Eight Alternatives to a Traditional Grass Lawn
For many American homeowners, a lush, well-manicured lawn is equated with success and rooted in traditionalism, which makes it easy to overlook or simply accept its many drawbacks. At the end of the day, grass requires a great deal of maintenance, which often includes chemical treatments and large volumes of water. "Grass is an example of a monoculture," explains Bedford, New York, landscape architect Matthew Bromley of Bromley Landscape Design. "It's one type of plant and it's taking up a tremendous amount of space on a property. Monocultures are bad because we're not developing soil microbes and giving birds and other insects the right food to eat."
Alternative options, such as ground cover, meadows, and fruit forests, are more beneficial to our ecosystem, lower maintenance, and beautiful to boot. But fear not: Simply incorporating even one grass alternative will yield positive results, says Bromley, which include cooling the local environment, providing shelter to wildlife, and filtering out dust and pollutants from the air. Below, Bromley walks us through his top grass alternatives suitable for regions throughout the country.
"Ground cover is any low-growing plant you can walk on," says Bromley, which includes sedum, clover, creeping thyme, corsican mint, and chamomile, among others. Bromley recommends mixing varieties of differing hues for an eye-catching look, but you can also opt for a single variety in one hue and still make a dramatic statement.
Meadows are composed of a variety of low-maintenance native grasses that are interspersed with wildflower seeds or wildflower plugs. "Native grasses provide an incredible ecosystem for bugs that birds eat," says Bromley, noting that these grasses are not monocultures. Meadows can be designed with mowed paths for walking or left un-mowed for a more naturalistic look. Another perk? They are more resistant to weeds, pests, and fungus.
Moss is a low-maintenance grass alternative that is ideal for properties that receive ample shade and moisture. Pair this fuzzy covering with gravel for a charming visual display or leave the bed on its own—either way, you'll never have to worry about taking out your mower. "There are many varieties of moss that are hearty enough to walk on," says Bromley, making it versatile for properties with foot traffic.
Similar to the ground covers previously listed, herb gardens are an alternative to traditional grass that offer medicinal and culinary purposes depending on what is planted. "Herbs can be grown in large swaths or more defined areas," says Bromley. "And they grow at different heights and in a variety of beautiful shades of green."
"Espalier fruit trees, or berries in shrub form, provide an immense amount of food for birds, are edible [for humans], and are beautiful," says Bromley.
A popular alternative for homeowners in the South and Southwest, rain gardens are dry areas consisting of stone, ground cover, and low-lying shrubs that fill with water during rainfall. The collected water is absorbed by the surrounding plants before receding.
"An assortment of plants and shrubs that are planted with the purpose of feeding you or improving your health," explains Bromley, examples of which include medicinal herbs, fruit trees, and shrubs that yield berries. "Space that was previously taken up by a dormant monoculture is now being put to work to produce food for the family."
In recent years, explains Bromley, artificial turf has come a long way from the unattractive options historically on the market. "There are brands now making artificial turf that filter water, look real, and feel soft," he explains, noting that this option is particularly appealing to residents in the South and Southwestern regions; there, grassy lawns require exorbitant amounts of water and chemicals to maintain. "While it may seem counterintuitive to put a plastic-based product down, you're getting the opportunity to reduce the amount of chemicals and labor used," he adds.