For a long time there was one, classic image of making it in America. A rolling swath of green, green grass surrounded by a white picket fence. Grass lawns have long been revered, and many families consider to be lawns aspirational, if not the standard. And sure, they do have benefits. They give kids room to play, dogs room to run, and providing a pop of color. Unfortunately, they’re also objectively awful for the environment. As a result, many are seeking alternatives to grass for lawns.
Leaving the perfectly manicured grass to your local golf course is a great choice for Mother Earth. But what do you do instead? Lawn alternatives to grass come in a wide range of styles and designs. Whether you’re insistent on getting green underfoot, need more usable space, or aren’t afraid to let nature take its course, there’s an approach that will fit your family.
Why are grass lawns bad?
Before we give you the alternatives, let’s make sure we are all on the same page. If the idea that grass lawns aren’t eco-friendly is news to you, you’re not alone. So what is it about your rolling green that’s causing so many problems for Mother Earth?
First, lawns drink up a lot of water. Like, a lot. This is especially true if you live in a hot, dry climate like the southwest. A report by the EPA found that in some areas of the country, up to 60% of household’s water consumption is occurring outdoors. And of that 60%, half of the water never accomplishes any real purpose. Instead, it evaporates or becomes polluting runoff. Not great.
While this issue is especially prevalent in drought prone areas, wasting water outdoors is specific to no region. A good sprinkler system can help, but not everybody has the time, resources, or desire to have a system installed. But the problems don’t stop with water consumption.
As mentioned, a large portion of water that is spent outside watering grass never is absorbed into the ground on your property at all. Instead, much of it is carried away by wind or fails to find its target and becomes runoff in local water supplies. Runoff is polluting to local lakes and streams, and can be avoided by refraining from overwater traditional grass lawns.
Pesticides & Fertilizer
Now, runoff wouldn’t necessarily be as big of a problem without this key player. Afterall, adding normal, uncontaminated water to local supplies shouldn’t be an issue. But in the case of runoff from the lawn, the water is typically anything but clean. Lawn owners tend to over fertilize, treat, and spray their grass with toxic chemicals. These pesticides and chemicals mix with the water to become chemical runoff.
And even if no runoff occurs, these fertilizers used to encourage grass growth are still taking an unignorable toll in other ways. It’s been found in recent studies that treating your lawn with fertilizer results in grass that gives off enormous amounts of nitrous oxide.
For reference, nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times more effective at trapping greenhouse grasses than carbon dioxide. And for highly maintained lawns, the space is emitted so much nitrous oxide that the plants can’t keep up. All this, without even mentioning the chemicals emitted by frequent lawn maintenance such as mowing and trimming- not great.
So, what can you do instead?
The issues with grass lawns are multi-faceted. Some problems are more prevalent than others. Ironically, the bigger and more meticulously maintained your lawn is, the more these issues are exasperated. So what can you do instead? Quite a bit, actually! Done right, ditching your lawn shouldn’t make you feel like you’re really losing anything. Here are some of the best alternatives to grass lawns.
1. Alternative Ground Cover
We don’t believe that you should have to give up on the idea of green space just because you’re letting go of a traditional lawn. Luckily, there are plenty of options out there that will be soft and green underfoot, and give your kids and the family pup plenty of room to run and play.
Among many great options are densely growing varieties of clover, corsican mint, or creeping thyme. All of these plants require little to know mowing, are drought resistant, and are easily established. Many of these covers can even be found in flowering varieties, giving your backyard great dimension and a beautiful pop of color. Once in place, this natural ground cover sends roots deep, aerating the soil as it grows.
If you don’t love the look of any of these traditional options, or your yard space is entrenched in shade most of the day, look into moss. The original green carpet, moss is a great choice for those with a cooler climate or persistent shade. Moss is no mow, low maintenance, and incredibly soft underfoot. If you love the feeling of going barefoot, this could be a great option for you.
The result of any of these choices? A hands off, set it and forget it green space that is great for throwing the baseball, letting the dog roam, and kind to the planet as well.
2. Ornamental Grass
If you don’t mind losing the space for foot traffic, but still want to embrace the look of grass, look into ornamental grasses. Unlike standard lawn grass, ornamental grasses are long and sweeping, closer resembling the look of a beautiful prairie than a golfing green. Also unlike standard lawn grass, ornamental grasses are drought resistant, require little to no maintenance, and can thrive in most conditions.
Depending on your area, the preferred ornamental grass may differ. The most successful grasses for your space will be those that are native to your area. Cooler northern climates should find cool-season grass, while southern climates should look for warmer weather options. Some great choices include fine fescue grasses as well as deer grass to provide beautiful coverage without the carbon footprint.
3. Permeable Hardscaping
If utility is priority, there are better ways to get the most from your outdoor space without any grass at all. Especially in smaller yards, great permeable paving is an eco-friendly way to maximize the usable square footage in your space. Where grass is good largely for letting dogs roam and kids play barefoot, great hardscaping can be used as a base for endless beautiful outdoor renovations.
Cover your beautiful paver patio with a modern, louvered pergola. Create an outdoor dining area that takes family meals outdoors. Make your backyard a true gathering space by adding a fire pit, or go the extra mile and ask your local contractor about an outdoor kitchen. All of these options need a hardscaping base to work, meaning by skipping the lawn, you’re gaining other opportunities for outdoor living space.
4. Native Pollinator Gardens or Perennial Beds
“Native plants” and “eco-friendly” go together like peanut butter and jelly. But if you’re looking to make a huge pivot away from traditional lawn space, building a native pollinator garden is beautiful, low maintenance once established, and great for your local ecosystem. Where regular lawns provide little to no pollinating opportunities, native beds and pollinator gardens target birds, bees, and butterflies.
For help, ask your local wholesale nursery or go online to discover what varieties will work best in your climate and your particular space. Because they are native to your area, nearly all varieties will be resistant to your standard drought and precipitation averages. While it will take some elbow grease to get these beds set up, the pay off is enormous. Done well, you and your family can enjoy year long flowers and color, learn about bees and butterflies, all with very limited follow up maintenance. ’
5. Minimize Your Lawn’s Impact
Finally, if none of these options is right for you, we understand. Some families are bound to feel like nothing is more beneficial to their outdoor living space than a standard lawn. Whether your kids need room to practice sports, Spot needs more space, or you just hate the idea of skipping grass, we get it. Additionally, some homeowners’ associations may go as far as to require traditional grass lawns. In that case, focus on what you can do to minimize your lawn’s impact.
Where possible, downsize the amount of square footage devoted to grass. Try not to mow as often, and avoid treating your lawn with frequent chemicals and fertilizers. Resist zapping every weed you see, and try to let go of the idea that your lawn needs to be a perfect, green postage stamp that Tiger Woods himself would love to put on.
When it comes to creating an outdoor space that is both functional, and serves your aesthetic preferences, balance is key. At the end of the day, whether you choose to ditch the grass or simply reduce the impact it’s having, being conscious of alternatives to grass for lawns can open up new possibilities for your outdoor space. And Mother Earth will thank you for it.