Fuel for power mowers, toxic emissions, fertilizers and pesticides, water consumption, and your weekend time are all part of the cost of lawn maintenance. Hiring a lawn care service will save you the time and energy, but the environmental costs remain.
Reducing the size of your conventional grass lawn can benefit the environment while saving you time, energy and expense. And the result need not be a loss in aesthetic appeal. Here are a few suggestions to help you reduce lawn size:
These are plants which spread across the ground but do not grow tall, so no cutting is required. An excellent alternative to artificial grass, areas planted in groundcover need little to no maintenance. Groundcovers are usually chosen for texture, density, and how well they spread and choke out the weeds. They can be planted in poor soil and even enhance the soil by acting as a mulch. Some groundcovers are nitrogen-fixing.
Many varieties are available, including flowering groundcovers like creeping thyme, which offer color and add emphasis to the seasons. Although groundcovers are usually perennials and evergreens, annuals make an excellent groundcovering as well, but do require more work each spring.
Some groundcovers are edible, such as strawberries or low-growing herbs. Ever-bearing strawberries produce fruit most of the summer and tolerate marginal soils and light shade. Dwarf dogwood (also called bunchberry) and herbs like thyme and oregano work as groundcovers for limited areas. Many also grow well in shady areas.
During the first year, new plantings of groundcover will require weeding and mulching, but once established, little care is needed.
Groundcovers need an edge barrier to contain them. A low brick or wood edging, or any lawn edging which cuts down a few inches into the soil will usually be sufficient. Your garden center can recommend local groundcover varieties and their characteristics for the perfect grass alternative.
Clover is often planted by gardeners as an eco friendly soil conditioner. It grows quickly and easily, chokes out weeds and is easily turned into the beds when planting time draws near. The deep root system reduces soil compaction. Clover is also a nitrogen-fixing plant, which enriches the soil with natural fertilizer.
Clover also works well, however, as a replacement for turf – Consider the benefits:
- Low Maintenance: Clover is drought resistant and needs little to no watering or mowing.
- No Fertilizers: Chemical fertilizers are not needed to grow clover.
- Color: Clover stays green even in the driest part of summer.
- Inexpensive: It costs about $4 to cover 4000 sq. ft. of turf area.
- Comfortable: Easy to walk through or play on, although not as durable as grass.
Commonly available clovers are Dutch White, Yellow Blossom and Red Clover. Of these, Dutch White is best suited for lawn-type use. (Yellow Blossom and Red Clover grow taller, from 18 – 36 inches tall. They are more suited for pasture application.) Dutch white clover is often blended with lawn seed for its value as a natural fertilizer and because it grows well in poor clay subsoil common around new home construction.
Dutch White clover is a perennial, but acts as a reseeding annual in the Lower South. It is an excellent reseeder because it flowers from March through early May. Dutch White clover germinates in 7 – 10 days, and grows to a height of 4- 8″. White clover does need moisture at time of germination, but is drought tolerant once established.
Dutch White clover is an effective alternative to lawns because:
- It is relatively low-growing, at about 4 – 8″ high
- Tolerates low mowing well
- Stays green through droughty periods of summer
- Tolerates dog urine
Clover is not durable enough for playing surfaces or high use areas. It is torn up easily by pet activity such as dog runs, and is not suitable for this purpose.
To learn more, read our article: How to Establish a Clover Lawn
Another, newer type of clover gaining in popularity is micro-clover. This clover variety was developed specifically for lawns and has a tidy, compact shape that is easy-care in most parts of the United States. It has the same benefits as Dutch white clover, while growing more uniformly and requiring less care. For more information, see How to Grow Microclover.
You can convert part of your lawn to a display of ornamental or native grasses. There are many alternatives to choose from. These grasses are low maintenance and grow well in most soils. They seldom require fertilizer, and have few pest and disease problems. Ornamental grasses are also drought-resistant and low maintenance. When choosing ornamental grasses for your yard, consider the characteristics of each variety. They are categorized as:
Cool-season grasses grow best at temperatures ranging from 15 to 24° centigrade (59 to 75° fahrenheit). New growth starts as soon as temperatures rise above freezing in spring, in temperate climate zones. Growth slows and flowers bloom by early summer.
