Low-Maintenance Landscaping: Replace Your Lawn with Grass Alternatives

Cut yard work and save money with low-maintenance landscaping. Replace your conventional grass yard with drought-tolerant, low-maintenance grass alternatives.

| March/April 2012

  • Rather than a lawn, this backyard hosts two patios, a woodland area, a prairie walk and a pond.
    Photo By Saxon Holt
  • The photography in this article is courtesy of the lovely book "Beautiful No-Mow Yards" by Evelyn J. Hadden.
    Photo Courtesy Timber Press
  • Vegetables, herbs and flowers grown together make a food garden more colorful and productive.
    Photo By Saxon Holt
  • Growing food and flowers instead of grass turns a resource-needy lawn into a space that provides both beauty and monetary value.
    Photo By Saxon Holt
  • Dryland beauty lilac verbena (V. lilacina 'De La Mina') enlivens a drought-tolerant landscape.
    Photo By Saxon Holt
  • Herbs all around, including rosemary in the foreground, make a deliciously scented seating area.
    Photo By Saxon Holt
  • Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) demonstrates that native grasses can be as lovely as any flower.
    Photo By Saxon Holt
  • Pink flowers adorn an urban meadow garden injected with ornamental onion (Allium giganteum 'Globemaster').
    Photo By Saxon Holt
  • In a small urban garden, a patio is easily more functional and appealing than a lawn.
    Photo By Saxon Holt
  • In the Midwest, homeowners are embracing a new aesthetic with prairie gardens like this one, which replaced an unused suburban front lawn and features regionally adapted plants that thrive without supplemental water.
    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].

6/15/2014 10:35:07 PM

Our small property was bland and in need of help. My daughter and I planted fruit trees, blueberry bushes and herbs the first year. The second year we extended and created flower beds with vegetables mixed in. We used only our bunny poo with a layer of soil on top. Everything we have planted is producing for us.

Sally Wencel
3/28/2013 2:59:01 PM

I'm not sure why this article promotes the use of invasive exotic pest plants which do little or nothing to sustain wildlife instead of promoting native plants. To wit, barberry, butterfly bush, and periwinkle are considered threats to natural areas in this part of the country. If you really want to promote sustainability, go to your local exotic pest plant council and look at the list of native plants for landscaping.

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