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Turf Alternatives–Going Green Without the Grass

Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: June 27, 2022
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This recently-planted tapestry lawn demonstrates the rich variety of color, texture, and scent that turf alternatives can offer. (Image: Solstice2015 via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Re-thinking your lawn? You’re not alone. Homeowners across America are looking to improve the environment, starting with their own backyard. Whether you want a lower maintenance walking surface, a pollinator-friendly green space, or an edible landscape, there are dozens of turf alternatives to choose from. 

Abbreviated history of lawns

The word lawn originates from the Old French word “lande,” which could refer to a heath, moor, barren land, or clearing; but the concept has a longer history. Man first began to appreciate expanses of grass tens of thousands of years ago in the ancient African plains, where the low savannah grasses allowed primitive peoples to spot danger from a distance. 

By the 13th century, man had begun to cultivate and maintain lawns through grazing animals or manual harvest. 

Along with this manicured turf, various team sports emerged in England — including cricket, croquet, golf and soccer — making the lawn so prized an amenity that when people immigrated to America and other countries, they carried grass seed with them. 

Yet lawns were too labor intensive for common folks to maintain. They became more of a status symbol — a tidy and flattering setting for the homes of the very wealthy. The average family used their land for more practical purposes like growing food.

The invention of the mechanical lawn mower made it easier for the average family to keep a lawn. (Image: Simmons Hardware Company via Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

Things changed in 1830 when the English inventor Edward Beard Budding introduced the first mechanical mower. Before the end of the century, this time-saving device was widely available and affordable. 

Along with lower costs and greater accessibility of food products that came with the industrial revolution, the mower paved the way for lawns to become a common phenomenon, eventually evolving into something almost universally expected.  

Why lawns aren’t so great after all

Lawns continue to be a status symbol today — they are high-maintenance, unproductive luxuries. 

Ancient wisdom has always advised that man live in harmony with nature; but maintaining a lawn goes precisely against nature. The most fastidious lawn-keepers aim to maintain a pristine carpet of pure grass — a feat that requires herbicides, excessive mowing, and frequent watering — taxing the ecosystem and poisoning our pollinators. 

Turf grasses are thirsty species that require high maintenance. Swapping in some native flowering plants for pollinators can benefit both the environment and your pocketbook. (Image: Anton via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

With increased awareness of a host of environmental concerns, including a decline in insect populations, water conservation, chemical pollution, and reduced wildlife habitat, the tides are gradually turning. 

Plenty of people are looking for more earth-friendly ways to maintain their property, and various turf alternatives are becoming more acceptable. Still, many residential areas require a certain standard of tidiness, so it’s not always easy to simply swap out the grass.

Turf alternatives

Depending on your situation and your sense of aesthetics, there are a number of different routes you could take, all leading towards a “greener” yard. 

You can return to the “cottage garden” tradition, by utilizing your space for productive purposes; go all out for nature, selecting only native plants to sustain pollinators and wildlife; maintain a low, uniform, green carpet with any number of alternatives to the standard, high maintenance turf grass; or chip away slowly at your lawn with any of the above methods.

The edible landscape

The edible landscape has much appeal, for the potential of produce keeps us interested and actively involved. While some will choose to sacrifice the flat lawn for a veritable vegetable garden, there are actually a number of low-growing edibles that can allow for the best of both worlds. 

Wild strawberries are a fun turf alternative. The beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) and Virginia strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) are low-growing perennials that spread via runners, producing small, edible fruits. They are ideal for a sunny, but not active, yard; although the beach strawberry can take some foot traffic.

Dead nettle is a durable, aggressive, and edible ground cover. (Image: AnRo0002 via Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

A surprising number of “weeds” are not only edible, but also incredibly nutritious. Although they are most often seen as enemies of the lawn, plants like dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), purslane (Portulaca oleracea), and the herbaceous plantain (Plantago spp) have both nutritional and medicinal value.

Herbs like common oregano (Origanum vulgare) and creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) are ideal for an aromatic carpet. Depending on the variety you choose, you could have a magnificent floral display as well. 

