Plant a "low-mow" grass or lawn alternative
Wouldn't it be nice to spend less time mowing and more time enjoying your yard? Try a low-mow grass, ground cover, ornamental grass, or moss alternative. Or reduce the size of your lawn to save work and the planet at the same time.
How to plant a "low-mow" grass or lawn alternative
Wisconsin grass expert Neil Diboll coined the term "no mow" grass to describe a group of grasses that are low growers and never reach the height that most turf grasses will if left uncut. These grasses are great substitutes if you don't have your mind set on a lawn that looks like a putting green. Lawn guru Paul Tukey also recommends some low- or slow-growing grasses that, while they won't produce a manicured appearance, will create a natural looking low-mow lawn. Remember to choose a grass that's suitable for your climate. Tukey's suggestions include:
- Alkali grass (Puccinella distans): good for alkaline, salty soil, cool-season
- Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis): can grow to over a foot or be mowed, prefers heavy soil, drought tolerant, warm-season but hardy to zone 3
- Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis): emerald green, lush clumping grass; sandy soil, can grow to 4 feet high as edging plant or be mowed high
- Prairie sandreed (Calamovilfa longfolia): can grow to 5 feet with feathery flower heads, good for sandy soil, very drought tolerant, handles climate extremes, warm-season
Another low-maintenance option is to replace some of your turf with a ground cover. A ground cover is a plant with a spreading growth habit that covers the ground and prevents weeds from taking hold. Plant ground covers where there's not much foot traffic. A few ground covers to consider are:
- Periwinkle or myrtle (Vinca minor): glossy, dark green foliage with star-shaped bluish-purple flowers, tolerates poor or dry soil, likes shade, grows well under trees, zones 3 to 9
- Phlox: needle-like evergreen foliage with white, blue, pink, red, lavender, or bicolored flowers, full sun or partial shade, zones 3 to 9
- Sedum: succulent that likes well-drained soil and thrives with very little water; green, variegated, or purple foliage; white, yellow, pale pink, or magenta flowers; most varieties zones 2 to 9
- Juniper: spreading varieties create an evergreen carpet; female plants produce blue, black, or reddish berries; full sun or partial shade; well-drained soil; zones vary
- Ajuga or bugleweed (Ajuga reptans): 5-inch blue flowers in spring, very adaptable to wet or dry conditions, sun or shade, zones 3 to 10
- Mugwort or sagebrush (Artemisia species): gray-green fragrant leaves; will grow in heat, drought, sand, and gravel; zones 3 to 10
- Bellflower (Campanula species): bell-shaped blue, purple, pink, or white flowers; likes well-drained soil and partial shade, varieties for zones 2 to 9
Why not try an ornamental grass for a dramatic statement and low maintenance? Ornamental grasses have a higher percentage of native varieties than any other type of landscape plant. Unlike standard lawn grasses, ornamental grasses are allowed to grow and go to seed. There are numerous types of ornamental grasses for cold climates and ornamental grasses for hot climates.
Another good lawn alternative if you have wet, acidic soil is moss. While many people try to rid their lawn of moss, if conditions are right, why not cultivate a moss lawn? If you have a shady expanse of grass under a canopy of pine trees, it's difficult to grow grass and it's likely moss is already finding it's way into your turf. Moss thrives under one of six conditions: soil compaction, low fertility, acidic soil, shallow soil depth, and shade. The best thing about cultivating a moss lawn is that it requires little mowing once moss replaces most of the grass. For a moss lawn, don't lime or fertilize. Mow over fallen pine needles in the fall, which will keep the soil acidic.
Find it! Low-mow grass or lawn alternatives
Consider a grass you don't have to mow at all. Wildflower Farm states that drought-tolerant Eco-Lawn grass seed only grows to 9 inches left unmown, but it's fine texture causes it to "fall over" to a height of about 4 inches, creating a "flowing carpet-like appearance." Mow once a month for a lawn with a traditional 3-4 inch height.
Legacy buffalo grass grows 4 to 6 inches high and is propagated from cuttings. It is pollen-free and spreads quickly from runners. It will grow in a wide range of soil types but prefers heavy clay. Requires minimal mowing and water, and little or no fertilization (depending on soil type). Best adapted to regions that receive 10” to 35” of annual precipitation.
Planting a "low-mow" grass or lawn alternative helps you go green because…
- It saves precious water.
- It avoids monoculture, lessening the need for harmful chemical pesticides.
- It reduces the amount of time spent mowing, which cuts down on air pollution.
Maintaining a lawn takes time and money—about $700 per acre annually—leading many homeowners to try alternatives such as replacing at least part of their lawn with ground cover or other types of landscaping. A smaller lawn also cuts down on lawnmower emissions.
There are about 31.6 million acres of turf—almost 50,000 square miles—in the US. Lawns (residential and commercial, as well as golf courses) could be considered the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area, occupying three times more land than is devoted to irrigated corn. About 200 gallons of fresh water per person per day would be required to provide adequate water for the nation’s lawn surface area.
A lawnmower used for one hour creates as much air pollution as a car driven for 20 miles. Each year in the US, $5.2 billion is spent on fossil fuel-based lawn fertilizers; 67 million pounds of synthetic lawn pesticides are applied; and 580 million gallons of gasoline are used in lawnmowers. Depending on the city, 30 to 60 percent of fresh water in urban areas is used to water lawns.
- ground cover: A plant with a spreading growth habit that covers the ground and prevents weeds from taking hold.
- monoculture: The growth of a single crop on the same piece of land.
- University of Illinois Extension - Ornamental Grasses Learn types of ornamental grasses, how to plant them, and how to care for them.
- Master Gardeners - Wildflower Meadows: An Alternative to Lawns Learn from a Pennsylvania Master Gardener how to replace some of your lawn with a wildflower meadow.
- Tukey, Paul (2006) The Organic Lawn Care Manual. North Adams, Massachusetts: Storey Publishing: 234-238
- Bennett, Jennifer (2005). Dryland Gardening. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books: 58
- Bennett, Jennifer (2005). Dryland Gardening. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books: 74
- Tukey, Paul (2006) The Organic Lawn Care Manual. North Adams, Massachusetts: Storey Publishing: page
- Consumer Reports Greener Choices - Lawn Mowers: Buying Guide 4/07
- US National Aeronautics and Space Administration Earth Observatory - Looking for Lawns
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Green Landscaping with Native Plants: Wild Ones Handbook