Creating a Landscape Without Grass- horticulturist and gardening expert
January 30, 2021
Whether you love or hate them, or maybe a bit of both; lawns are a reality for many homeowners. They provide space for outdoor recreation while creating pathways and connectivity in the landscape. We have tips to help you minimize maintenance and maximize results when growing a traditional lawn. But if you are tired of mowing, looking to increase pollinator appeal, struggling to grow lawn grass, or just want a change there are alternatives to a neatly manicured lawn.
Replacing grass with the right plants suited to the growing conditions, your gardening style and landscape design can reduce time and resources that were once needed to maintain lawn grass. In addition to saving you time and money, lawn alternatives can help improve water quality by reducing or eliminating the need for chemicals and helping to manage rainwater where it falls.
Don’t think this is just an all-or-nothing alternative to growing grass. Creating any major change in the landscape is usually best done in smaller segments. You will have to spend time and money during the transition period but the goal is less maintenance, fertilizer, and pesticides in the long run.
Start with areas where grass is struggling or places that are hard to mow. We often try to grow lawn grass when a groundcover or other planting would be better suited to the growing conditions. Not only will you resolve an ongoing problem but save time and money spent trying to force grass to grow where it can not thrive.
As you implement these smaller changes you can expand to larger areas and if desired eliminate turf grass from your landscape. Implementing this change over a period of time allows you to properly establish new plantings, evaluate their effectiveness and make adjustments along the way.
Apply all your good gardening and lawn care skills when replacing grass with other plants. Select the right plant for the growing conditions, your gardening goals, and landscape design. Prepare the soil for planting, provide sufficient water to establish the new planting, and of course manage weeds. Once established these traditional grass alternative will need less on-going maintenance.
How to Replace the Lawn
Once you decide to make the change you have several options. Some alternatives like clover can be overseeded into your existing lawn. For others, you need to remove or kill the existing grass before planting seeds, plugs (small transplants), or container-grown plants.
Let’s start with removing the existing lawn. Mark the area you plan to convert. Use paint, rope, or mower to mark the perimeter. Edge the area with a sharp shovel or edger. This slows the surrounding plants from encroaching into the area you are converting.
Now you’re ready to start removing the existing grass and preparing the soil. You have several options for this step of the process. Use a shovel, sod cutting tool, or consider renting a power sod cutter for larger areas to physically remove the existing grass. Use these pieces of sod to fill in bare areas of your or other's lawns. Or compost it, grass side down to create a useful soil amendment.
I used pieces of sod from one of my projects to create raised beds for my garden. The sod was placed green side down and stacked several layers high in the fall. Milorganite was sprinkled between layers and the raised beds were covered with clear plastic to speed decomposition and kill any grass, weeds, and their seeds. By the time spring arrived the beds were ready for planting.
Or kill the existing plants with a total vegetation killer. Wait a couple of weeks and make a second application if new green growth appears. Managing unwanted grass and weeds before planting will increase your success and reduce time spent weeding as your lawn alternative becomes established. Always read and follow the label directions whether using synthetic or organic pesticides.
Try smothering the existing lawn if you prefer not to use chemicals and are unable to remove the sod. Mow the grass as short as possible and cover with newspaper or cardboard and several inches of woodchips. Start in spring if you want to plant in fall or a year later. You can also use plastic. Black plastic smothers the grass and weeds while clear plastic solarizes the soil killing plants and many of the seeds. There are some plastics you can purchase that provide both benefits. This method takes time but minimizes the risk of soil erosion.
Once the grass is dead or removed you need to decide if you should amend the soil. Tilling in compost can improve drainage in heavy soil and increase water-holding ability in fast-draining soils. But it also brings weed seeds closer to the surface for sprouting and increases the risk of soil erosion. A soil test is a good place to start. This will tell what if any fertilizer is needed for the lawn grass alternative you plan on growing. If your lawn was healthy, you probably won’t need to do much if anything to start the process.
A few Alternative to Traditional Lawns
No Mow Grass
A lawn of No Mow grass may be an easier transition for the lawn enthusiast in the family and your neighbors. This blend of bunch-forming and creeping fescues was originally developed by Prairie Nursery as a sustainable alternative to traditional lawn grass mixes. The mix of six slow-growing fescues provides drought resistance, ability to thrive in low nitrogen soils, foot traffic tolerance, weed resistance, and ability to recover from damage.
