Top Low-Maintenance Grass Alternatives for Your Backyard
Have you considered using a grass alternative? For many of us in North America, grass is our default planting. If we can’t figure out what to do with an outdoor space, we plant grass, for grass, we assume, can grow anywhere.
But turfgrass is simply not the best planting for many sites. It needs mowing, it needs water, it wants fertilizer, and many types don’t like shade — it’s pretty picky stuff. It takes a lot of work, water, and fertilizer to keep a lawn looking good.
Fortunately, there are a number of lawn alternatives that require less work and less water, and many demand far less fertilizer. Some such as stonecrops are perfectly happy on dry stony slopes that would defeat any grass; some, like the mosses, actually prefer the damp shade under trees where grass grows only reluctantly.
So if you’re looking for more information on the right grass alternative for your backyard, this article sorts them by type to help narrow down the options to find the right low-maintenance lawn alternatives that’ll suit your needs.
Why Plant Grass Alternatives Instead of Turf Grass?
Mosses, thymes, yarrow, chamomile, and others perform most of the functions that turf-grass does: you can mow them, walk on them, barbeque on them, whatever.
The mosses and thymes, of course, don’t even need mowing. Most are not as tough as grass and won’t stand up to soccer games, but in areas that don’t get a lot of traffic, they make a lovely and low-stress alternative to turfgrass.
Plus, freshwater might seem like an abundant resource, but EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has stated that only 1 percent of water is actually available for our use. And considering 30% of it is used for irrigating, this is becoming a growing problem that we should tackle together with better alternatives.
Grass alternatives are generally also great habitats for pollinators that help our ecosystem. And if you follow our guide and plant the right alternative for your climate, it’ll reduce the need for excess fertilizers and harsh chemicals which all help our environment.
If you can make the mental leap to a mixed lawn, they can help to keep lawns green and lovely without the fertilizer and water required by grass.
Are Grass Alternatives Worth the Investment?
Getting rid of all the grass even in a small area and installing a new, different, planting can be a major undertaking of course but in most cases, the investment will pay off within a season.
If you’ve chosen well and cared for the new plantings in their tender youth, they’ll do far better, and therefore look better, than struggling grass.
This article shares some of the top grass alternatives, suitable for areas where grass either requires more than its share of resources (in time, money, water, amendments, you name it) to do well or where it refuses to flourish no matter what you do.
If you get interested in planting an alternative under trees, under pines, or on a boulevard that bakes in the sun all day, there are more complete lists, and more resources available, both online and probably at your public library as well. Check out the partial list under Sources and Resources on this site.
Top Grass Alternatives by Type
Ornamental grasses differ from turfgrasses in that they’re not meant to be mown. Instead, they grow into distinctive shapes — tufts, sprays, and stands, or flowing, shimmering sweeps. Instead of drooping, many species remain upright and attractive through cold weather and even in snow (see Landscaping with Native Grasses).
Many ornamentals are bunch or clump grasses, meaning that their roots don’t put out rhizomes or stolons (horizontal shoots which can start new plants) but depend on seeds to reproduce. (See Creeping vs. Bunch Grasses on this site.)
Clump grasses used in turf, such as fescues, can blend together into a smooth, continuous surface, but ornamentals tend to produce tight, well-defined bunches. An individual grass plant does get gradually larger as new shoots grow around the base of the parent plant, but each individual, one might say, retains its integrity.
Turf grasses generally get mown before going to seed, but ornamentals are another story and have gained a reputation for being invasive. However, many believe that most problems with invasiveness occur when the problem plants are not suited to their new environment.
Take a non-invasive prairie grass, give it a longer season or too much water, and suddenly you’ll have something quite different, and probably unwelcome, all over your yard.
Some of the worst offenders, like ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinancea), are in fact running grasses, not bunch grasses. (Running grasses are also known as “creeping” grasses, but in the case of ribbon grass, “running” appears to be more accurate.) Frequently chosen because it spreads so rapidly, ribbon grass is extremely difficult to control and often turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth.
How to Manage Ornamental Grasses
The clumping grasses can be kept in check in several ways. The first and most important is to buy a grass appropriate for your region, and to tend it so that it will not produce excessive seeds.
Don’t over-water, and don’t grow a cool-season grass in a warm season district, or you may have problems. Native grasses almost always work well.
When you set the grasses, plant them through professional-grade weed barrier, which you can then cover with mulch. The fabric will keep out weeds and seeds — including those of the grasses. This won’t keep seeds from drifting on the wind, but it makes all the difference in the immediate vicinity.
Finally, the coup de grass for seedy invaders: buy a sterile strain that can’t spread — no matter how many seeds it produces.
Shade Loving Grass Alternatives
In lower, cooler areas, moss can make a beautiful groundcover. It is not as resilient as most grasses, but it’s certainly able to withstand occasional foot traffic.
You can establish a moss bed by setting plugs (small pieces of moss complete with roots) into soil about six inches apart and keeping them damp. If you’ve selected the site well, the mosses will spread until they form a solid surface, often within one growing season.
There are a number of different mosses, of varying textures and thickness, which can suit a range of purposes and appearances. Moss is also used in environment-friendly roofs where it provides insulation and moisture run off.
