Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) demonstrates that native grasses can be as lovely as any flower.
Photo By Saxon Holt
A lush, green lawn may be the conventional idea of curb appeal, but those grass-covered yards come with a high price tag. “In the U.S., the average lawn is nearly a quarter of an acre,” says Gina Samarotto, principal designer at Samarotto Design Group, a landscape design firm in Poughkeepsie, New York. “Over a year, that could mean upwards of $5,000 in care and maintenance costs.”
And our green yards cost more than money—they could also harm our health. Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 13 with birth defects, 21 with reproductive defects, 26 with liver or kidney damage and 15 with neurotoxicity, according to the National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns. Pesticides also threaten the ecosystem in and around our neighborhoods. Of the same 30 common pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, 23 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic life, 11 are toxic to bees and 16 are toxic to birds. Replacing conventional grass with low-water, low-maintenance landscaping alternatives benefits both the environment and your pocketbook.
Planning Your Low-Maintenance Landscaping
When beginning your lawn renovation, first consider your preferences and needs, says David Verespy, landscape architect at Rock Spring Design Group in Trumbull, Connecticut. Think about what kind of layout you’d like and how you’re going to use the yard. Is it a place for children to play, or do you use it mainly to entertain? Do you want to keep any parts grass-covered? Where could your home benefit by planting shrubs or evergreens? (Visit Landscaping for Energy Efficiency to learn how to use landscaping to aid your home’s energy efficiency.) Where might you like to grow vegetables and herbs or add hardscape such as a gazebo or patio? “No yard is entirely maintenance-free, but it’s how you allocate your resources that matters,” Verespy says.
Once you’ve determined your overall yard layout, start choosing plants. Samarotto recommends making a list of favorite plants, then analyzing their needs in relation to your yard. Consider site conditions such as sun exposure, frequency and amount of rainfall, and wind conditions. “Evaluate your space so you know the choices you make are right for your microclimate,” she says. Don’t attempt to grow grass in areas where it doesn’t want to grow. Instead of forcing grass on shady spaces, embrace shade-loving herbs or shrubs such as rhododendron, lemon balm, sweet woodruff and anise hyssop (see more herbal groundcovers in “Herbs Have It Covered” further along in this article). If your home is in a dry climate, incorporate native and drought-tolerant trees, shrubs and cacti into the landscape to reduce water use.
Perennial beds and shrubs are low-maintenance landscaping choices that offer long-term savings. “Shrubs grow well on their own and require a lot less water and fewer chemicals,” Verespy says. Shrubs such as summersweet, spirea, junipers and forsythia are easy to care for and eliminate mowing time; however, they do require weeding. When choosing shrubs, select native or naturalized varieties that naturally grow in your home’s area, Verespy says. For information on what plants to grow (or not to grow) in your area, visit the PLANTS Database on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website, or contact your local cooperative extension office. Find an office near you at the USDA’s Cooperative Extension System Offices page.
Good Bedfellows: Companion Planting
Flower, herb and vegetable gardens—whether in the ground or in raised beds—eliminate yard space and allow you to grow some of your own food. “Raised garden beds are a wonderful way to create architectural interest while providing space for both edible and ornamental plants,” Samarotto says. “Choose a design that lets you stagger the beds for the most dramatic effect.” To naturally repel insects, avoid planting large quantities of one plant in a single area, and rely on companion planting, which pairs certain flowers, herbs and vegetables together. “This is the basic methodology behind pairing garlic and roses,” Samarotto says. “Aphids love roses but hate garlic!” Onions deter insects, as do flowers with strong scents such as marigolds. For a guide to companion plants, visit nhandg.com/replace-your-yard[link/redirect].
Life Aquatic: Landscaping with Ponds
Ponds are a lovely way to reduce maintenance space and support a healthy ecosystem. “The ecosystem a pond develops is carefree,” Samarotto says. Ponds help maintain a natural pest-control system, attracting birds that eat the bugs that can destroy garden plants. Ponds can attract mosquitoes, but several organic repellents can help keep the pests away (see “Resources” at the end of this article for recommendations).