Warm-season grasses prefer temperatures ranging from 26 to 35° C ( 78 to 95° F). New growth begins after the soil warms up to 16° C. Growth slows and flowers start to bloom by mid-summer, and continuing through fall.
Ranging from slow creepers to aggressive spreaders, running grasses are useful for erosion control on slopes or as ground cover.
These grasses grow in tufts. They make fine specimens and are also effective planted in groups or masses. Most ornamental grasses commonly used in gardens today are clump-forming.
Tips for growing ornamental grasses:
Most grasses prefer a sunny area, especially the more brightly colored varieties.
Water new plantings
Drought-resistant grasses still require watering while getting established.
Clump grasses can be cut back with a shears each spring to allow for fresh new growth. Grasses which turn brown in winter (deciduous) can be cut back to a few inches of the ground. Evergreen grasses, however, should not be cut back too drastically.
When planting, allow room between clumps for movement.
Clump grasses may need to be divided if they get too big or have die-back in the center of the clump. Use a pointed spade (or a hand trowel for smaller clumps) to cut larger divisions; pull apart by hand into smaller sections. Be sure to water replanted divisions.
Flower and shrub beds
Flower and shrub beds can be strategically located to add color and interest while expanding the “low maintenance” areas of your yard. Terraced beds are a good solution for sloped areas which are difficult to mow. Beds of shade-loving varieties can be planted beneath trees with low-hanging branches or protruding roots which cause mowing problems.
Here are a few suggestions for designing and locating flower and shrub beds:
Choose native perennials
Ask at your local nursery for recommended local perennial flower and shrub varieties. Native plantings will require less attention and less fertilizer, and are your best guarantee of good results. Perennials will require occasional dividing and replanting as they grow. Divided sections can be given to friends as gifts. When choosing shrubs for your landscaping, be sure to find out the height and width of the shrub at maturity. This will ensure that you plant them the right distance from each other.
Choose low-maintenance varieties
Ask your nursery to recommend varieties which don’t need to be pruned, regularly divided or staked as they grow tall.
Spread mulch around the base of plants at least 2 inches deep. This will save water and keep the soil loose and aerated. Mulching slows water evaporation and prevents weeds from taking over. Over time, mulch gradually breaks down into the soil and often needs to be reapplied once or twice during the growing season. Common materials used for mulching include:
Ideal for use as mulch, whether green or dry. Too thick a layer, however, will cause the clippings to mat together and reduce air flow. Use grass clippings in layers of an inch or less, or mix with other mulch material such as straw or leaves. Grass clippings can be interspersed with other mulches to prevent matting.
Can be a bit acidic for flower beds, but bark is commonly used for larger plantings, such as trees and shrubs. Lime can be added to reduce acidity if required. It is a common practice to first lay down a covering of landscape cloth, then apply the mulch over the top. When buying bark mulch, ask the supplier if there have been any reports of weed seeds in the bark which may sprout in your shrub beds.
A thick layer of leaves will help retain soil moisture and prevent root exposure and surface drying. Maple and Alder leaves are best, as they return nitrogen to the soil during decomposition. Large leaves, however, tend to mat together; they work best when dried and shredded. Some gardeners use a lawn mower to shred leaves before using as mulch. It is helpful to sprinkle some soil over the leaves to help them stay in place during windy weather. Leaf mulch will need to be renewed periodically, usually once a year.
Coarse sawdust works as a mulch, and the light color of sawdust helps reflect heat. Check the source of the sawdust – chainsaw sawdust contains oil. Sawdust from certain wood species, such as cedar, may be too acidic for good growing conditions. Avoid using thick layers of sawdust, as it tends to clump together and block air and nutrients.
A good light-coloured mulch, which will reflect heat away from the soil. Straw, as opposed to hay, contains fewer seeds which could sprout in your soil. Straw is commonly used as a mulch for vegetable crops, but is less commonly used to mulch shrubs because of its un-groomed appearance.
If you have access to seaweed, it makes an excellent mulch and soil additive. Seaweed shrinks considerably on drying, so use a thick layer and cover with grass clippings. This will retain moisture and reduce shrinkage of the seaweed, which can otherwise leave bare spots for weeds to poke through. Seaweed is also a deterrent to slugs. Some gardeners prefer to rinse seaweed before applying in order to reduce salt, but this is not usually required.
