Well-manicured grass lawns are as American as baseball and apple pie. These lush expanses of turf became fashionable in the early 19th century among the upper class, who could afford to pay a crew of laborers to maintain the grounds by hand. The human-powered lawnmower, invented in 1830, and later the gasoline-powered lawnmower, developed in the early 1900s, made it easier for the average homeowner to keep his or her yard immaculately trimmed. The introduction of artificial fertilizer in 1909 and herbicides in the 1940s further simplified lawn care. In the booming suburbs of the 1950s, neat front yards were no longer a luxury for the wealthy few; rather, they were often a requirement. Across the country, neighborhood covenants and city ordinances compelled homeowners to cut and water their grass or face citations and fines. Many of these rules -- known as "weed laws" -- are still on the books today.
For some folks, though, the grass is always greener ... when there is none. These environmentally-minded homeowners decry the tremendous amount of water and gasoline used to irrigate and mow the estimated 50,000 square miles (128,000 square kilometers) of lawns in the United States [source: Lindsey]. They also worry about the effects of fertilizer and herbicides that wash out of lawns and into lakes, rivers and oceans. All for a crop that doesn't produce anything but curb appeal.
Whether you're concerned about the environmental consequences of lawn care or you just hate mowing -- check out our 10 suggestions for landscaping your yard without using a blade of grass.
It's said that four-leaf clovers are lucky -- which is exactly how you'll feel when you see how well the plant can grow in your yard. Clover, now seen by lawn purists as a weed, hasn't always had that reputation. In fact, Andrew Jackson Downing, who published the first landscape-gardening book for an American audience in 1841, instructed homeowners to "[s]ow four bushels of it to the acre and not a pint less as you plan to walk on velvet!" The plant fell into disfavor in the 1940s when chemical companies introduced the herbicide 2,4-D, which killed not only unwanted plants like dandelions, but also clover.
The most common type of clover in the United States, white clover, grows throughout the country but prefers cool, moist climates. It doesn't require as much moisture as grass and usually maintains its deep green color even in hot weather. Unlike grass, clover grows well in sandy soils and actually fertilizes itself by pulling nitrogen from the air through a process called nitrogen fixation. And when the plant is flowering, you'll enjoy the little white blooms almost as much as the honeybees do.
Do you have some low-lying areas in your yard that just won't dry out? Well, a rain garden may be the solution you've been looking for. Rain gardens are shallow depressions in the ground that collect water from roofs and gutters and allow it to soak into the ground. They're often landscaped with mulch and rocks and planted with water-loving perennials that don't mind getting inundated with water every once in a while. If there's no pond or creek bordering your property, a rain garden can make a great water feature for your lawn.
Rain gardens can be installed anywhere, but they're especially beneficial in wet, flat landscapes where standing water often occurs naturally, like the Upper Midwest in the United States. Here, a rain garden can capture water that might otherwise run off into creeks and rivers and channel it into underground reservoirs known as aquifers. They're also a great habitat for insects, including pollinators like bees and butterflies. And once they're established, rain gardens pretty much take care of themselves -- no watering necessary!
There is one annoying downside, however. The standing water in a rain garden can be a great breeding ground for mosquitoes, so if you've already got some buzzing around, it might not be a good idea to encourage them further.
The goal of xeriscaping -- a term derived from the Greek word "xeros," meaning "dry" -- is to reduce the amount of water needed to maintain a lawn. It's very popular in places where rainfall is hard to come by, like the American West, and can take on a variety of forms. In areas where water is more plentiful, xeriscaped lawns may have small, irrigated patches of turf surrounded by wild grasses, flowering plants, bushes, and trees that rarely, if ever, have to be watered. Xeriscaping in drier locations, however, may consist of little more than rock gardens, sand and cactus that need little water.
Xeriscaped lawns often incorporate native plants, meaning that they're indigenous to the area and are therefore well-suited to survive in the local climate. They require little or no fertilization and water, a characteristic that has obvious ecological benefits, particularly in places where water is especially scarce. In fact, some communities are so dry that they require certain types of xeriscaping or enforce water restrictions that make traditional grass lawns impractical.
With all the mowing, watering and fertilizing required to maintain a traditional lawn, freedom is the last thing that comes to mind. It's like your lawn is controlling your life!
Enter the "freedom lawn." OK, so this type of landscaping does include some grass, but it also consists of whatever plants happen to grow among the grass. The idea is that over time, more suitable plants will fill the shady, moist, dry, sandy or acidic areas where grass may struggle to grow, leaving you with a uniformly green lawn. In the northeastern United States, plants that may take root include the following: dandelion, violet, bluet, spurrey, chickweed, chrysanthemum, brown-eyed Susan, partridgeberry, Canada mayflower, clover, plantain, evening primrose, and rushes, as well as broomsedge, sweet vernal grass, timothy, quack grass, oat grass, crabgrass and foxtail grass. (As you can see, it's a long list.)
