Copyright Notice

Individual articles on this website are copyrighted. Articles may be downloaded for personal use; users are forbidden to reproduce, republish, redistribute, or resell any materials from this website in either machine-readable form or any other form without permission of the author and NHLA or payment of the appropriate royalty for reuse. For permissions and other copyright-related questions, please email your question to: editor [at]

Dr. Dirt
October-November 2014

Part 2 of 3
Some Alternatives to High-Maintenance Lawns

"All human institutions, all professions, all programs, and all activities must now be judge primarily by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship."  – Thomas Berry, in The Great Work, 1999

In last month’s Newsletter, some of the problems of high-maintenance lawns were examined. In essence, lawns are artificial plant communities requiring very high artificial inputs (chemicals, equipment, labor) to maintain. Many of these inputs disturb or are toxic to other aspects of the ecosystem. Unlike natural systems, lawns are non-regenerative and non-self-sustaining. Although they remain popular across the country, lawns are not a “given.” They are simply one of many possible design styles, and one that is very restrictive and non-resilient. It is well past the time to consider something beyond standard lawns. An anti-lawn movement is several decades old, and has made some headway, but the trailers full of mowers I see around town testify to the on-going dominance of turfgrass in the landscape.

This second in a short series on lawns takes a look at some alternatives to the high-maintenance “industrial” lawn. Fairly easy options include reducing the size of the lawn; converting lawn areas to more sustainable systems such as wildflower meadows or natural successional patterns; replacing lawns with groundcover plantings; and increasing vegetable and fruit production in areas now covered with lawn.

Reducing lawn size. Landscape design is all about the use of space and understanding changes over time. Large lawns represent a seemingly easy default which is widely adopted across the US. With little creative energy turfgrass can consume most of a residential, commercial, or institutional landscape area. But many other treatments may produce a more habitable and lower maintenance solution. Perhaps lawn areas could be terraces and patios, or arbors and gazebos, or seating and barbecue/fire pit areas, or other plantings on a large scale … get creative, and get beyond large lawns. Some revegetation options are described briefly below.

Replacing lawn with wildflower meadow. Most of the landscape management we humans perform is aimed at controlling ecological succession: the natural transitions in plants over time on a given site. In the Northeast, if we stop mowing a turfgrass site, it will quickly morph from turf to annuals and biennials, then to perennial plants and grasses, then to shrubs and light-loving trees, eventually to shade-loving trees and understory plants, and finally to our predominant northern hardwood-conifer forest. If we want to manage a site at an early successional stage (such as turfgrass, an artificial early-succession stage), large inputs of chemicals, equipment and labor will be required. For each level of release on this system, less input will be required. Turfgrass requires twenty or more mowings a year, and inputs of fertilizer, pesticide, lime, watering, etc. To maintain a native wildflower meadow typically requires one mowing (or burn) a year, and no fertilizer/pesticide/lime/watering. The meadow will also be vastly more diverse in species (both plants and animals), and inherently more resilient and self-sustaining. Arguably, it will be more aesthetically pleasing, with a great variety of forms, colors, textures, sizes, etc., as well as providing habitat for a much broader range of birds, mammals, insects, and other organisms. Much information on meadow establishment and maintenance is available online. Meadows are not carefree, but once established the primary maintenance besides an annual or biennial mowing is spot weeding for especially noxious or invasive or toxic weeds (for example, Canada Thistle, Quackgrass, Poison Ivy). For more information, start with our state Cooperative Extension website: Dr. Cathy Neal has been doing research on New Hampshire meadows for some years and has a wealth of data and helpful hints.

Replacing lawn with groundcovers. Particularly on smaller sites, groundcover plantings can take the place of the lawn aesthetically while lowering maintenance and increasing biodiversity. Select species based on site conditions (sun/shade, moisture, pH, soil structure, etc.). Some of the woody perennial species worth considering include Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), Periwinkle (Vinca minor), Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), Baltic Ivy (Hedera helix ‘Baltica’), Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), and Bearberry (Arctostaphylos). An added bonus: unlike turfgrass, most of these are evergreen. And note that “groundcover” doesn’t necessarily imply a six-inch height: At times, I’ve used such plants as Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), Gro-Lo Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Lo’), Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), Roses (Rosa rugosa, R. virginiana, R. wichuriana), Chenault Coralberry (Symphorocarpos x chenaultii), Cutleaf Stephanandra (S. incisa ‘Crispa’), and others. There are also a great many non-woody herbaceous perennials that can provide energetic coverage of surface area.

The keys to successful groundcovers are species selection and site preparation. The first three years of establishment are critical too, especially weeding and watering. Once a good groundcover has become established, maintenance approaches zero, with occasional weeding of unwanted species which will seed in from time to time.

Replacing lawn with vegetables, fruits, herbs, etc. Climate change is not a debatable subject. We are in an unprecedented period of rapid and extreme shifting of weather parameters. Record-setting droughts and fires in the American West and in Australia, record-setting rainfall in other areas, storms increasing in strength and frequency, the spread of deserts, loss of topsoil, melting of glaciers and cubic miles of Arctic and Antarctic ice, thawing of permafrost and release of methane (a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), warming of the oceans, release of methane from ocean depths, etc.

These large shifts in weather conditions and resultant alterations of our ecosystems are already affecting our food supplies. “Food security” is brought up frequently in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures. Food hubs are being established across the country. Farmers’ markets are flourishing. Schools at all levels (kindergarten through college) are installing student-run vegetable gardens. Aware of uncertainties in food supply (both quantity and quality), more and more individuals and families are growing their own vegetables, fruits, herbs, and other edibles, in their own yards.

Typically, home and school gardens and orchards are installed in existing lawn areas, with good sunlight and amenable soils. Landscape designers and contractors should be prepared for these changes, and in fact should be promoting these changes in their local landscapes. There are outstanding opportunities now for informed landscapers to participate in a great shift from lawns to food production.

Replacing lawn with natural plant communities. There are many reasons to foster some amount of native vegetation on every site: natives are well-adapted to the area; biodiversity increases (plants, animals, and other organisms); establishment is largely free, courtesy of the soil seed bank and seed import by birds and animals; maintenance includes no watering, fertilization, mowing, spraying, etc.

Permaculture. A further refinement would be to move to a marriage of natural ecological community structure and human food production by utilizing permaculture techniques. Permaculture seeks to combine food production with the natural structure and function of a site (vertical layering of the forest, clumping of species, directing of surface runoff and catchment and infiltration of water, organic matter layer covering the soil surface, plant:animal interactions (especially edible animals) to provide a number of functions, and so on). A great example in the Northeast, where the default ecosystem is forest, is the “forest garden.” Food species are favored at all levels of the landscape. The tree canopy might consist of nut-producing species, with an understory of fruiting shrubs and vines, and a herbaceous layer of edible and medicinal perennials. Over time, maintenance becomes a tinkering and tweaking of species, removing invasives and favoring an increasing variety of food producers. Animals introduced into this artificial but fairly sustainable community might include chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, and others. The animals are not merely for food, but also for insect and weed control, site clearing, fertilization of plantings, and so on. Courses and workshops on permaculture are offered frequently in the state, and can also be found online.

In closing, there are many viable alternatives to turfgrass that are significantly more ecologically and financially sound. Try it, you’ll like it.

— The main viable alternative to Dr. Dirt is John Hart, Emeritus Professor, Horticultural Technology, Thompson School of Applied Science, University of New Hampshire, Durham.



Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart