Lawn Alternatives

When I go for an afternoon walk on a lovely summer day, I often see people mowing their lawns; but I don’t remember once in two decades seeing people enjoying their lawn; so it’s a mystery why people compulsively maintain these spaces that don’t seem to enrich our pleasure in life. Apparently, the lawn habit came across from Europe, where open grasslands signaled the wealth of aristocratic landowners.  But the habit took root in the U.S with Scottish settlers.  Now, lawns apparently cover up to 50 million acres of land in the country.  The NRDC site provides some further sobering statistics:  “Every year across the country, lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year, 200 million gallons of gas (for all that mowing), and 70 million pounds of pesticides.”  The authors of this site go on to emphasize the harmful effects of pesticides; and they remind us that every acre of lawn means an acre where diverse habitat is unavailable for pollinators and other plants and animals.
So it’s worth looking for alternatives to your water-greedy lawn; there are options, which can be practical in different areas of your property:
  1. Plant natural turf grass that is left to grow wild.
  2. Plant low-growing turf grasses that require little grooming.
  3. Use native plants as well as noninvasive, climate-friendly ones that can thrive in local conditions. Many options are available for ground cover; they require a bit of nurture when getting established, but then need little support once established, and low-growing varieties don’t need mowing.
  4. Devote some space to edible plants-vegetables and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs.
You can change as much or as little as you like, even just modifying the shape and size of your traditional turf lawn, to reduce the stress on resources and on your personal workload.  But it’s worth giving a thought to the third option above: namely, looking at alternatives besides the lawns that many of us have taken for granted for decades.  This site covers some information about ground covers, which can provide a low-maintenance way to keep your yard green without the hassle and environmental cost of a traditional turf lawn.

Lawn Alternative Examples

Some nurseries offer grasses that require little care; one example is a “No Mow” lawn, which consists of a mix of fescue grasses that forms a thick carpet: this combination is drought resistant, tolerates sun or shade, is recommended for our area, and needs no mowing (or at most one or two mowings a year, depending on the look you prefer). Another choice is Dwarf Mondo Grass, which grows only two to four inches tall and can be planted in both sun and shade.  If you’re hoping for a traditional grassy look, options like these might meet your needs while helping you save on water and lawnmower fuel.

Other plants come in a wide variety; the same nursery that lists the fescue grass combination offers eighteen other choices, ranging from tall plants, like ferns and sedges, to much smaller plants.  There’s no quick way to choose since each variety has its own requirements, pros, and cons.  So in this short column, we can only hope to give a few examples. An attractive choice is Bearberry, a native plant that is deer-resistant grows at most an inch high, tolerates part shade as well as full sun, attracts butterflies and other pollinators, and needs little water; but there is a downside:  this little plant likes sand or light soil, so won’t grow on heavy clay soils.

Those with heavier soils might consider Wild Ginger, another native plant that again needs little water is host to a type of swallowtail butterfly, and looks good planted along with native ferns.  Another plus: these plants can be spaced a foot apart and will still form a carpet in two to three years.  But there’s always a catch: wild ginger requires shade or at least partial shade. Taller plants may be less suitable as lawn replacements but can be used wherever foot traffic is light, or in borders.  An attractive example is Goat’s Beard, which grows up to 6 inches tall and produces feathery white flowers.  Once again, this plant attracts butterflies and other pollinators and can grow in a range of soil types;  but like wild ginger, this plant loves shade.  Also to consider: it spreads slowly, so would require more plants per square foot to fill in a space in a short time.

The list of alternatives is much too long to cover here.  If you’re thinking of replacing your lawn with an ecologically friendly substitute, do explore on your own, keeping in mind the factors we’ve been looking at: soil, light and water requirements, speed of spreading, height and appearance. Also important: check whether your favorite plant is a native.  Not all sites or nurseries provide this information, but a plant’s status can usually be discovered with a bit of detective work. The ‘native’ versus ‘invasive’ question may be tricky, though. One listing for Creeping Jenny, for instance, claims that this plant is “considered invasive in some regions of the country,” which does not give a clear answer for PA residents; a similar warning comes with Dwarf White Clover, which offers the questionable benefit of being “less invasive” than some of its cousins.

There are at least some clear answers. Beware of English Ivy and periwinkle, both of which are dangerously invasive and can escape to forests where they crowd out local species.  Others may be tricky, like Pachysandra, which comes in two varieties, Allegheny and Japanese (you’ll easily be able to tell which is local from the names).  On the safe side, you can find dozens of phlox varieties, almost all of which are native.  Check out these sources for a discussion of native ground covers and native plants for our area.

Dealing with Fall Leaves

If you’re worried about the pesky layer of leaves that is carpeting your yard at this time of year, you can take heart:  there are many solutions. Many areas offer a regular schedule of yard waste pickup dates, and if your township or borough offers pickup in biodegradable bags to be composted, this can be an easy solution to the leaf-buildup problem.

However, there are other alternatives for the adventurous.  These leaves are rich in nutrients, and so there are many ways to take advantage of this natural resource. Use them as mulch, whole or shredded (see the note below on shredding); there are no seeds to worry about, so the leaves make a good moisture-holding layer while discouraging weeds.

Use them as cover for tender perennials: a 6-inch layer of leaves can protect vulnerable plants over the winter. One example: garlic planted in fall can sprout during warm winter spells, but a blanket of leaves will prevent that—the garlic will put down roots, but not sprout through the leaf cover.

Add them directly to your compost pile:  these leaves are rich in carbon and can provide a balance to nitrogen-rich yard waste, such as fresh grass clippings. Just spread them directly in the garden; shredded leaves can integrate well and work to improve the soil: they lighten heavy soils, and provide nutrients to feed earthworms and helpful microbes.

Let them sit for two years, packed into their own storage areas (cages, plastic bags with insulation holes), shredding is not needed. In time, the leaves will turn into “leaf mold,” which looks like light compost and can do wonders for soil (I’ve been told it’s especially helpful to work into a bed of carrots).  The second source below features a link to a helpful video on this process.

For some of these uses, it’s a good idea to shred leaves, which makes them less likely to block light and makes their helpful contents more available.  A simple way to do this is to drive a lawnmower over the leaves several times.  The first source below gives more details—and warns against some relatively uncommon leaf types, like sycamore, which needs to be composted before being used in the garden.

By Jen Fontaine