How much time have you spent mowing your lawn this season? I’ll bet you’d be happy to get those hours of your life back! Especially if you’re not using your lawn for recreation — and even if you are — it may be time to consider replacing that carbon-intensive lawn with something healthier for you and the environment.
Why ditch the lawn?
The suburban lawn that now dominates the North American landscape has come along way from its historical roots. Once the mark of wealth among the European elite, the broad lawns of estates in northern Europe were a mix of grass and weeds mowed by the sheep who grazed there and perhaps some laborers wielding scythes. No chemical fertilizer or herbicides, no gas-guzzling lawn mowers, no irrigation.
The rising middle classes in Europe and North America adopted the lawn aesthetic for their more modest yards, and the invention of mechanical mowers in the nineteenth century helped them maintain it. But even these lawns had mixes of plants like clover, and there were no chemical or fossil fuel inputs.
In the 1950s all that changed. The gas mower made maintaining broad swaths of grass far less labor-intensive, and chemical fertilizer and herbicides brought about the ideal of a weed-free, closely shorn patch of green in front of every house.
(I find the social history of the lawn pretty fascinating. Here’s a good write up from Planet Natural and an intriguing sociological account of the modern lawn from The Atlantic if you want to know more.)
The mid-twentieth century’s love affair with synthetic chemicals made it acceptable — even one’s civic duty — to poison your yard, the air, and our water supply in order to have a lush green lawn. Decades later, this cultural norm means most people don’t realize how big an impact their lawn can have on the climate and our water quality.
There’s a better way. One that’s safer for your family and the planet.
More people have come to realize that all that poison and pollution is actually a terrible idea and are instead enjoying the substantial benefits of grass alternatives.
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The Benefits of Grass Alternatives
Climate impact: All that mowing and fertilizing has a huge climate footprint. Collectively American lawnmowers emit an estimated 16 billion pounds of carbon annually! Each pound of fertilizer leaves a trail of carbon in its wake and breaks down into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon. Really bad news for our imperiled climate. Read more about the climate and your yard here.
Reduced water use: 40% of all water used in the United States goes to landscaping. Grass alternatives suited to your climate should require far less water, which will also save you time and money.
Money savings: Save on gas, fertilizer, and water when you convert traditional lawn to a grass alternative. Grow some of your own food and save still more. Energy-savvy landscaping can also help with your heating and cooling bills.
Time savings: No mowing! Need I say more? (Though depending on how you landscape, you may have more or less weeding to keep up with. But once a good groundcover gets established, it shouldn’t be much.)
You don’t have to get rid of all of your lawn to greatly reduce the impact of your yard.
Switching out some of your lawn to the grass alternatives below can minimize its impact, as can watering wisely, skipping the fertilizer, and mowing less often.
Ready to get started? Here are some grass alternatives to consider.
(Read to the bottom of the post to find a sneaky way to save yourself a ton of time and back ache converting your lawn to grass alternatives.)
Grass Alternatives: Groundcovers
Low-growing groundcovers are a perfect alternative to a lawn. Consult a local nursery to find one suited to your climate and growing conditions. A few options to consider:
Creeping thyme. Low-growing thyme forms a beautiful and deliciously scented mat to cover large areas. Lemon thyme’s lemony flavor is perfect for fish, and woolly thyme makes a delightfully soft surface for walking on barefoot. There are varieties with different colored leaves and flowers, which pollinators will flock to.
Corsican mint. A low-growing and less aggressive member of the mint family creates a fragrant green carpet. Find out more about Corsican mint here.
Clover. Clover is a nitrogen-fixer, meaning it pulls nitrogen from the air, making fertilizer unnecessary. You can plant an all-clover lawn with Dutch white clover, or use microclovers for a low-growing green carpet.
Stepables.com carries an impressive array of drought-tolerant groundcovers meant to stand up to foot traffic.
No-mow grass. For the areas you’d like to have some lawn, consider a “no-mow” grass, like Eco-Lawn. The grass grows slowly and folds over itself to form an attractive carpet that keeps out weeds, requires far less water than standard grass, and doesn’t need fertilizer. You can mow it (but far less often) to look like a traditional lawn, or skip the mowing and enjoy the lush green.
Some common weeds, if you like them, can also create effective lawn alternatives. Creeping Charlie and violets do a nice job of filling in, though they will try to take over. They are also edible if you care to experiment with them.
I have different groundcovers in different areas of the yard. My shady front yard is covered in zero-maintenance violets. Other spots have creeping thyme, violets, strawberries, and perennial plantings of edible and medicinal plants.
Grass Alternatives: Food Garden
Whether it’s your own personal food forest of fruit trees, shrubs and herbs, or it’s a traditional veggie garden, growing your own food is so rewarding. Besides shrinking your foodprint and saving you money, home-grown food just tastes so much better than anything you can buy.
You can go all in and completely replace your lawn with food, or you can choose an area to convert to food growing. You don’t have to have a sprawling vegetable garden in order to grow a great deal of food. Consider some attractive berry plants like strawberries and honeyberries, which can be incorporated into a perennial bed with beautiful herbs like lemon balm, yarrow, and sage. Or add some striking rhubarb plants, and enjoy bounteous early fruit. (Here’s why I grow 5 rhubarb plants in my tiny yard.)
If you use edible groundcovers, you’ve added food to your landscape without greatly changing its look.
And it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. Perennials like these are easy to get for free. Find out how in this article on how to get free plants.
Other Grass Alternatives
- Prairie plants
- Pollinator garden
- Permeable hardscaping, like paths or a flagstone patio
- Rain garden
- Some combination of the above.
Pollinator gardens and food plants work brilliantly together! Add some hardscaping and groundcovers, and your yard can serve many different purposes.
Ready to try some grass alternatives? Check out this labor- and money-saving way to convert some or all of your lawn.
How to Convert to Grass Alternatives the Easy Way
Sure, you could spend hours hand-digging your lawn and readying it for replanting or rent a garden tiller and till the whole thing up. Or you can learn to sheet mulch, the easiest way to get rid of your grass and start over. I’ve sheet mulched my entire yard and have no grass remaining. The worms and soil microbes do all the work of readying the area for you.
How do you sheet mulch? It’s as simple as collecting cardboard and smothering the heck out of your lawn.
Simply lay down large sheets of cardboard on top of your lawn. If you’re planting right away, cover the cardboard with a few inches of good soil mixed with compost and you can seed it directly. Better still, plan ahead and lay the cardboard in fall, covering it with leaves, and seed-free weeds, and kitchen scraps. The grass below will die, while worms will come feast and turn it all into a nutrient-rich planting bed for you.
Sheet mulching also helps with weed suppression in areas you’re adding mulch to, like the paths I was making in the picture above. I save a lot of mulch each season by using cardboard as my base layer before adding a solid layer of mulch. You would need 2-3 times as much mulch to get as effective a weed barrier. Smaller pieces of cardboard can be used as you fill in mulch in your garden beds. You’ll get far better weed suppression, save money and shrink your yard’s footprint further.
Have you tried grass alternatives? Share your experience in the comments!
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Photo credits: randtdiamond, Clayton800, skeeze