawn’s type, size or growing region, you’ll you have several different and unique lawn alternatives to choose from, each with their own set of perks. Without further ado, we present to you our 10 favorite low-maintenance lawn alternatives. Happy planting!
#1. Ornamental grasses
One of the best ways to reduce the area of your turf lawn: Transform part of the lawn into a gorgeous ornamental grass display. Ornamental grasses are drought-resistant and incredibly low-maintenance, thriving in nearly every type of soil with little to no fertilizers. They’re also naturally disease- and pest-resistant, so you can say goodbye to chemical pesticides.
- No mowing—Ornamental grasses are very different than traditional turf. They grow into distinctive shapes, like tufts and sprays or shimmering sweeps. And they hold their shape, staying upright and attractive even under snow cover.
- No spreading—This is one ground cover you won’t need to worry about keeping under control. Most ornamentals are clump grasses. This means their roots don’t put out rhizomes, the horizontal shoots that start new plants, depending instead on seeds for reproduction.
- No foot traffic—Ornamental grasses are the perfect choice for a visual display in an area of the lawn that receives zero foot traffic. They’re not at all like traditional turf grass, and walking over them will cause serious harm.
Moss is one of the easiest low-maintenance lawn alternatives around. Planting a moss bed couldn’t be simpler, and you won’t need to mow or water your moss bed, provided you choose an appropriate shady location. And who doesn’t love the thought of a huge, velvety-soft patch of moss?
- No mowing—Moss stays very low to the ground throughout its life, never growing taller than roughly one inch, depending on the type of moss. No mowing = no emissions from the mower (and more time for you to relax!).
- Resilience—Moss isn’t as hardy as traditional turf, but it can withstand occasional foot traffic.
- Drought-resistance—Little to no watering is required for moss beds, so you’ll save water and money on monthly utility bills.
- Variety—You can choose from dozens of different mosses, all with different textures, appearances and thicknesses. Combine several moss types together in one area to create some serious visual interest.
- Easy installation—Moss spreads quickly until it forms a solid surface, often in just one growing season. To create a moss bed, simply press moss plugs (small pieces of moss with complete roots) into your soil about six inches apart and keep them damp and cool. You’ll have ground cover before you know it.
- Shade-loving—This can be either a pro or a con, depending on your project, but moss doesn’t do so well in direct sunlight. Make sure you’re installing your moss bed in a cool, shady area where the moss sprouts will be safe from the sun’s damaging rays. It’s best for lower, cooler areas with limited foot traffic.
#3. Creeping Charlie
It may seem strange to recommend what’s commonly thought of as one of the most frustrating weeds around. True, Creeping Charlie spreads like crazy, presenting a total disaster if you don’t carefully choose your location. But this member of the mint family is actually a great option for thick, low-maintenance ground cover in partially shady areas.
- No mowing, fertilizing or watering—Creeping Charlie provides a truly hands-off alternative to persnickety turf grass. Seriously, you could plant your Creeping Charlie bed and never even look at it again, and it would probably thrive.
- Durability—One thing’s for sure—this lawn alternative can take a serious beating. It’s at least as hardy as traditional turf, so anyone with pets or children won’t need to worry about damage from frequent activity.
- Comfort—Plentiful rounded leaves and little blooms provide a thick, cushiony ground cover that’s perfect for casual strolls or those outdoor afternoon naps. And the lovely minty smell is definitely a bonus.
- Spreads easily—Most of the time, the quick-spreading factor is ideal, since more growth means more ground cover. But Creeping Charlie takes this to a whole new level. There’s a reason it’s called “Creeping!” Make sure to plant Creeping Charlie in a contained spot, with a wide, impermeable border.
Image courtesy E. Dronkert CC BY 2.0
#4. Sweet Woodruff
Sweet Woodruff is an edible herb, said to taste something like vanilla, and it gives off a lovely fresh scent. Historically, Woodruff was used as an air freshener. It requires very little maintenance, and its star-shaped twists of leaves and delicate white flowers can add interesting texture to any sustainable landscape.
- Weed-resistant—Forget the pesticides and weed killers; Sweet Woodruff is naturally weed-resistant, forming a dense canopy of leaves and flowers that stops new weeds in their tracks.
- No mowing—Sweet Woodruff only grows to a certain height (about two inches).
- No watering—Unless you live in a particularly dry region, you’ll rarely (if ever) need to water your patch of Sweet Woodruff.
- Shade-loving—Again, this can be either a pro or a con, depending on your project. Sweet Woodruff doesn’t do so well in direct sunlight, so make sure to choose a shady, cool area. It’s best for spicing up shady areas, like narrow passageways, where mowing and maintenance is not ideal.
#5. Red creeping thyme
Red creeping thyme transforms any lawn area into a breathtaking scene—especially in the early summer, when bright reddish blooms appear. This thyme is something of an evergreen, turning a deep bronze in the winter months. Thyme forms a dense mat that can withstand moderate foot traffic, so it’s a solid choice for nearly any lawn project. Its lack of required maintenance, combined with its gorgeous appearance, has made thyme a huge favorite for low-maintenance lawn alternatives.
- Drought-tolerant—Thyme can handle very limited amounts of water, so it’s ideal for dry regions or for homeowners with water conservation in mind.
- No mowing—Thyme forms a solid mat of foliage, with no need for mowing or trimming.
- Expensive—Thyme can be one of the more expensive lawn alternatives. To cut back on costs, choose a small area for your thyme bed. You can always plant more next year!
- Demanding installation—Another downside of thyme: It’s not easy to get it into the ground! You will need to kill off the grass in the area you plan to plant your thyme, which can be a slow and labor-intensive process.