You can grow No Mow grass where other cool-season grasses like bluegrass are grown. In the transition zone where cool and warm-season grasses are used avoid growing it in areas prone to high temperatures and droughty conditions. It prefers full sun to partial shade with reasonably well-draining soil including dry sandy sites. No need to fertilize and established No Mow lawns only need watering during extended dry periods.
Plant seeds in mid-August to mid-September for best results. Early to mid-spring is the next best time to plant this grass blend. Plant No Mow like you would other lawn grass seed or into dead sod using a mechanical seeder. This is a great option for slopes and other areas susceptible to erosion.
Allow No Mow grass to form a soft dense meadow-like stand of grass. Some homeowners mow once in spring at 4” height to remove the flowers. A late fall mowing, around Thanksgiving, allows you to manage fall leaves while cutting back the grass. Mulch or bag the leaves when cutting the grass down to 1-2” tall for winter. This exposes the soil promoting thicker growth next year
If you prefer a more manicured look mow the grass 5 to 6” tall once a month. Don’t cut it any shorter than 3.5 to 4”.
Mow new plantings at 4” when biennial weeds appear. This helps the fescues crowd out unwanted plants while the No Mow lawn becomes established.
Warm-season buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides) may provide a viable alternative, especially for those currently growing traditional warm-season lawn grasses. It is native to the North American Great Plains. This slow-growing drought-tolerant grass needs minimal mowing and can be left unmown at 4 to 6” tall. Full sun and well-drained soil are a must for this grass. It is very slow to establish. You’ll need lots of time and effort to grow a buffalograss lawn from seed, especially if you live in cooler parts of the country.
This warm-season grass looks best during the warmer months of the year turning brown and going dormant after the first hard fall frost. New turf-type varieties are available with darker green leaves that are shorter and form denser stands that are better able to keep out the weeds. Homeowners growing these newer buffalograss varieties find that their lawn can remain green and attractive with as much as 50-75 percent less irrigation than Kentucky bluegrass in the summer. These varieties also require less frequent mowing and only need to be fertilized once or twice a year.
Starting buffalograss from seed is labor-intensive. Sod is easier but more expensive. And whether you seed, use plugs or sod, buffalograss you will need to be watered as much as a newly planted bluegrass lawn. The benefits come once the buffalograss lawn is established.
Plant in spring when soil temperatures are 55 degrees or warmer. Seeding too late in the season may result in seedlings being killed during winter. Dormant seeding allows you to spread the seed in winter where it remains in place until the soil is warm enough for germination to occur.
With warm and consistently moist soil seeds will sprout in 7 to 21 days. Fertilize with Milorganite two to three weeks after the seedlings appear and again 6 weeks later. Once all the seeds have sprouted water less often. Wait a couple of days after watering to cut the grass. Occasionally mowing new plantings encourages denser growth.
Plant buffalograss plugs 12 to 18” apart in properly prepared soil after the last spring frost and at least 6 weeks prior to the first fall frost. Keep the soil moist even if the newly planted plugs turn brown. Once the roots are established they will green up as long as they received sufficient moisture. Fertilize with Milorganite at planting and again 6 to 7 weeks later. Plugs can completely cover the area in six to 12 weeks as long as they receive proper care.
Sod can be difficult to locate and is more expensive than traditional lawn grass sod. But is the quickest and easiest way to establish a buffalograss lawn. Prepare the soil as you would for any sod project and keep it moist while the buffalograss’ roots being to grow into the soil below. The grass may turn brown for a few weeks until new roots develop. Just like the plugs, continue to water even though the newly ladi sod looks dead.
Native sedges resemble grass but are a more sustainable lawn alternative when matched to the right growing conditions. Most tolerate shade with some preferring moist soil and others exhibiting good drought tolerance once established. Three of the more commonly used are Pennsylvania, Clustered Field and Pacific Dune sedges.
Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica) is native to thickets and dry woodlands in North America. You may have noticed it growing in grass-like clumps when hiking through the woods. It grows 8” tall in cascading tufts that spread 3 to 6” per year by rhizomes (underground stems that resemble roots) and forms seed when the growing conditions are ideal.
This sedge is perfect for those shady areas where traditional lawn grasses won’t grow. It makes a great option for a grass-like groundcover under trees. Pennsylvania sedge prefers dry shade but will tolerate heavy shade and wet soils. Once established, it is drought tolerant.
You never have to mow it if you like a more natural appearance. Or cut it back to 2”, 2 to 3 times per year for a more turf like appearance.
It is difficult to start this plant from seed. Instead, plant plugs 6 to 12” apart in properly prepared soil. Keep the soil moist until the plugs root into the soil below and begin to grow. With proper care, your new sedge lawn will cover the area by the end of the second season.