Plant in raised beds
Raised beds will not only look good by highlighting your plantings, they’ll provide a good edge barrier from the lawn, and a deterrent to ground pests. Raised beds will also contain your soil from erosion and make best use of your water and fertilizer.
Plant fewer varieties
A few varieties can make a big impact with less cost and effort. With many varieties, you’ll be preoccupied with the specific needs of individual plants. Keep it simple.
Keep flower beds narrow, but shrub beds wide
For flowers which need occasional tending, keep beds no wider than 3′ (1 meter), so it’s easy to reach the back of the bed. Even if you have room to work on the back side, it gets tedious going back and forth to work the bed. With shrubs however, make beds wider. Planting shrubs closely will minimize weeds, and the wider beds allow you to reduce lawn size. Use local or regionally adapted shrubs for lowest maintenance.
When planning how to reduce the size of your lawn, lawn shape should be considered. Maintenance can be reduced and simplified by designing the lawn areas in continuous, easy-to-mow swaths.
By eliminating corners, mowing becomes quicker and easier because you don’t have to back-up and go forward repeatedly. Corner areas can be replaced with shrub or flower plantings which bring visual appeal while helping reduce maintenance.
Although only about 25% of the original lawn area is given over to these plantings, the time and energy saved in cutting the lawn is almost 50%.
Continuous swaths, with no corners, will save you time when mowing. The narrow strip to the right of the driveway and the garage can be ground cover, bark mulch, gravel or a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant xeriscape.
“Islands” in the lawn, such as trees or flower beds will slow down the mowing; better to have one or two large islands than a number of smaller ones, particularly in a small area.
Trees will do better with bark mulch or ground cover planted beneath, as grass will compete with the tree roots for nutrients. Trees with low-lying branches can have ground cover planted beneath, so the person mowing doesn’t have to duck below the branches. Tree rings are available which separate the mulched area from the lawn and add visual appeal.
Trees in the lawn can have a wide skirting surrounding the base, using mulch, groundcover or native plants. A flagstone or brick border can be used to define the edge; set this border below the level of the lawn, so mowing is easy and no other trimming is required. This looks attractive and cuts down considerably on maintenance
Edges of the lawn can also be defined with inset flagstone, landscaping brick or slate. Set the edging below the level of the grass so the mower can go right over. This eliminates the need for edging. With careful planning, you can do without a weedeater for edging.
Large lawns and golf courses
Large lawns, and especially golf courses, require large amount of herbicides and chemical fertilizers to maintain their condition and appearance. The impact on the environment is considerable.
Recent experiments using organic compost have shown this method to be very promising. Generally, researchers and practitioners recognize that incorporating high-quality compost does several things:
- Adds food and nutrients for plants and organisms,
- Adds a diversity of organisms to the soil,
- Encourages plant growth promoting substances in soils.
For a detailed report on the science, application methods and results, read our article.
Plantings and supplies for lawn alternatives
Eco-Lawn: for a drought-resistant, low maintenance lawn
Eco-Lawn™ grows in full sun, part shade and even deep shade! Eco-Lawn™ is highly drought tolerant once established, and has a beautiful green colour. Eco-Lawn™ does not require fertilizing.
Corn gluten: a natural alternative to 'weed n feed' products
Looking for a non-toxic way to kill weeds in your lawn? Corn gluten acts as a natural “pre-emergent” – it inhibits seed germination by drying out a seed as soon as it cracks open to sprout.Corn gluten is safe, effective and even adds nitrogen to your soil.
Visit our page on corn gluten for more information.
Milky spore: long-lasting, natural control for lawn grubs
Produced to USDA standards, Milky Spore is the safest material ever developed for control over the larvae (grubs) of Japanese Beetles. Milky Spore is not harmful to beneficial insects, birds, bees, pets, or people. It is safe to use around wells.
Compost tumblers: sealed composting units
Compost tumblers make compost from kitchen, yard, and garden waste in as little as 13 days. The fully sealed system is also ideal for urban gardens and homes with small yards.
Visit our composter page for more information.