#6. Red clover
The benefits of clover are many—most notably, it’s extremely affordable and a natural soil fertilizer. In fact, clover is often planted by gardeners as a soil conditioner. Its nitrogen-fixing properties provide a constant trickle of fertilizer to surrounding grasses, so planting a patch of clover means your lawn as a whole will be healthier and greener. Red clover does best in poor soil, so it’s the perfect choice for yards with below-average soil quality.
- No watering, mowing or fertilizers—Red clover needs little to no watering, and mowing can be done at your discretion. You also won’t need to fertilize your clover lawn, since it’s a natural soil conditioner.
- Inexpensive—If you’ve got a total low-maintenance transformation in mind, you will definitely want to consider planting clover. It costs a mere $4 to cover nearly 4,000 square feet, so it’s ideal for large patches of lawn.
- Spreads quickly—Red clover’s quick-spreading ability is another reason why it’s perfect for large areas.
- Fragility—Red clover is easily torn up, so it’s not ideal for high-use areas of your lawn. Make sure you choose a spot where children and pets won’t be playing.
#7. Flower and shrub beds
Flower and shrub beds aren’t an ideal choice for a grassy lawn replacement, but they’re a perfect way to add visual interest to your yard while reducing the size of your traditional turf lawn. Choose native perennials, which require less attention and fertilizer, to maximize the low-maintenance factor. And we recommend keeping it simple—you can create big visual impact with just a few different varieties, and you won’t get caught up trying to keep track of the individual needs of many different plants.
- Beauty—Other ground cover options simply can’t compete with the visual interest of flower and shrub beds. Choose colorful flowers to add a bright pop of color to your yard, or a selection of taller shrubs to add height to an otherwise low-to-the-ground lawn.
- Location versatility—Tired of struggling to mow those sloped or otherwise difficult-to-mow areas of your lawn? Plant flowers or shrubs in small spaces or in terraced beds on steep inclines to solve the problem for good.
- Maintenance—Adding flower or shrub beds ups the maintenance factor of your yard because it minimizes the size of your traditional turf lawn—meaning less mowing and less lawn watering. Keep in mind that many flower varieties do require careful watering, and some shrubs may require occasional trimming. Choose hardy, resilient perennials to keep the maintenance factor to a minimum.
Chamomile isn’t just low-maintenance and eco-friendly—it’s beautiful and delightfully scented, releasing an apple-like aroma with every step. Chamomile spreads quickly and can grow in direct sun or partial shade, making it an ideal candidate for nearly any lawn size or type.
- Little to no mowing—Let your chamomile run wild, or mow occasionally to keep the herb in check.
- Location versatility—Chamomile will grow on even the steepest slopes and in hard-to-manage areas. It’s an easy solution for areas where traditional turf is not at all ideal.
- Soil-enriching—Chamomile is a great source of nitrogen, providing a steady supply of fertilizer to itself and surrounding plants.
- Drought-resistant—No need for watering this hardy herb! Chamomile can survive even the toughest dry spells, so it’s perfect for dry and arid regions.
- Toxicity—Some varieties of chamomile are toxic to animals, so make sure to choose safe varieties if you have dogs.
- Sun-loving— Chamomile will thrive in direct or partial sun, but you’ll most likely only see partial coverage if you plant your chamomile in a shady spot.
Snow-in-summer earns its unique name from the dazzling array of white blooms that blanket the plants in spring and summer months. But it’s not just the flowers that give this plant a delightful appearance—the silvery-grey leaves and foliage are equally delightful. Its size and shape resembles that of ornamental grasses, so it’s not ideal for large-scale lawn replacements. But for adding visual interest and boosting eco-friendliness, this gorgeous perennial is an excellent choice.
- Resilience—Snow-in-summer withstands difficult conditions that other plants can’t survive, like full sun and poor-quality soil. Regardless of lawn type or location, this perennial will likely thrive.
- Quick-spreading—Though not as quick-spreading as some of the other options we’ve mentioned, snow-in-summer typically covers upwards of 12 inches of ground each year. Planting even a small patch can mean some serious ground cover within a few years.
- Drought-resistant—New blooms should be watered to ensure proper growth, but once the plant is established, you’ll virtually never need to water it.
- No foot traffic—Snow-in-summer’s beauty comes with a price: It’s fragile and easily damaged by foot traffic. Make sure to choose a location with limited activity.
Image courtesy Daryl Mitchell / CC BY-SA 2.0
#10. Dutch clover
You’ve probably spotted patches of Dutch clover, with its intricate white flowers, in meadows and fields. But this type of clover actually makes for an outstanding total lawn alternative. It’s thick and comfortable, highly drought-resistant and very durable—so it’s perfect for more heavily used areas of your lawn.
- Durability—Dutch clover is one of the toughest lawn alternatives on our list, easily withstanding normal foot traffic.
- Drought-resistant—This plant’s deep roots make it incredibly resistant to water shortages, so you won’t need to worry about watering it.
- Little to no mowing—You can mow Dutch clover whenever you would like, but its slow growth as compared to traditional turf means that you’ll rarely—if ever—have to get out the mower.
- Naturally pest-resistant—Common turf-destroying pests won’t bother with Dutch clover, as it contains naturally insect-repelling compounds. Translation: No pesticides or chemicals needed to keep this lawn in check!
- A grazing favorite—While Dutch clover is excellent at keeping away unwanted insects, it does have a reputation for attracting deer. This may actually be a good thing, if you’d like to see more wildlife activity on your property—but over time, you may notice your clover lawn getting a little patchy from the frequent grazing.
- Easily spreads—The only problem with Dutch clover’s quick-spreading ability is if you have other plants nearby. Over the course of a few years, Dutch clover will likely grow over any other plants they come into contact with, killing them off in the process. To protect the rest of your property’s flora, make sure you install impermeable borders around the intended Dutch clover space.
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