As the name suggests, freedom lawns give you the freedom to spend your time doing things other than yard work. Because the plants are ideally adapted to the conditions in your yard, they need little or no water and don't need to be chemically treated with fertilizers or herbicides. If a brown spot does develop due to insects or disease, don't worry! Other plants more resistant to the problem will soon fill the area and make it green again. Besides a little mowing (preferably with a gas-free push-mower), all you need to do is sit on your porch with a glass of iced tea and watch your lawn take care of itself.
Artificial grass isn't just for football stadiums anymore! Homeowners are now choosing to install it in their yards in places where they might otherwise grow traditional (living) turf. But if you're picturing the bright green, close-cropped Astroturf used at Putt-Putt golf courses, think again. Today's artificial grass can be manufactured with long, variegated blades that closely resemble those of real grass. People driving down your street might not even notice the difference.
Artificial grass is best installed by professionals. They'll tear out your existing grass, then prepare a foundation made of compacted sand. This ensures that no plants will try to grow under your new faux turf. The crew then rolls out the new lawn in sheets, much like the carpet in your home. This process can be fairly expensive, costing a few thousand dollars even for a small lawn. But because the artificial grass is virtually maintenance free -- requiring no watering, mowing or fertilization -- it will likely pay for itself over the course of several years.
When most people think of meadows, they picture pristine alpine grassland surrounded by trees. And that's basically what a meadow garden will be in your yard, whether you live in the mountains or in the middle of a city. Sure, like a freedom lawn, meadow gardens include grasses. But they aren't the thirsty, neatly-trimmed turf grasses found in traditional lawns. Rather, meadow gardens include native grasses and other plants like those you might find in a xeriscaped lawn.
Meadow gardens require varying levels of effort to start and maintain, depending on the characteristics of your existing yard and how structured you want your new lawn to be. If a yard already has a good patch of native plants, you can simply stand back and let nature come up with the design. For a more landscaped look, you can rearrange these plants or bring in new ones that are also well-suited to your yard's growing conditions. Short grasses, sedges and rushes, some of which grow just 2 to 6 inches (5 to 15 centimeters) high, can give your meadow garden a turflike surface without the need for a lawnmower. Paths, walls, benches and other features may also be added, but shouldn't overwhelm more natural elements of the landscaping.
Thanks to the use of native plants, meadow gardens don't require much maintenance. They don't need to be watered, fertilized or mowed; after all, they're supposed to resemble natural meadows!
If you have a shady lawn, you know how hard it can be to grow grass under those conditions. So why not plant something that occurs naturally in shade, like moss? Moss is a hardy green groundcover that grows in places where grass won't, like acidic and compacted soils. It can also anchor itself on objects like trees and rocks and thrives in cool, moist climates like that of the Pacific Northwest in the United States.
Moss has long been used as a groundcover in Japanese gardens, and there's no reason why it couldn't catch on elsewhere. Its thick carpet is impervious to weeds, and some moss lovers even claim that its verdant green color can actually promote relaxation and reduce stress. However, it requires a little more maintenance than some of the other grass alternatives described in this article. In warm, dry weather, moss will turn brown unless it's watered, though it still won't require as much as turf grass. Moss patches don't have to be mowed, but fallen leaves and twigs can discourage growth and must be cleared. This can be done with a gentle raking, though some gardeners prefer more energy intensive methods like leaf blowers or shop vacuums.
There's one surefire way to get rid of the grass in your lawn: dig a big hole, cover it with a large sheet of plastic, and fill it with water. That's essentially how you make a wildlife pond, but the results are much more rewarding than this description may suggest. If built correctly, wildlife ponds can support a variety of living things, both plants and animals. Shallow shelves around the edge of the pond can be sewn with aquatic vegetation, while native grasses planted at pond's edge will invite newts, frogs, and other amphibians to take up residency. You can also expect to see many other animals, including snakes, raccoons, songbirds and dragonflies.
While installing a wildlife pond can be pretty hard work, once established, it will basically take care of itself. The plants don't require watering or mowing, and fertilization is discouraged because it could actually harm the very wildlife you're trying to attract. A wildlife pond can still be water-intensive, though, as evaporation forces you to top it off every once in a while. For this reason it may not be a good choice if you live in a hot, dry climate.
How great would it be to walk out your front door on a warm summer morning and pick a handful of raspberries from your lawn? You can do just that if you plant some edible landscaping. This lawn alternative involves replacing part or all of your grass with fruits, vegetables and leafy greens. It's different from traditional gardening in that plants aren't grown in rows and hidden away in the back yard. Rather, they're arranged for their ornamental qualities and displayed in a prominent location for all to see.
Like gardens, edible landscaping requires a certain amount of maintenance. Many fruits and vegetables are annuals, meaning they must be replanted each year. Regular watering is usually needed to keep them alive and productive during the warm summer months. Still, the effort and resources you put into your lawn are more justified when it's feeding you. As foodie author Michael Pollan eloquently puts it, "[g]ardening, as opposed to lawn care, tutors us in nature's ways, fostering an ethic of give-and-take with respect to the land."
Did you spend endless hours playing in the woods as a child? You can do the same as an adult by raising a woodland garden. These tree-centered landscapes are most closely associated with the deciduous forests of the eastern United States, but may also be designed among the pines of the West. They consist of three layers. First and most prominent is the canopy, which consists of the tallest trees in the garden. Next is the understory: a mix of shorter bushes and trees that survive in the dappled shade of the canopy. The bottom of the garden is called the ground layer, home to sedges, ferns, mosses and other shade-loving plants.
