Lawn Alternatives – Replacing or Reducing the Size of Your Lawn
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This article was compiled by Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteer Nancy Goodrum.
Have you ever thought about why you have a lawn?
For several generations, traditional homes have been surrounded by grassy lawns. They can be beautiful! A lawn frames your home. It provides a place for children and/or pets to play. Most neighborhoods expect homeowners to have and to maintain their lawn; homeowner associations (HOAs) usually require it.
Why consider replacing or reducing the size of your lawn?
Lovely as a grassy lawn can be, it does require regular maintenance – mowing, edging, watering, and fertilizing. Some homeowners would like to reduce that maintenance. Others want to reduce their use of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. Still, others seek to add ecological diversity to their property. Lawns just refuse to grow well in shade or in soggy wet areas, and some steep or rocky areas make mowing a nightmare.
How do you start?
Pick a small area. Look for a section of your yard where grass is more difficult to grow, like under a tree. As plants in the landscape mature, some areas that were once sunny can become shaded. Don’t fight it! Replace the struggling grass with something else. (More on plant options later!) Consider the strip between the sidewalk and the street. Maybe you have a side yard where growing grass or mowing the grass is a challenge. Remove the remaining grass and replace it with other plants you will enjoy. Consider removing grass from the corners of the yard. Turn those corners into curved beds that will make mowing easier and provide planting space for something interesting.
What can be planted instead of turfgrass?
There are many options! One of the simplest transitions is to use a groundcover. Groundcovers are plants that are naturally low-growing and never need mowing.
- In humus-rich, moist, well-drained soil with sun or partial shade, try Lysimachia nummularia (Creeping Jenny), an herbaceous perennial. It is low growing to 6 inches tall and spreads by creeping stems which root at the nodes to 1 foot wide to form a dense groundcover.
- Try Pachysandra in a shady area. It’s an herbaceous perennial evergreen in the boxwood family. This plant does best in part shade to full shade and is intolerant of full sun as foliage yellows/bleaches in full sun or high wind. Plants thrive in sun-dappled shade under large trees.
- If you want a grassy look, try planting mondo grass (Ophiopogon). There are several varieties. It looks similar to Liriope (monkey grass) but has thinner, more delicate leaves. Like Liriope, mondo grass is evergreen that forms a mat by runners. It prefers shade and moist, well-drained soils, but is it sun tolerant. It does require mowing, but only once each year!
If you are adventurous, you could try planting some ornamental grasses. These are tall-growing grasses that need no mowing.
- For show-stopping fall color, consider Muhlenbergia capillaris or Muhly grass. This grass can reach a height of 4 feet and a width of 3 feet. It has little to no insect or disease pests and is highly resistant to deer grazing. Muhly grass tolerates heat, humidity, drought, poor soil, and is highly salt tolerant.
- Miscanthus sinensis ‘Hinjo’ or Zebra grass is another attractive option. There are numerous other cultivars and they have virtually no disease or pest problems. It is a clumping grass that grows up to 12′ tall. Some cultivars are considered weedy in the southeast.
You could also consider pollinator plants that attract and support insects and birds, or edible plants.
For many more planting ideas, go to the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox.
If you have a great deal of shade and moss is already growing in an area, think about adding to the moss and establishing a moss garden. Check the website for Mossin’ Annie. Even if you don’t plant moss, you’ll enjoy her videos!
Another option is to just stop mowing some areas of your yard. Let the weeds take over! When it gets too tall or unsightly, cut it back. Some “weeds” are lovely and support a variety of wildlife. Some homeowners are planting a mixture of fescue and clover. Learn more about this option from Maryland Cooperative Extension.
If you are very committed to replacing your lawn you can think about establishing a meadow. It will take several years! Maryland Cooperative Extension has a publication about establishing a meadow.
How can a lawn be removed before planting an alternative?
There are several methods for removing grass.
- You can cover the area with newspaper and/or cardboard, then cover that layer with 8 inches of mulch to block air and sunlight.
- You can cover the area with plastic sheeting, sealing the edges to retain heat. Leave the plastic in place until the grass is dead.
- You can simply dig up the grass and replace it.
Click for more information about removing your existing grass, including specific instructions and photographs. Another good source of information from the Nature Conservancy and Cornell University.
Below is a list of other resources that can help you get started in reducing or replacing your lawn: