Lawns are grown from a variety of grass called turfgrass. Turfgrasses provide a dense grass mat that many people enjoy for its appearance and durability. Turfgrass lawns are also relatively inexpensive and easy to install. Despite these desirable characteristics, many people look for lawn alternatives because they are concerned about the environmental effects of growing and maintaining a lawn.
The traditional American lawn is a British import that thrives in the cloudy British Isles where regular watering is not required, but does not do as well in the variable U.S. climate. In Britain, land-owning gentry maintained their lawns with manual laborers or grazing sheep. Many Americans who became wealthy during the industrial revolution wanted the status symbol of a lawn and installed them on their estates. Then, In the mid-20th century, the lawn spread across the American landscape as middle-class Americans bought their own patches of land in the suburbs.
If you are an average American, you spend about a third of your annual water consumption on your lawn. You also regularly apply synthetic lawn fertilizers that contain nitrogen and phosphorus. These fertilizers pose a health risk to people, pets and wildlife. They also pollute our water systems as they run off into sewers, rivers and lakes.
Many lawn alternatives do not use our increasingly scarce water resource and do not require synthetic fertilizers. When you choose one of these alternatives, you can have a beautiful yard and help the environment at the same time. Often, the alternatives also require less work and expense to maintain.
Groundcovers: Plant the right ground cover in place of turfgrass and you can replace your lawn with a tough, low-maintenance drought-tolerant carpet. Many herbs, such as woolly thyme, make tough, fragrant substitute lawns. And some, such as woolly yarrow, flower seasonally providing added beauty that a lawn does not offer.
Edibles: Even in a small yard, you can grow fruit trees, berries, and seasonal vegetables. Some edibles make attractive year-round landscaping plants also, such as blueberry bushes or artichoke plants.
Native plants: Many cities now use native plants to landscape public areas, and are encouraging residents to use them also. Some people describe this trend as "naturescaping" as opposed to landscaping. When you use native plant landscaping, many concerns about lawns disappear. In natural settings, no one comes around to water and fertilize native plants because they have evolved to thrive in their natural settings.
Artificial turf: Roll out synthetic turf and you can have a green, low-maintenance lawn alternative in an afternoon. Many people have a negative response to this possibility. In fact, artificial turf is made from recycled plastics, requires no water, is soft and pleasant to lie on, allows rainwater to seep through, and requires no fertilizers or mowing.
For a successful transition to a living lawn alternative, you must select plants that will do well in your local climate. Your agricultural extension service or garden center can help you pick ground covers or native plants that will thrive in your area. Many local utilities are also providing plant selection guidelines to encourage residents to plant drought-tolerant species.