If you're exploring alternatives to grass, the chances are that your yard doesn't allow for it, you don't like the look of turf, or enjoy the upkeep... Regardless of your reason, looking for different types of ground cover is a really smart move for a lower-maintenance garden and to help conserve water also, no matter what climate you live in.
Sure, a grass lawn is often a 'traditional' part of a home's outdoor space, but now backyard landscaping ideas and trends are moving away from this conventional design feature. Although beloved by many as a space to relax and play with children and pets, lawns have their dark side: they are environmentally problematic because of the constant watering requirement, not to mention you may not be a huge fan of getting out your lawnmower... No matter how much of a breeze it is to use.
So, as many of us are moving towards lawn looks that don't exclude wildlife, razor-sharp lawns are naturally, becoming less popular. Fortunately, there are many cool alternatives to lawns that are super contemporary and low maintenance, no matter how big or small your outdoor space may be.
Why find alternatives to grass?
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, natural weed control, and watering. In fact, in drought-prone places, a lawn is not a suitable covering at all as it will need a lot of water to survive.
There are, however, a number of alternatives. Some are wildlife-friendly substitutes; others can cut maintenance time in half. All offer exciting garden design opportunities.
What we definitely don't want to see is everyone resorting to fake alternatives like plastic grass. Artificial lawn is not the low-maintenance solution it is pitched as and the last thing we want is to be adding more plastic to our properties. So if you hate mowing the lawn but also love biodiversity, we have plenty of options for you below.
Who best to confirm that an alternative to grass can be a good option than a lawn care professional? CEO of Lawn Love Jeremy Yamaguchi says: 'Though my company is centered on lawn care, I definitely acknowledge that there are more eco-friendly ways to adorn your front or backyard. If you want something beautiful that will increase your home's value and curb appeal but won't be as detrimental to the environment, consider planting local flora and using mulch. Make your own compost and be mindful of how much water you're using.'
1. Creeping thyme in high traffic areas
Planting a low-growing variety of thyme can be an excellent alternative to grass. Creeping thyme grows only a few inches tall and is hardwearing, making it a great option for high-traffic areas. It's also soft rather than scratchy underfoot, unlike edible thyme varieties. Finally, it's a perennial and will come back every year, producing bee-friendly fragrant flowers every summer.
2. Consider succulents for bare corners and crevices
Succulents are a beautiful option if you want your grass-free area to be more decorative. They come in a variety of shapes and colors and are easy to maintain, requiring little watering. All they need is a sunny spot. You can learn how to propagate succulents to grow some more in another area of your yard or in a container. Of course, if you used succulents as an alternative to grass, you won't be able to plant them in high-traffic areas as they'll get trampled on so use them in lonely corners for a decorative element.
3. Try xeriscaping
Xeriscaping is a great alternative to grass in dryer climates, although the landscaping technique can also be used in wetter regions also, provided you use appropriate plants. In its most basic form, xeriscaping is spaced out planting in a gravel-covered yard. It looks smart and modern and is very low-maintenance.
4. Start a Japanese garden
If you don't quite want the pared-back look of a xeriscaped yard but want a minimalist landscaping with a few good-looking shrubs and trees, you should explore Japanese garden ideas. Japanese gardens are traditionally low on grass, with schemes that emphasize individual plants. Even just one central tree such as an acer or cherry surrounded by gravel can be enough.
5. Small garden? Consider a rock garden
Small gardens are actually excellent candidates for grass-free designs; in a large yard it's more tempting to fill the space with grass. However, if your outdoor space is really tiny – think so small that you don't even have room to plant a small tree – you could consider planting a rock garden instead of using lawn for your entire space. Rock gardens typically include rocks and small Alpine plants that take up very little space but look colorful and impactful.
6. Convert your yard into a raised bed garden
If you're looking for an alternative to grass that's productive as well as good-looking, consider starting a kitchen garden. Raised garden beds are easy to build yourself or buy and you'll have fresh homegrown produce to supplement your diet. Jeremy Yamaguchi adds that 'no, you can't live off of a personal garden, but it will provide supplemental nutrition for you and your family and cut down on how much you need to buy from the store.'
7. Make a meadow
An increasingly popular option, a meadow works well as part of a wildlife garden and 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.
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.
The alternative is to sow a special meadow mix instead (try MAS Seeds). It’s extra work but results in a more colorful 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 fall.
8. 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.
There are numerous different gravels available, so choose gravel that is subtle and natural-looking and won’t detract from any planting. Water-worn weathered flint and cockleshells are favorites, but your choice should be guided by local stone, other hardscape materials in the garden, and the house. 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 colored 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.
9. Use bark in shady areas
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 color 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.
10. Opt for fragrant 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 scented thyme lawns are preferable, 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.
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 works 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 favor 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 plants you choose, paths made from paving, gravel, or timber sleepers are essential throughout, so you don’t crush the planting when you walk.
11. Put down patio 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.
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.
Eyal Pasternak, a real estate expert and CEO of Liberty House Buying Group, advises that laying a patio yourself 'is the simplest and least expensive option. You can save a ton of money by doing this.' Laying a brick patio yourself is the easiest option, achievable in a weekend.
12. Conquer a sloping garden with decking
If you have a small outdoor space that's an awkward shape or on a sloping site, installing decking is a speedy way to create a usable surface, perfect for outdoor lounging and dining. There are so many cool decking ideas around for inspiration, and a ton of decking materials to choose from including hardwoods and no-maintenance composite wood lookalikes for budget-friendly alternatives.
What is the best alternative to grass?
The best alternative to grass is the one that is best suited to the size, aspect, and general style of your yard. Smaller yards will benefit from a rock or Japanese garden, while larger yards may look better with a gravel and flowering planting scheme. There aren't any hard and fast rules here. If you're not sure what will work best for you, hire a professional landscape designer for a day to help you if you have some spare budget.
What is the cheapest alternative to grass?
Most alternatives to grass are inexpensive, especially compared with having to maintain a lawn and buying a lawn mower. Plants, gravel, rocks, and mulch are all inexpensive materials you can use in a number of ways to create a grassless yard. If you go down the kitchen garden option, you also won't be out of pocket as raised beds are cheap to build.