When installing a pond, dig deeply to prevent freezing in the winter. “A pond that is below the freeze line—usually about 30 inches—can run year-round and provide a safe and ecologically sound environment for fish, turtles, frogs and other garden friends,” Samarotto says. Border the pond with boulders to further decrease lawn space and create a picturesque environment for plantings. “Groupings of boulders partially dug into the earth and staged with an eye toward design replace the lawn readily while also offering a spectacular backdrop for plants and shrubs,” she says.
Flowers and Shrubs for Low-Maintenance Landscaping
Gina Samarotto, principal designer at Samarotto Design Group in New York, recommends these easy-to-maintain flowers and shrubs.
Autumn Joy: This hardy plant is readily available in nearly every part of the country and provides glorious bursts of color in late summer and early fall.
Barberry: Varieties like ‘Rosy Glow’ add a burst of warm color to the landscape with little maintenance.
Black-Eyed Susan: This quick-spreading and easy-to-grow flower is a wonderful choice to cover a lot of ground with bright, long-lasting blooms.
Boxwood: This slow-growing evergreen shrub requires nominal watering once it’s well-established.
Butterfly Bush: A fast-growing woody ornamental with showy flowers, it’s a favorite of butterflies. (Avoid this plant if you live in the Pacific Northwest, where it can be invasive.)
Cacti: Varieties such as hens and chicks and yucca can be integrated into nearly any landscape and require almost no attention.
Evergreen Ilex: It thrives with little care and can produce beautiful berries to add interest to the landscape.
Liriope: This semi-evergreen plant fills out quickly and features lovely purple spires in the late summer; ideal for borders.
Herbs Have It Covered
Many herbs grow low to the ground and offer sweet scents and shade- and drought-resistance.
Corsican mint: A low-growing groundcover perfect between pavers, Corsican mint has a minty/sage scent and prefers light shade and lots of moisture.
Creeping golden marjoram: This drought-tolerant, sun-loving herb features bright golden foliage with white and pink flowers in spring.
Lamb’s ears: Soft, beautiful lamb’s ears are excellent for crowding out weeds and are delightful in a children’s garden. Lamb’s ears grow well in full sun and partial shade.
Periwinkle: An excellent choice for sloping ground, drought-tolerant periwinkle thrives in shady or semi-shady areas. Don’t grow periwinkle near other specimens in a flowerbed or garden as it’s a vigorous grower and can overtake other plants.
Platinum sage: A lovely, unusual herb with silvery leaves, platinum sage is at its best in sunny areas with well-drained soil.
Sweet violet: Sweetly scented with violet or white flowers, sweet violet prefers shade but will tolerate full sun in cooler areas.
Sweet woodruff: Sweet woodruff smells of freshly mown hay and prefers shady areas.
Wooly thyme: Drought-tolerant thyme spills nicely over walls, pavers and stones. Although thymes are sun-worshippers, they’ll tolerate part shade.
Wooly yarrow: A drought-tolerant herb that does best in full sun, wooly yarrow is soft under bare feet.
If you want to keep grass but reduce your yard’s maintenance, choose low-growing varieties that maintain a lush, green color with no chemical use and require less water, mowing and weeding. Try low-maintenance meadow grasses such as little bluestem and switchgrass, long-rooted clover (its long roots help it require less water) or zoysia, a slow-growing, drought-tolerant grass.
Deborah Huso is a freelance travel, health, home and garden design writer based in Virginia. Visit her blog, I Only Love You Because I Have To.
National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns
healthy lawn information
Department of Agriculture
PLANTS Database; Cooperative Extension System Offices
plant database; find local cooperative extension offices
All About Building Waterfalls, Ponds and Streams by Ortho Books
Beautiful No-Mow Yards by Evelyn J. Hadden
Down to Earth Natural Lawn Care by Dick Raymond
The Organic Lawn Care Guide by Victor M. Barnes
The Organic Lawn Care Manual by Paul Boardway Tukey
Smart Guide: Ponds & Fountains: Step-by-Step Projects by James Barrett
Low-Maintenance Herb and Grass Seeds
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
herb and flower seeds
No Mow Grass
mow-free, low-water, chemical-free grass seed
low-maintenance grass seed
The Thyme Garden Herb Company