Alternatives to laying a lawn

Don't want to have a lawn? Or perhaps there's no space for one in your small garden? Follow this expert advice from garden designer Matt James on creating a practical open space without grass

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Late summer is the time to think about laying a new lawn, refreshing an existing one, or doing spot repairs. But could you go without in your garden design? Don't miss these turf-alternatives.

Why do without a lawn?

Lawns are child-friendly, wildlife havens, soft areas where you can sunbathe, and design-wise a necessary ‘neutral space’, but you can’t use them year-round and they need care, including spiking and scarifying, mowing, weed control and watering. 

There is, however, a number of alternatives. Some are wildlife-friendly substitutes; others can cut maintenance time in half. All offer exciting garden design opportunities.  

1. Make a meadow

An increasingly popular option, a meadow can be created by simply allowing existing lawn grass to grow longer than usual, and cutting it only once or twice in summer. On a large scale, this is the most sensible option, since replacing the lawn with anything else will be prohibitively expensive – or back-breaking work. Leaving existing grass to grow also means you can revert to a close-cropped sward again relatively easily, by trimming the length low enough to take the lawnmower. Of course, not all the lawn has to be left to grow long. Areas near the house can be cut as normal, with paths made with a mower through longer grass in areas that aren’t used regularly.

eriginon profusion flowers

Letting lawn grass grow long doesn’t automatically mean masses of wildflowers will appear, however; grasses will dominate. If you want something akin to an idyllic country meadow, there are two options: the easiest is to plant wildflower plug-plants throughout the long grass, chosen with your soil type in mind.  For example, poppies don’t like thick clay, but knapweed does.

You can buy wildflower seeds from The Wild Flower Shop or British Wild Flower Plants.

The alternative is to sow a special meadow mix instead (try MAS Seeds). It’s extra work, but results in a more colourful display. Traditionally this meant stripping off the rich topsoil beforehand (wildflowers love poorer soils), but there are now lots of blends available for all soil types and situations. Some come pre-germinated and supplied on mats that you simply lay like normal turf (try MeadowMat or Wild Flower Turf) – use these for an instant effect, but expect to pay a lot more.

Most meadow mixes fall into two categories. Annual mixes are quick to flower, but need re-sowing each spring for best results. Perennial meadows last a lot longer, but need TLC and time to establish, so don’t expect an attractive display until at least two years after sowing.

Prepare the ground thoroughly before sowing – you can’t simply sprinkle meadow seed over an existing lawn, so unfortunately you will need to start from scratch.

To keep perennial meadows looking good, cut them once or twice a year. The timing of the cut is important: spring meadows are left uncut until mid-summer, whereas summer meadows are mown to 10cm in spring then left to flower and seed before cutting again in the autumn.

2. Use fluid materials such as gravel

Gravel is an ideal lawn alternative, being easy to use and suitable for both traditional and contemporary garden designs. However, replacing a large lawn in the garden of a suburban semi with a sea of gravel is rather boring, and impractical for families with children. Where gravel really proves useful is in the front garden, where a tiny lawn can be a pain to mow. It’s permeable, and the crunch factor makes for a useful security measure, too. Plants are essential for interest, though, so always aim for a healthy ratio of two-thirds plants to one-third gravel.

Golden Corn gravel, Stone Warehouse

Golden Corn 14mm gravel, delivered in 875kg bags covering 10m² at a depth of 50mm, £11.50 per m², Stone Warehouse

There are numerous different gravels available, so choose one that is subtle and natural-looking and won’t detract from any planting. Water-worn weathered flint and cockleshells are favourites, but your choice should be guided by local stone, other hardscape materials in the garden, and the house. Bradstone and CED have a large range, and Stone Warehouse has a handy online calculator to work out how much you need. Choose a diameter of 5-20mm so that it’s easy to walk on – rounded gravels are better for children, and larger angular gravels are best where cats are a problem.

Spreading gravel isn’t just a case of splitting the bag and pouring it out. First, lay sheets of heavy-duty, semi-permeable landscape fabric (from DIY stores), to stop weeds coming through. Overlap each edge by 30cm and fix down securely using 10-25cm U-shaped wire staples. Where gravel meets a lawn or planting you’ll need an edge of metal strips, granite setts, terracotta ‘rope-top’ tiles or bricks laid in a saw-tooth pattern to stop it spilling.

Porous resin-bound gravel is useful where a hard surface would work better, and it’s cheaper than paving. There are many coloured aggregates available – again, choose a natural-looking one for anywhere other than children’s play areas. Also use a specialist contractor, as it’s not a DIY job.

Crushed glass isn’t an appropriate lawn replacement, and it’s a look that’s very tricky to pull off successfully, so is best handled by a garden designer as part of a wholesale redesign.

