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Lawn Alternatives

10 ideas for a lawnless garden

  • artificial turf The new artificial turf is a dead ringer for real lawn.
  • dry stream This simplified version of a dry stream helps to break this former lawn into smaller fields of gravel.
  • forest duff layer Beneath a canopy of trees few plants will grow, so there is no need to plant where the duff layer is sufficient.
  • lawn alternative Here the lawn was replaced by rigid fields of gravel and flagstone.
  • lawnless front garden Tile and decomposed granite turn a former front lawn into a small garden of drought resistant Mediterranean plants.
  • Parterre A simple parterre of boxwood turns a gravel yard into garden architecture.
  • potager This potager has been devoted to naturally drought resistant succulent plants.
  • prarie In a prairie, large perennial grasses blend into seas of wildflowers for a beautiful grassland habitat in lieu of lawn.
  • sward This sward of Asian ornamental grass needs no mowing and requires far less water than traditional turf.
  • wetland Using rock, grasses and low growing perennials, this naturalistic wetland drains into a small bog where horsetail reeds thrive.
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Water conservation and green living has begun a trend toward reducing or eliminating turf grass lawns. Though beautiful to look at and play upon, when the cost to maintain them exceeds the overall value, it's time to repurpose that ground. Though this message is everywhere, few realistic alternatives are proposed. To help you and your designer find the right use for this space, we've assembled the top ten ideas for repurposing your lawn or building a new lawnless landscape.

1. The four-square garden - Rome and IslamSome of the oldest European gardens feature a simple square of ground broken into four quadrants connected by an intersecting walkway. It is rooted in the four cardinal directions and references in holy books. The center may be a small or large paved space that traditionally held a fountain. The four planting zones may be filled with trees, flowers, herbs, vegetables and virtually any other attractive plant. This choice is ideal for highly visible yards of small urban or suburban homes.

2. Patterns on the land - English knots, French parterresIn medieval England, the knot garden evolved to grow herbs within castles where they are viewed from windows high above. Woody herbs and small shrubs of varying colors were planted to create a three dimensional pattern, often that of a Celtic knot. In France the vast flat lands surrounding châteaux were laid out in elaborate patterns known as parterres. These choices are ideal for multistory homes with grand views and flat land forms.

3. Potager - Integrated paving, paths and plotsThe potager evolved in France as a practical food and herb garden that covers a large area, criss crossed by walkways for access. Unlike knots and parterres, this garden is not a pattern but a variety of different sized plots linked by walkways. These are typically quite diverse and include overhead arbors for grapes and other food bearing plants. This scheme allows the most diversity of planting, from those species useful as food, medicine or for scent, as well as beautiful flowers and roses. This is an excellent option for average sized suburban yards.

4. Meadow and prairie - Nature's blended grasslandThroughout America there are various grassland plant communities that are specific to regions and climates. They are not just native grasses but are blended with perennial wildflowers too. Enormous tall grass prairies and sparse high elevation meadows each offer their own look and feel. Rather than a lawn, planting an all native meadow or prairie with locally native species is an ecologically beneficial alternative to mowed turf. This is a good alternative for very large rural properties, but it can be scaled down to small home sites just as easily.

5. Sward - Rough grassy space or irrigated pastureWhat makes the sward unique is its agricultural roots. This is a grassland not restricted to native species. Blended with perennial grasses are nutritious clovers and other wildlife friendly plants, it becomes a farm pasture for free range chickens, sheep, goats, and dogs. This makes a good play space for kids too. It may be mowed after flowering is over, or at season's end to remove chaff for winter. Such mowing should be done with the blade set very high so that the root crowns of the plants are not exposed. This is a super alternative for the small urban farmer or a family with animals and kids.

6. Dry stream bed - Art of using stone in a natural wayThe dry stream bed is vital to western landscapes where water is limited. It's also found in Asian garden design. This rendition of a natural dry wash in the deserts or mountains is composed of boulders, gravel and sand. It may contain reed-like plants to suggest the presence of water without it actually being there. Grasses also make a fine textured contrast for this arid landscape feature, nesting boulders to make them more natural. A dry stream bed can replace a narrow strip of lawn along the driveway or serve as a large focal point of a backyard. This is a good alternative to lawn after children move away or where water conservation is mandatory.

7. Forest floor - Shade plants and mulchBeneath the canopy of every forest lies ground covered in a layer of organic litter known as duff. This is a self sustaining condition that is a good alternative to clearing the trees to start a lawn. The organic matter creates an ideal condition for the trees, and where there is sufficient light coming through, clusters of ferns and shade loving plants become the understory. This is a good alternative for those who are building a new home in wooded areas or wish to make their wooded homesite more natural and low maintenance.

8. Artificial turf - A place for playThe undeniable beauty of turf grass lawn is still possible, but only if you consider artificial turf. It's come a long way since Astro Turf, and it is realistic enough to fool the eye of this professional more than once. Artificial turf makes the perfect surface for kids, pets and adults to play. It's also ideal for golfers and is immune to damage from foot traffic. This is proving a popular surface for pets and regions where extreme drought prevents most other plant oriented alternatives. This is a good alternative for virtually any home.

9. Outdoor living space - Repurposing space for grown up kidsEmpty nesters will find the turf grass yard that once served a family of kids no longer suits their adult needs. Rather than sell the house in a difficult market, redesign the yard to create an adult outdoor living space tailored to your entertaining goals. Lawn may be replaced with porous surfacing materials that reduce runoff, plus outdoor dining patios and perhaps even a kitchen. This is the most reasonable solution for an mpty nester who is retooling to prepare for the good life.

10. Bog or pond - Wet and wildThe beauty of a large water garden of blooming lilies is unmatched in landscape design. Plants and fish, plus the wildlife that is drawn to this mini habitat make a fine alternative to a former lawn. No other setting is more contemplative, and this wetland can make an eco-sensitive alternative to a high maintenance lawn. Where drainage is poor it can also become a very specialized type of garden that solves problems. This is the perfect alternative for anyone seeking a truly inspiring environment.

Contributing Author:

Maureen Gilmer, contributing writer for Landscaping Network, author and syndicated columnist

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