With a woodland garden, the hardest work is getting it started. After that, there's no watering, fertilizing, or mowing necessary, though you might have to pick up a few branches after a windstorm. Woodland gardens provide wonderful habitats for all sorts of creatures, including butterflies, birds, and squirrels, and they can actually reduce your energy bills by shading your home in the summer. The one thing that woodland gardens require, however, is patience. If you start one from scratch, it can take 10 to 15 years to take shape.
Like most Americans, I grew up watching my dad diligently tend to the turf grass lawn: Mow, water, fertilize and repeat. I even had a little plastic toy mower that I would push around the yard, proudly helping my father live the American Dream. I first realized the controversy surrounding the lush, green lawn in 2007 when I read a news story about a 70-year-old woman in Orem, Utah. An enforcement officer issued her a citation for letting her lawn go brown (she couldn't afford to water it). When the woman protested the ticket, the policeman handcuffed her and took her to jail.
Everyone agrees that this woman probably shouldn't have been arrested for this minor offense. But there is more disagreement over the larger question: Should any city be able to force the idea of the traditional lawn upon its residents, especially in a state like Utah, where water is so scarce?
I'll leave the answer to that question up to you. But as this article shows, there are many more ways to landscape a lawn than with the cookie-cutter expanse of grass I idealized as a child.
- 5 Spring Lawn Care Tips
- 5 Ways to Green Your Garden
- 10 Backyard Landscaping Ideas on a Budget
- 10 Cheap Ways to Landscape
- 10 Grasses for Your Yard
- 10 Stones to Use in Your Hardscape
- 10 Things Your Garden Wishes you Knew
- 10 Tips for Taking a Nature Walk in Your Backyard
- 10 Unexpected Garden Decorations
- Top 10 Ways to Make Your New Home Green
- Top 10 Winter Plants
More Great Links
- Baxter, Margaret. "Water-Wise Gardening." 2012. (April 6, 2012) http://www.bouldercolorado.gov/files/Utilities/Water_Conservation/xeriscape.pdf
- Bormann, F. Herbert, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe. "Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony." New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.
- Brown, Carole Sevilla. "What Can You Do to Replace Your Lawn." Beautiful Wildlife Garden. 2012. (April 6, 2012) http://www.beautifulwildlifegarden.com/what-can-you-do-to-replace-your-lawn.html
- CBS Los Angeles. "Turf War? Glendale Bans Fake Grass." Nov. 17, 2011. (April 6, 2012) http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2011/11/17/turf-war-glendale-bans-fake-grass/
- Darke, Rick. "The American Woodland Garden." Portland: Timber Press, 2002.
- Dunn, Jancee. "Moss Makes a Lush, No-Care Lawn." The New York Times. May 1, 2008. (April 8, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/01/garden/01moss.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2
- Environmental Protection Agency. "Water and Energy Efficiency by Sectors: Home." Jan. 25, 2012. (April 8, 2012) http://www.epa.gov/region9/waterinfrastructure/residences.html
- Greenlee, John. "The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn." Portland, Ore.: Timber Press, 2009.
- Hadden, Evelyn J. "Design a Woodland." Less Lawn. Aug. 14, 2001. (April 8, 2012) http://www.lesslawn.com/articles/article1013.html
- Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Turf War." The New Yorker. July 21, 2008. (April 6, 2012) http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/07/21/080721crbo_books_kolbert?currentPage=1
- Kaurik, Robert. "Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally." Santa Rosa, Cal.: Metamorphic Press, 1984.
- Lamb, S. and N. Allen. "Create a Garden Pond for Wildlife." April 2002. (April 6, 2012) http://extension.oregonstate.edu/catalog/pdf/ec/ec1548.pdf
- Meloy, Maile. "Tired of Lawn Care? Fake It." MSN Real Estate. 2010. (April 6, 2012) http://realestate.msn.com/article.aspx?cp-documentid=21208657
- Natural Gardens. "Creating a Wildlife Pond." 2012. (April 6, 2012) http://teesvalleybiodiversity.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/1_natural-gardens_creating-a-wildlife-pond1.pdf
- Oregon Clover Commission. "White Clover." July 2000. (April 6, 2012) http://www.oregonclover.org/downloads/files/whiteclover.pdf
- Pollan, Michael. "Second Nature: A Gardener's Education." New York: Grove Press, 1991.
- Robbins, Paul. "Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are." Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.
- Schenk, George. "Moss Gardening: Including Lichens, Liverworts, and Other Miniatures." Portland, Ore.: Timber Press. 1997.
- Tuttle, Brad. "Front Yard Garden Controversy Revelation: Lawns are Useless." Time Moneyland. July 11, 2011. (April 6, 2012) http://moneyland.time.com/2011/07/11/vegetable-garden-controversy-revelation-front-lawns-are-useless/
- United States Department of Agriculture. "Plant Fact Sheet: White Clover." Feb. 5, 2002. (April 6, 2012) http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_trre3.pdf