3. Perfect for shady areas: bark

Ideal for dark corners under trees where even shade-tolerant types of grass struggle to grow well, bark feels more at home, although simple water-worn gravels work too. Choose natural stripped pine bark or similar and, for colour and texture, add plants in areas not used for seating. Easy-care woodlanders such as wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera), white wood aster (Aster divaricatus), dusky cranesbill (Geranium phaeum) and lungwort (Pulmonaria) are tough and need no maintenance once established. 

With bark, you can simply spread an 8-10cm layer over the soil, but it will need topping up every other year. Alternatively, use landscape fabric to keep weeds down, make slits with a Stanley knife and plant through.

4. Opt for ground cover plants

For areas where daily usage isn’t important, fragrant chamomile lawns are popular, but require a sunny spot and free draining soil. They also go a little patchy in wet summers, and for this reason I prefer scented thyme lawns, which need similar conditions and also don’t tolerate heavy foot traffic, but are generally a lot tougher and more reliable. If the soil is prepared properly, thyme grows fast, too. A spring planting of small coffee cup-sized plants spaced 15-25cm apart will see a pleasing effect the following year, and in 18 months, the carpet should be at its best. If you go for low-growing varieties such as Thymus serpyllum ‘Snowdrift’ or ‘Pink Chintz’, you shouldn’t need to trim them either. But if you want to keep the plants bushy, trim after flowering with shears, or if you have a lawn mower with a height setting, use this carefully. For a thyme tapestry effect, plant each variety in large teardrop-shaped drifts and mix them up throughout the design.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

If you don’t need to walk on parts of the lawn at all, seas of weed-smothering ground cover plants such as bugle (Ajuga), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), self-heal (Prunella), and even ivy work well. White clover is a possible option, too, and useful to feed both the bees and your soil. If you want to go to extremes, rip up the lawn in favour of one giant ‘open’ border instead, where there’s room for multi-layered mixed plantings. This isn’t an easy-care option, however, and some knowledge of planting design is important, unless you hire an experienced garden designer. Sedum mats, commonly used on green or living roofs, are good ground cover, if given enough sun. Whichever option you choose, paths made from paving, gravel or timber sleepers are essential throughout, so you don’t crush the planting when you walk.

5. Handy for kid-friendly gardens: artificial turf

If you love the look of a lawn, but hate the hard work, or want to create a child-friendly garden, consider artificial turf. Use all year round, whatever the weather, and it needs nothing more than occasional hosing.

Imitation grass, Easigrass

Easi-Belgravia Easigrass, £1,680 for a garden measuring 24m2, including installation and optional 1.8cm shock pad (as shown), Easigrass

For a natural look, expect to pay £25 to £40 per square metre. Remember that blades of real grass aren’t all the same size or colour, so consider this when looking at those on offer. The foundations, especially large areas, also need specialist fitters, as preparing the ground is more like laying paving, and a level surface is vital. Suppliers such as Easigrass can recommend local fitters. 

Artificial turf also saves on time and storage space – with no need to mow, there’s no need to store a lawnmower. But to many, plastic grass is less comfortable underfoot and monotonous to look at, even though technological advances mean the ‘astroturf’ look synonymous with football pitches is long gone. In many cases, simplifying the shape of a real grass lawn to minimise maintenance, sowing a mini-meadow or making a gravel garden instead is a more natural, wildlife-friendly, not to mention cheaper, alternative.

6. Put down smart paving

Want to create a patio or outdoor living area in a small courtyard garden? Opt for paving for a smart finish that's durable, too. Choose a paving material that flatters the style, period and materials of your property, but also one that complements that of the flooring indoors if you want to create an indoor outdoor link

Contemporary paving, Bradstone

Smooth natural sandstone paving in Dune, with a matt appearance and a machine-cut edge, from £1,123.45 for a 15.3m2 patio kit, Bradstone

A small, traditional patio will benefit from stone paving blocks in sandstone or limestone in honey or brown shades; more modern properties can experiment with quartz, versatile porcelain or even concrete. Avoid using multiple materials in a small space, such as a courtyard garden, to prevent it from looking too busy.

7. Conquer a sloping garden with decking

If yours is a small garden, perhaps an awkward shape or on a sloping site, and your budget is low, installing decking is a cost-effective, speedy way to create a usable surface, perfect for outdoor lounging and dining. Check out our decking ideas for inspiration, and don't forget, there are tons of decking materials to choose from, from beautiful hardwoods to no-maintenance composite wood lookalikes.

Millboard Composite Decking Weathered Vintage Garden House Design

Millboard composite decking, Garden House Design

(Image: © Garden House Design)

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