Grass isn’t always greener—here’s what to plant instead
White picket fences went out of style long ago, but for some reason the American lawn just won’t die. That’s unfortunate: Lawnmowers account for 5 percent of our air pollution. Home owners use 10 times the amount of pesticides and fertilizers per acre than farmers use on their crops. And thirsty grasses suck up water by the gallon. But there’s hope.
Reboot your yard
Lawn replacements cut down on the amount of water and pesticides familiar grasses suck up. Mary Cadenasso, an urban ecosystem ecologist at the University of California, Davis suggests using cardboard to break up with your luscious (and thirsty) lawn. First, cut your grass as close to the root as your mower can get. Leaving the blades where they fall add nitrogen to the soil, so leave them be. Then, cover it with cardboard––make sure you remove any tape––and get it wet so the wind doesn’t upend your work. Make sure the edges of the cardboard overlap, sealing any potential escape routes. Next, cover the cardboard with 4 to 6 inches of mulch and wait out the summer. Just before the leaves start to fall, reseed with a sustainable perennial.
There’s always the option to rip up your sod if you want to reset your lawn this season, just pay attention to your sprinkler settings. “Often people hire someone to pull out their lawn and those professionals set irrigation systems for establishment,” says Cadenasso. “Homeowners don’t know they have to change those settings in the winter and after two years when those roots have established. If they don’t, they may have a drought resistant lawn that’s still sucking up a lot of water.” Cadenasso also says tree cover is key. Lush canopies create shade that helps cool cities and curb evaporation. If you do replace your lawn with a watersmart alternative, make sure you don’t dry up valuable timber.
While the climate varies greatly from Maine to California, there’s sedge lawn variety for every state. The turf doppelgangers are close cousins of more familiar grasses, but don’t require fertilizers. According to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, these plants “can be found in sun or shade, in wet soils or heavy clay, from coastal dunes to alpine scree. In almost every ecosystem, there is at least one sedge with good, lawn-like qualities.” The only catch? Sedge lawns have to be planted as plugs since the grasses often have a low germination rate.
If you’re looking for still other alternatives, consider these regional paths to a more sustainable—if not always greener—future in any region.
Microclover is a legume with natural nitrogen-fixing abilities, so it requires less synthetic fertilizer than traditional lawns. The dark green color and deep, drought-resistance roots are make it a favorite among environmentally-conscious gardeners. It’s worth the buzz: Unlike grass, clover blooms, so bees will love your new yard as much as you do. Add some Dutch white clover (Trifolium species), English daisy (Bellis perennis), and baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) around the edges to break up the sea of green.
Ditch the lawn and make your yard a butterfly paradise. Creeping thyme and similar plants like milkweed, marigolds, and mint plants thrive in moist environments and aren’t picky about soil, even if it’s sandy. While it certainly isn’t the typical field of green, this shocking pink plant is sure to increase your chances of seeing a monarch before breakfast. “There are a lot of ecological processes going on in cities,” Cadenasso says. Setting the stage for pretty pollinators in your yard will give you a front row seat.
Moss is about the lowest maintenance lawn you can get. Because it doesn’t have roots, seeds, fruits, or flowers, it doesn’t need mowing or fertilizing. In wet, humid areas like the southeast, it doesn’t need much watering, either. To make the most of your moss, you’ll need neighboring shrubs and trees because it likes shade. For a pop of color, try adding Mimosa strigillosa––commonly known as powderpuff mimosa. The plant’s pink pompoms are a bee haven. Near the beach? Perennial peanut thrives in sandy soils.
Rocks are a common grass replacement in desert cities, but those pebbles actually reflect light, baking your cacti and succulents on site. Cadenasso is currently studying whether or not mass lawn-to-rock conversion heats cities hotter. “We have to think about what goals we want to achieve, and a lot of times that’s water conservation; but we want to keep hot cities cool and rock can make that worse,” says Cadenasso. That doesn’t mean thirsty blades are the only option. Instead, replace your water-sucking grass with mulch. Whether it’s made from bark or compost, this organic mixture will hold onto any trace of water tightly. A three-inch thick layer is enough to protect the soil beneath and the plants above.