Natives for nature

While many of our favorite ground covers come from Europe or Asia, the limited natives that we do have cover a broad spectrum. Between sun-loving succulents to shade-tolerant evergreens, you will likely find something to suit your needs.

Moss campion grows in a compact mound that, when it is not in flower, closely resembles moss. (Image: Andrew Bossi via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5)

Moss campion (Silene acaulis) is common in high altitude areas of western North America, where conditions are harsh and soils are anything but rich. Ideal for sunny, rocky areas, these resilient plants grow in small, tight mounds, exhibiting a mass of small flowers for a brief few weeks during the summer. Most of the time, they resemble mounds of actual moss.

Another native known for its tolerance of poor conditions is a genus of succulents called Sedum. This genus includes many native species, in a variety of shapes and colors. They do best in full sun and can tolerate some drought. Sedum can take some trampling, but is best in an area of low traffic.

A great choice for a shaded area is the common blue violet (Viola sororia). This adaptable perennial can take sun or shade, will tolerate poor soils, is deer resistant, and also edible! One reason that lawn lovers dislike them is that the lovely flower will set seeds and self-sow readily; yet these plants provide valuable forage for our native pollinators, like the mining bee.

For an evergreen look, consider wintergreen (genus Gaultheria). This shade-tolerant ground cover is native to eastern North America, and prefers moist, acidic soil. Its sturdy foliage can be trod upon, and its red berries are edible.

Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is a low-growing groundcover that offers an abundance of showy flowers. Native to the Appalachian mountain region, this sun-loving perennial will tolerate drought after it is established, spreading readily by setting roots at stem nodes that touch the ground. They attract hummingbirds and butterflies, but are resistant to deer.

Best choices for pollinators

After the early blue to pink flowers fade, the sturdy, spotted foliage of lungwort still serves as an attractive turf alternative. (Image: Krzysztof Golik via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) is an early flowering perennial that can provide one of the first sources of nectar in the spring. Its 10-12 inch speckled foliage is tough and somewhat prickly, similar to that of its cousins comfrey and borage. This groundcover is shade tolerant, deer tolerant, and spreads readily.

Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) is probably the best option if you want to keep a lawny look. This nitrogen-fixing perennial can be mowed, and mixed with native grasses for a “greener” emerald carpet. It will grow in most conditions, flower continuously through the season, and bees love it.

Rock cress growing at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (Image: ideonexus via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

Alyssum is a genus in the brassica family that includes over 100 species of flowering, short-lived perennials and self-sowing annuals. The small plants make a compact and showy groundcover that will attract a variety of pollinators with their white, yellow, pink, or purple flowers.

Rock cress (Arabis spp) is another genus in the brassica family with many species of heavily flowering ground covers. The flowers and leaves of this spectacular mat are edible and can be used much like watercress. As the name implies, it likes rocky soil with perfect drainage.

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Marsh marigolds are vigorous growers in early spring with bountiful attractive flowers for pollinators, but use care in handling them. The plants are poisonous and can cause a rash. (Image: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) are a heavy-blooming spring flower that thrives in wet areas. The bright yellow flowers of this self-sowing perennial attract a wide variety of pollinators, including honey bees, butterflies and moths.

Last but not least, English Ivy (Hedera helix) is an ultra-tough creeping vine that has a surprisingly attractive flower — for a variety of insects, anyway. While it has a tendency to climb, it can also be used as an evergreen groundcover. Its subtle flowers provide late-season pollen and nectar, and later produce fruit suitable for winter foraging birds.

Getting started

If you don’t have a clear vision of your ideal anti-lawn, look at this as an ongoing experiment. Try reducing your lawn bit by bit. Smothering a patch with cardboard and compost will save you the work of digging out grass, while at the same time, provide valuable organic matter to nurture your turf alternatives.

Try a handful of new plants each year, and see what works for you. Let this be a fun learning adventure. Enjoy tending and observing your new green companions, and know that the earth is a little better for your effort.

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