Reducing the size of your lawn can help you conserve water and time. It can also help you beautify your yard. But where do you start?

While lawns offer a pastoral space for picnicking and playing outdoors, they also require a lot of maintenance. Between keeping up with the weeds and the water bill, many homeowners look for alternative solutions. The best solutions look beautiful and offer alternatives to the summertime regimen of plant, water and mow.

Benefits of reducing lawn size

There are many benefits to reducing the size of your lawn. It saves time and energy on lawn maintenance and less yard waste to be composted or taken to a landfill. You’ll also reduce your overall water consumption.

  • Reduced water consumption

    According to the EPA, 30 to 60% of urban fresh water is used to water lawns each year. Turf requires two to three times the water of a sustainable mixed landscape.

  • Less yard waste

    to be composted or taken to a landfill. A 2000 sq ft lawn produces 600-800 pounds of clippings per summer on average. Reducing your lawn also saves time and energy on lawn maintenance.

  • Reduction in use of herbicides

    Some pesticides and herbicides have been linked to health concerns. A smaller lawn also means less synthetic fertilizers.

  • Reduction in air and noise pollution

    Lawns cover 20 million acres of residential land in the US, and gas lawnmowers account for 5% of the air pollution. A 3.5 hp lawnmower pollutes as much in one hour as an automobile driving 350 miles.

  • Enhanced biodiversity

    Varied plantings offer shelter and feeding opportunities for wildlife.

  • Increased property values

    Attractive, low-maintenance landscaping adds value to the home.

What about the costs involved? If you hire a professional to design the landscape and install the plantings, it can be expensive to replace lawn areas. However, you can do the work yourself and use native species of plantings at little cost.

lawn alternariv

How to remove a lawn or lawn section

The slower methods are the easiest. If you want the job done now, renting a rototiller or sod cutter may be necessary.

  1. Black plastic sheeting
  2. Easiest, but looks unsightly and takes about 6 months. Simply spread a sheet of black plastic over the area of lawn to be removed and weight the edges with rocks. The grass will wither and the roots will dry up. Once the process is complete, turn the top 12″ of soil and break up clumps using a hoe. However, this method will kill many beneficial micro-organisms and worms in the soil; soil amendments will need to be added if the area is to be replanted in ground cover, shrubs or flowers.

  3. Sheet-composting
  4. Easy, but takes 4 to 6 months. This method requires large amounts of compostable material. Cover the existing lawn with layers of organic material that will break down and, in the process, soften and kill the grass itself. Some suggest breaking up the sod layer first but others do not. Water the sheet from time to time to promote rapid breakdown of materials.

    • Layer 1: Nitrogen material, e.g. grass clippings (3 – 4″) or organic nitrogen fertilizer
    • Layer 2: Weed barrier, such as cardboard or newspaper (only black & white)
    • Layer 3: Weed-free mulch (3 – 4″), such as fall leaves, sawdust, manure, finished compost, seaweed, shredded garden trimmings, wood chips, or straw (be sure to use clean straw, not hay, as hay contains seeds).

    Once the process is completed, shrubs or trees can be planted directly through the layers.

  5. Sod cutting
  6. For small areas of lawn, the top layer of sod can be sliced off using a spade; larger areas will need a sod cutter, which is usually available at tool rental shops. The sod which has been removed can be stacked and covered with a sheet of black plastic; in about 6 months the grass and roots will break down leaving you with valuable soil for the garden, compost or shrub and flower beds.

  7. Rototilling
  8. This method requires at least three treatments; the first tilling should be deep, with compost and lime added before tilling. After several weeks, repeat but with very shallow tilling to remove new weeds. Repeat this process in another week to get any remaining weeds.

chamomile groundcover

Chamomile is one popular ground cover that can replace areas of grass in your lawn.

Lawn replacements

A good place to start is with foundation plantings. They can be expanded in width and include ground covers, xeriscape plantings, perennial flower beds, and tiered shrub plantings. Soil depth of 12 – 18″ is best for larger shrub plantings.

Vegetable gardens

In times of stress, or when food supply chains feel less than secure due to global circumstance, many people turn to the victory garden model of reclaiming lawns for edible beds. A slim bed along a foundation or a larger series of beds in the middle of the yard are productive ways to reduce conventional grass. This choice also comes with numerous health benefits.

Ground covers

These are plants which spread across the ground but do not grow tall, so no cutting is required. Areas planted in groundcover need little to no maintenance. Ground covers are usually chosen for texture, density and how well they spread and choke out the weeds. They enhance the soil by acting as a mulch, and some groundcovers are nitrogen-fixing.

  • Many varieties are available, including flowering groundcovers which offer color and add emphasis to the seasons.
  • Although groundcovers are usually perennials and evergreens, annuals make excellent groundcovers as well, but do require more work each spring.
  • During the first year, new plantings of groundcover will require weeding and mulching, but once established, little care is needed.
  • Groundcovers usually need an edge barrier to contain them.
  • Not as durable as grass for high traffic areas.
  • Your garden center can recommend local groundcover varieties and their characteristics.