For sunnier locations consider Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis). It is a popular native grass being used for meadows and natural lawns. Native to wetlands, meadows, shorelines, and stream banks it is somewhat drought tolerant once established. It requires less water than traditional lawn grasses but will go dormant in dry weather if not watered. It forms loose clumps, spreads by rhizomes, and tolerates full to part sun, heavy soil, poor drainage, and salty conditions. Moderately tolerant to foot traffic it makes a family and pet-friendly alternative. Allow it to grow into a meadow or mow to 3 to 4” tall for a more turf like appearance
Like Pennsylvania sedge, it is easier and usually planted as plugs or container-grown plants. Space plugs on 10” centers and keep the soil moist until plants are established. The vigorous rhizomes can encroach into surrounding garden beds so remove as needed and install edging to slow the invasion.
Pacific dune grass (Carex pansa) is similar in appearance and also being used as a meadow or lawn grass. This creeping sedge can be found growing along the Pacific coast in sand dune swales and meadows near the shore. It prefers full sun to part shade and tolerates a wide range of growing conditions from sandy to clay soil, hot temperatures and moderate foot traffic.
Left unmown it resembles a meadow growing 8 to 10” tall. The deep green leaves are evergreen in all but cold climates. Mowing it 2 to 4 times per year to 3 to 4” tall keeps it healthy and looking more like a traditional lawn. You will need to water occasionally during dry weather to keep the plants green and growing. Otherwise they will go dormant until better growing conditions return.
You can start a Pacific Dune grass lawn from seed but it is slow to emerge and weeds can be a problem especially without sufficient water. You will have greater success with plugs that are generally more available. Plant plugs 6 to 12” apart in winter or spring, provide sufficient moisture, fertilizer and you should have a lawn by end of summer.
It is not surprising that clover is receiving so much attention these days. It provides a low maintenance alternative to traditional lawn grasses and supports pollinators. As a legume, it fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. This ability made it a popular nurse crop in grass seed mixes decades ago to support newly seeded lawns. But after WWII when herbicides became readily available, it soon was labeled as a weed that must be eradicated.
Many gardeners are rethinking the role of clover as a groundcover and lawn alternative. It grows in full sun to part shade, tolerates compacted soil, competes with weeds, adds nutrients to the soil, and resists pet urine damage. I’ve met a few hosta growers that add clover to their lawns as an alternative food for hosta loving rabbits.
Converting your lawn to 100% clover provides the greatest ecological benefits, eliminates mowing and fertilization but may not be practical or suitable for your situation. You need to kill the existing lawn, prepare the soil and provide proper post-planting care when establishing a clover lawn. Plus the bee attracting flowers may create an issue for some. Clover doesn’t tolerate heavy foot traffic, dies back to the ground in winter and may decline during extended periods of drought.
Your other option is to overseed your existing lawn with clover. Cut the existing lawn short. Mix the clover seed with sand, compost or soil to aid in the spreading of the seed and to ensure good seed-to-soil contact for adequate germination.
Clover seeds like other legumes are often inoculated with nitrogen-fixing bacteria before planting. This naturally occurring bacteria is often present in the soil in cooler regions where clover was present. The bacteria can remain in the soil for up to three. This is not the case in zone 8 and warmer regions. Seeds are inoculated to ensure there is a sufficient amount of the right bacteria to aid the clover’s ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil.
You can frost seed clover in early spring over undisturbed grass. The subsequent freeze-thaw cycles and snow help work the clover seeds into the soil. This method requires less effort. You can also plant later in the season but at least 40 days before the ground freezes. Planting later can expose young seedlings to frost heaving damage. As the soil freezes and thaws, it shifts damaging roots and pushing the young plants out of the soil. This is less of an issue when overseeding into an existing lawn. The established turf grass provides some protection for the new seedlings.
Leave clover lawns unmown for a pasture-like appearance. You can mow clover lawns or clover-grass lawns to 3” or higher throughout the growing season. Mowing at a taller height is good for both the clover and the lawn grass. Leave it at least 4” high for winter.
Clover is aggressive spreading by seed and shoots that root along the stems allowing it to creep into surrounding garden beds. Monitor the spread of clover and be prepared to contain it as needed.
These are just a few of the more common lawn grass alternatives. Moss and other groundcover plants may be an option for you. Take some time to evaluate the growing conditions and how you currently use your lawn area. Use this information as you do the research to find a suitable alternative to your traditional lawn. Your investment will save you time, money and frustration when making such a major change in your landscape.