It seems odd to recommend what’s commonly regarded as a pernicious weed, but this member of the mint family can make a lovely, thick ground cover in areas of partial shade. It has small, pale blue or lilac-colored flowers, and it needs no mowing, fertilizing, or watering.
Also known as ground ivy, gill-on-the-ground, creeping jenny, catsfoot (from the shape of the leaves), alehoof, and tunhoof (from the practice of using it to preserve and clarify beer), it has been employed as a medicinal herb for centuries.
David Beaulieu, landscape and garden writer (see Creeping Charlie: Wild Groundcover), from whom much of the information above is derived, points out that “when a plant has this many nicknames, you can be pretty sure of two things: it’s widespread, and people interacted with it in a number of ways over a long period of time.”
Note: Because it spreads so willingly and can be so difficult to remove, it’s best to put it in a contained spot, surrounded by a wide and impermeable border.
Snow-on-the-Mountain, Lily-of-the-Valley, Sweet Woodruff
All three of these perennial shade-loving groundcovers require little by way of watering or other care and form a dense weed-resistant canopy of leaves and flowers.
They are therefore excellent choices for those narrow passageways between a path and the north side of a garage, for instance, where you want something that looks planted, not accidental, but where you do not want the bother of mowing, much less fertilizing, aerating, and so on.
If you want to learn more about Sweet Woodruff (hint: there are more reasons to love it), then keep reading till the end of this article!
Sun Loving Grass Alternatives
Several varieties of creeping thyme will form dense, ground-level mats in sunny or partly-sunny locations. Their tiny-leaved foliage varies in color from bright green to bluish or grey-green, but when they flower, they can appear as a carpet of pink or lavender.
Known as “walkable” groundcovers, they tolerate a low to moderate foot traffic level, spread easily, and will grow over or around flagstones, so they are ideal plantings in paths.
Red creeping thyme is one of the most popular varieties and is loved by homeowners for its beautiful red blooms. It’s also very drought-tolerant. Thyme generally spreads easily, requires less water than grass, and is hardy all the way north to zone 4 if it’s healthy.
Check out our complete guide to growing this attractive, drought-resistant herb instead of grass for further information.
Not only is chamomile a great low-maintenance alternative, but it’s also stunning to look at with its pleasant, delicate scent that releases with every step.
It’s known to spread quickly and absolutely loves direct or partial sunlight. Chamomile is also a great source of nitrogen for the soil and enriches itself and the plants around it.
However, it’s important to note that certain varieties can be toxic to plants, so keep that in mind when choosing the right variety for your yard.
Low Water Ground Covers
Clover is another great nitrogen-fixing alternative that’s really affordable as well! It does best in poor soil, so even if you have low or below-average soil in your backyard, you can rest assured that clover will work well there.
Micro-clover is a relatively newer variety and is an ideal alternative to grow alongside a traditional grass lawn since it’s low-growing and doesn’t flower often. This also makes it a good choice if you’re looking to avoid pollinators such as bees, yet want a great ground cover.
Dutch White Clover, on the other hand, features beautiful, intricate white flowers and is commonly spotted in meadows and fields around the US.
It’s highly drought-resistant and one of the most durable grass alternatives out there that can be used on its own for a non-traditional lawn without any grass at all. Due to its low-maintenance qualities, it requires little watering and mowing.
But, it also attracts wildlife such as deer, so that may or may not be a good thing depending on your preferences. For those that want to see more wildlife activity on their property, Dutch Clover is a great choice.
I have yet to see this delightful late spring and fall bloomer listed as a ground cover, perhaps because it has such tall and showy flowers (nearly 2-inches across), but it certainly acts like one, at least in our Rocky Mountain backyard.
Spreads by creeping rhizomes and tolerates a variety of soil conditions, partial shade to sun, and dry soil. Also known as windflower, it is an excellent choice for rock gardens and wooded areas. Hardy in zones 4-9.
Note: Anemone plants are poisonous if consumed in large quantities.
Stonecrops, which include a number of the many sedums, vary widely. Some of the several species of stonecrop have succulent foliage that ranges from green through yellow to red. Flowers, too, range in height, showiness, and color.
Those native to the Rocky Mountains, include several low-growing species that tolerate poor, stony soil, hot, dry, summers, very cold winters, typically alkaline western dirt, or the more acidic soils under open pine trees.
While some varieties grow several inches tall and would be crushed by footsteps, others grow almost flush to the ground.
White Nancy, Pink Nancy, Anemone, Stonecrop
All of these perennials grow in partial shade under open pines, as long as they’re watered occasionally in the heat of summer (see Planting Under Pine Trees).
White and pink Nancy have mounding foliage that appears grey or silver-green, an impression created by white spots on the leaves. The flowers reach above the leaves in small bunches or clusters that appear first in early summer; the plants can continue to flower on and off through the season depending on conditions. They’re hardy in zones 3-8.
Sweet Woodruff is an edible herb and tastes somewhat similar to vanilla. Not only does it require little maintenance (that means no mowing!), but its beautiful white flowers add an interesting texture to any landscape.
Fortunately, it’s also weed-resistant naturally as it forms a dense canopy of leaves and flowers to smother new weeds from growing.
You want to make your lawns and landscapes — the places where your children play — as safe as possible. Our selection of safe, effective lawn care products — from fertilizers to weed killers — will guarantee you’ve created the healthiest and best-kept outdoor environment possible.
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