Related: Eartheasy Guide to Lawn Alternatives

Deciduous shrubs

The most common method for reducing lawn size is to replace the turf with beds of perennial shrubs, often bordered with flowers. Shrubs can be expensive, but using local varieties can be very inexpensive (or free), and local species will be easiest to grow and encounter fewer disease problems. Local species also provide food, in many cases, for local wildlife species. Deciduous shrubs:

  • Give seasonal color and texture to the landscape.
  • Have few serious insect or disease problems.
  • Tolerate difficult growing conditions better than most ornamentals.
  • Many grow rapidly and may require some yearly pruning. Pruning is done just after the shrub flowers, regardless of the time of year.
  • Tiered plantings may allow passive cooling in summer while letting in light in winter.


The term ‘xeriscape’ refers to drought-tolerant landscaping. Originally developed for areas with severe water restrictions, this method of landscaping is becoming widely popular because water conservation has become more of an issue for homeowners in many parts of the country. Xeriscapes do not have a single look – almost any landscaping style can be achieved. Visit Eartheasy’s page on Xeriscaping to learn more about how this method can benefit your landscape.

xeriscape plants

Xeriscaping involves choosing drought tolerant plants that thrive with minimal water.


Permanent mulches, such as bark chips and gravel, can be used to replace lawn under trees and areas not to be planted in shrubs. (Mulches which biodegrade quickly, such as leaves, sawdust, seaweed, grass clippings are not suited for this purpose.) Mulches such as bark chips and gravel:

  • Require landscaping cloth to be placed on the bare soil; the mulch is then added on top.
  • May require some weeding. Weeds can sprout from small pockets of soil which accumulate on the mulch. If the weed root goes through the groundcloth, be sure to water the weed before pulling. This makes it easier to pull and reduces the damage to the groundcloth. Some people use hot water to killl weeds which poke through gravel mulch, however this should not be done if tree roots are directly below the groundcloth.

Tips for reducing lawn size

  • Make a yard plan

    Reducing the lawn size may seem like a large task, but the changes can be made gradually over several seasons. By drawing up a yard plan, changes can be made by priority and as time and resources allow.

  • Choose least functional lawn areas to replace

    Look for areas of lawn which are least used, and those which are hardest to mow (e.g. corners of the yard, beneath trees with low branches).

  • Check what lies beneath

    Before digging, check for location of utilities. Call local utility company if not sure.

  • Native plants for birds

  • Grow native

    Use native trees, shrubs and ground covers or native grasses and wildflowers that are already well-adapted to the environment in your region. They will require less fertilizer, fewer (or no) pesticides, less watering and less maintenance. Birds and wildlife will benefit from the berries and seeds of native plants. Non-nativespecies can be interspersed to add variety and color.

  • Mulch annually

    Shrubs and flower bads should be mulched at least once year with a biodegradable mulch such as leaves, fish compost, grass clippings, seaweed).

  • Consider lawn shape

    By replacing corners with curves, minimizing ‘islands’, even a small reduction in lawn size can save a large amount of lawn mowing time.

  • Slopes may need terracing

    Removing lawn turf from a sloped area may cause erosion during rains; sloped areas may need to be terraced to minimize erosion.

  • Plant using multiple layers or mixed borders

    Trees, shrubs and flowers can be planted in layers which successively shade each other, requiring less water. Plantings should be closely spaced to discourage weeds from sprouting.

  • Consider tiered landscaping using deciduous shrubs

    You can graduate the height of shrub/flower beds, with tallest plantings closest to the south and east side of the house. The shading offered by tall plantings can help with passive cooling of the home, reducing the cost and impact of cooling using electricity.

Many varieties of ‘screening’ shrubs are available, with some examples of popular varieties listed below.

Viburnum opulus

A Viburnum opulus, also known as guelder rose, makes a nice screening shrub.

Examples of tall 'screening' deciduous shrubs

Forsythia - 8'many varieties; easy to grow in most soil; prefer direct sun; require annual pruning.
Hibiscus syriacus - 12' a large shrub that flowers in August, at a time when few other shrubs are in bloom.
Purple smoke bush - 15'will grow in any soil and any location in the garden. Insects and disease are of little concern.
Spirea (goat's beard) - 8 - 12'very easy to grow; adapts to a wide range of soil types and light conditions.
Arrowwood Viburnum- 12- 15'grows in sun or shade, adaptable to any soil; a rapid grower with good, glossy red fall color.

Tall 'screening' deciduous shrubs which require a trellis for support

Mockorange - 7' many varieties, ranging from 4' - 7'; no serious insect or disease problems.
Common Lilac - 9' best known and most commonly planted of all the flowering shrubs; annual pruning is necessary.
Fragrant Honeysuckle - 6'easy to grow, requiring no special soil or other conditions; also used as a hedge; little pruning is required.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2009 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Responses (0)