Have you ever walked past one of those lawns that looks like a movie set? At your feet lies a Stepford-esque sea of emerald, not a bug or weed in sight, and a friendly neighbor is always standing on guard, hose in hand. (Pro tip: That friendly wave they’re giving is actually code for “Stay five feet away from my beautiful lawn at all times!”)
We can’t help ogling because there’s something a little unnatural about these lawns. Maybe it’s because many of them are created at nature’s expense. Of the 29 billion gallons of water American homes consume daily, 30 percent goes to outdoor work like landscaping. On top of that, gasoline-powered yard and garden equipment belch out 242 million tons of air pollutants each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Instead of aspiring to a flat green expanse, try a more environmentally-friendly way to decorate your yard. We’ve dug up several options for lawns that are both stunning and sustainable.
To mow or not to mow
Let’s be real, no one actually likes mowing their lawn (if they claim they do, it’s probably all the toxic lawnmower fumes going to their head). Many people trim their vegetation just for the sake of avoiding the neighbor’s stink-eye—but you should consider your insect neighbors’ well-being too.
There is no set rule for how often you should mow your lawn. On the one hand, regular trimming does keep grass healthy and promote growth, while giving your environs a tidy appearance. However, letting your greens grow out promotes a much-needed habitat for bees. In exchange, these friendly insects will pay for their new home by pollinating your garden.
When you do attack new growth, do so with an eco-friendly electric lawn mower. Or, if you’re willing to mix exercise with yardwork, turn to an old-fashioned push mower. Whichever type of machine you prefer, you should leave your grass clippings where they fall. This may be a challenge for more meticulous yard maintainers, but your lawn leftovers are rich in hydrogen and nitrogen, and they make an excellent natural fertilizer.
Rock and rain gardens
Rocks may not make lounging comfortable the way lush greenery does, but they add texture to yards—and save a ton of water waste. The best part about a rock garden? It requires literally no work to maintain.
The beauty of rocks is their ability to survive anything, and nothing can really survive in them, which negates the need for harmful pesticides or garden chemicals. Still, you don’t have to trade in all your vegetation—plant some hardy greens around the stones.
In more arid climates, construct your garden around cacti and dry-weather herbs. For example, lavender, rosemary, and thyme all add some color to your lawn, and they love the heat.
If you live in wetter region, consider a rain garden. Sounds magical, right? This is a collection of holes or indentations in the ground, located near places with lots of water runoff, such as roofs, driveways, and sidewalks. Normally, excess water flows into stormwater drains, and then pipes carry it out to sea. A rain garden gives water a place to collect, turning runoff into groundwater for plants. And don’t just dig a big hole in the yard and leave it (well, you can, but then you’ll have a mud garden). Fill your rain garden with grass and flowers, giving the illusion that your lawn has a beautiful belly button in bloom. If you’re not crazy about the idea, you can still fight water waste by harvesting precipitation with rain chains or barrels placed under roofs and gutters.
Bring on the birds
Besides that lovely Snow White effect you get from waking up to birdsong in the morning, there are a multitude of benefits to sharing a yard with feathered friends.
First, birds keep down pests: They feast on plant-harming insects like aphids, caterpillars (so cute, but will eat everything green in sight), beetles, and mites.
In addition, certain species, such as finches and sparrows, double as weed repellent. A nice seed is like filet mignon for finches, so they’ll gobble up weeds’ attempts to reproduce.
Finally, if you grow brightly-colored flowers, birds will help pollinate these blooms. When nectar-loving species like hummingbirds sip at a blossom, its pollen sticks to their delicate feathers. Then the animals redistribute the powder as they rapidly flap from flower to flower.
Just add mulch
If your yard contains bushes or trees that lack easy access to water, help them out with a little mulch. This material is typically a mixture of bark, pine needles, and rotting leaves, but anything loose and organic should do the trick. Mulch doesn’t only stave off weeds, but also retains moisture and regulates soil temperatures.
In particular, if you’re lucky enough to have a raspberry bush in your yard, mulch is a must. Weeds can overtake this shrub faster than you can say, “Weed wacker,” and once they settle in, they’ll wrap around the spiky branches and become almost impossible to disentangle. Then they steal the water and nutrients a raspberry bush needs. Mulch will inhibit this growth from getting started in the first place.
Mulch is also an aesthetic aid. As much as your hose-in-hand neighbor may fawn over his pristine green stretch, mulch adds some diversity to your yard’s look, while supplying your plants with natural nutrients.
Consider ground cover
Grass isn’t the only plant that can populate a yard. Try filling in the space with a less water-hungry alternative: ground cover. This term refers to a vegetal blanket that requires minimal work and little to no H2O.
For example, if you want a deep, lost-in-the-forest look, try moss. On the other hand, creeping perennials like Leptinella (nicknamed Brass Buttons for the round, yellow flowers that stand out against the plant’s black and green leaves) carry water and nutrients to plant roots while keeping out weeds. Or you can create a meadow feel with clover, which is soft to walk on, attracts bees, and smells amazing.
One drawback to ground cover: Planting it can be a hassle. The plot you’ve picked must be completely free of weeds, and you must ensure the ground cover you choose is compatible with the texture and drainage capacity of whatever type of soil sits under your lawn. You also need to sketch out a blueprint of where you plan to plant; spontaneously-placed greens will either take over the lawn completely or leave your yard with some awkward bald spots.
Some sources recommend that you use landscape fabric to ward off weeds and facilitate planting, but this method has downfalls. Landscape fabric prevents earthworms from reaching the surface of the soil, which they must do to aerate the earth. This material also counteracts mulch, creating a barrier that inhibits organic matter from naturally degrading in the soil. And landscape fabric isn’t 100 percent foolproof—weeds will always find a way. So if you’re going to opt for ground cover, we recommend ditching the fabric and planting it the old fashioned way.
Getting started is the hardest part (hint: it involves weeding). Once you think all the weeds are gone, make sure you turn up the soil to expose and toss away any stragglers. Then you can begin planting. Your lower back might hold a grudge, but your ground cover will thank you for it!