Grass Alternatives for a More Eco-Friendly Lawn

For some people, their perfectly manicured lawn is a point of pride. But having the greenest grass on the block can come at a high cost.

“Every year across the country, lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water, 200 million gallons of gas (for all that mowing), and 70 million pounds of pesticides,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

That’s why many people are turning away from high-maintenance turf grass and moving toward other groundcover for their lawns. Although the best options depend on your particular environment and community regulations, here are some grass alternatives for a more eco-friendly lawn that will still inspire neighborhood envy.

Groundcover

Groundcover plants spread but stay low to the ground, so they don’t require mowing or much other maintenance at all. Some varieties can tolerate foot traffic, but most aren’t meant to be walked on. That makes them easy-care options for low-traffic areas of your yard.

These plants not only enhance the aesthetic beauty of your yard, but they also can fill in areas where traditional grass can’t grow and control soil erosion and weeds, according to the University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center. They’re also ideal around buildings “to reduce heat, glare, noise, and dust.”

It’s best to use an edge barrier for groundcover plants to keep them where you want them, as some tend to spread pretty invasively. As long as you pick the right plant for your area and follow the care instructions, you should have a relatively easy time getting it to take hold and grow.

Here are some examples of groundcover plants commonly used to replace traditional turf grass.

Clover

There might already be some clover popping up on your lawn from nearby natural areas. If that’s the case, don’t be so fast to pull it. “Dutch clover is a familiar face in meadows and lawns and actually makes a terrific lawn replacement,” DIY Network says. “The deep green plants withstand normal foot traffic, but aren’t an ideal choice for a heavy traffic area, like a play area beneath a swing set.” Clover is both heat and drought tolerant and withstands mowing. In fact, microclover is gaining popularity as a plant to blend with traditional turf grass for a thicker, more weed-resistant lawn.

Creeping phlox

Purple creeping phlox groundcoverCredit: MaYcaL/Getty Images

If creeping phlox is right for your climate, you’re in for a colorful groundcover. “Native to rocky and sandy areas of the Appalachian region, these beauties bloom in April or May,” the DIY Network says. “… Plus, its foliage is evergreen and its typically hardy in Zones 3 to 9, making it a great year-round groundcover for most gardeners.” And as an added bonus, these plants are both resistant to deer and droughts.

Creeping thyme

You might use thyme in your kitchen, but this herb also makes an effective groundcover in the garden. “The fragrant herb comes in a variety of cultivars that typically grow anywhere from 3 to 6 inches high with dozens and dozens of small, delicate flowers,” HGTV says. It’s good for dry soil and even rock gardens. And it’s tough enough for some foot traffic. Plus, thyme is known to repel mosquitoes and some other pests.

Monkey grass

Liriope muscari groundcoverCredit: seven75/Getty Images

Monkey grass comes in many varieties and goes by several names, including lilyturf, liriope, mondo grass and snakesbeard, according to Gardening Know How. Whatever you call it, it’s a popular groundcover for a reason. “Monkey grass is easy to care for, it’s heat and drought tolerant, and it’s extremely hardy, growing in many types of soil and surviving under numerous conditions,” Gardening Know How says. “This thick ground cover resists weed invasions, is rarely affected by pests and diseases, requires little or no fertilizing and performs effectively wherever it’s needed.” It grows to about 10 to 15 inches, though there are shorter dwarf varieties.

Moss

If you have moss growing somewhere in your yard, you might want to embrace it. “Chances are if the conditions are right for moss to grow, significant renovation may be required to get turf grass to thrive in the same area, with no guarantees,” according to turf experts from the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Not only do mosses add color and beauty to spaces where little else will grow, but they also help to prevent erosion and retain moisture and nutrients in the soil. Plus, they’re a sign your ecosystem is doing well. “A good bio-indicator of air and water pollution, these hardy, yet delicate, plants only thrive in areas that exhibit good air and water quality,” the extension says.

Periwinkle

Vinca minor, or periwinkle, groundcoverCredit: Ilona5555/Getty Images

Common periwinkle, or vinca minor, is often grown as a groundcover and usually stays at only about 4 inches high. Not only does it add green to spaces that might otherwise be bare, but it also provides a pop of color with its springtime blooms. Plus, it has some very practical purposes for the environment. “The periwinkle plant is exceptional as an erosion control specimen,” according to Gardening Know How. Once established, the plant is drought resistant and doesn’t require much maintenance besides keeping its spreading in check.

Sedum

Where turf grass might fail, sedum can grow. “The Sedum genus of plants includes between 400 and 500 individual species, often known collectively as stonecrops, so-named because these are plants that not only tolerate dry, rocky soils, but positively thrive in them,” according to The Spruce. They range anywhere from 2 inches to 3 feet in height. And the low-growing groundcover varieties spread easily but aren’t invasive, with shallow root systems that make them easy to remove if necessary. “There is no talent required to grow sedums, and the only way they can be harmed is if they are overwatered or planted in garden soil that is too moist,” The Spruce says.

More grass alternatives

ornamental grassCredit: Gabriele Grassl/Getty Images

Besides groundcover plants, there are plenty of other grass alternatives to make your lawn a more eco-friendly and lower-maintenance place.

The Home and Garden Information Center suggests planting native ornamental grasses, which “are low maintenance, drought resistant, grow in most soils, seldom require fertilizers, and have few pest or disease problems.” Try creating borders with these grasses or other plants to cut down on the area of traditional grass you have to mow. Or put together a larger display of ornamental grasses of varying looks for a visually appealing patch of lawn.

You also can replace a portion of your lawn with garden beds filled with plants of your choosing. Native plants — especially ones that attract pollinators — are ideal for this. Or you could grow your own eco-friendly vegetable garden. Likewise, consider replacing some of your lawn with trees or bushes that can provide habitats for wildlife, among other benefits.

And finally, for a true eco-friendly approach, keep conservation landscaping in mind. For instance, “a rain garden may be suitable in an area where you want to slow down rainwater runoff and increase water infiltration into the soil,” the Home and Garden Information Center says. Or maybe a rock garden is more appropriate for your climate.

Just make sure that whatever you plant — groundcover or otherwise — you’re following your local regulations. Some homeowners associations, for instance, might have rules on how much traditional lawn can be replaced with alternative plants. Or neighbors might not be happy if your plants begin to encroach on their lawns. Be open about why you’re swapping out your grass, and work to change restrictive ordinances. Who knows? You might inspire an eco-friendly lawn trend throughout your community.

Main image credit: urbazon/Getty Images

70 comments

Leo C
Leo C22 days ago

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Paulo R
Paulo R24 days ago

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Caitlin L
Caitlin L25 days ago

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Leo C
Leo C26 days ago

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Naomi B
Naomi B27 days ago

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Leo C
Leo C28 days ago

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Peter B
Peter Babout a month ago

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niarica lubatti
Past Member about a month ago

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Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan Hillabout a month ago

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