Ways to reduce your lawn and plant an alternative
Lawns are usually desired for children’s play areas, pet runs, sports activities, and framing an entryway to a home or garden. In many cases, however, lawns go largely unused. There are other beautiful options for residential landscapes that require a similar amount of maintenance and provide additional benefits. Even though lawns have been a part of American culture for generations, we are now in an era in which dramatic declines in pollinators (loss of natural habitat) and climate change (more extreme weather events) make a compelling case to think differently about lawns and how to manage our land more sustainably.
Turfgrasses are challenging to grow in Maryland’s climate. They require constant maintenance that comes with costs – pesticide exposures to humans and pets, pollution, and water waste, to name a few. Even organic lawn care requires time and expense.
Removing grass and reducing the size of your lawn may be desirable if you:
- Cannot grow turfgrass in certain locations because of a steep slope, unsuitable soil conditions, or too much shade;
- Have a lawn that is largely unused and would like to devote your time and resources to other purposes;
- Want to manage stormwater runoff on your property and contribute to improving water quality;
- Wish to add more diversity, beauty, and ecological value to your landscape.
Whatever your motivations are, there are plenty of ways you can replace all or a portion of your lawn. Here are several options for Maryland residents.
What to plant instead of grass
- Groundcovers spread but do not grow tall, so no mowing and little maintenance is necessary. These plants can work well on steep slopes, sharp angles, and narrow driveway strips.
- Perennial evergreen ground covers, with time, can choke out weeds.
- You will need to weed and mulch until your groundcover is established. Use an edge barrier to contain spreading groundcovers and keep a neat appearance.
- Avoid using invasive plants like periwinkles (Vinca major and Vinca minor), Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), and carpet bugleweed (Ajuga reptans).
- Maryland native groundcovers include wild ginger (Asarum canadense), alumroot (Heuchera americana), and green-and-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum).
- Refer to our groundcover list and information on growing and maintaining groundcovers.
- Ornamental grasses are low maintenance, drought resistant, grow in most soils, seldom require fertilizers, and have few pest or disease problems.
- Maryland native switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and yellow indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) are three great choices for sunny sites.
- In shady sites, try bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) or the grass-like Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica).
- You can create stunning displays using different textures and heights and growing habits.
- Foliage should be cut back at least once a year, preferably in the early spring before new growth begins.
- Refer to our list of ornamental and native grasses for Maryland landscapes.
Garden beds or borders
Replace a portion of your lawn with a garden consisting of shrubs, ornamental grasses, flowers, and/or edible plants. One way to approach this is to start small. Consider removing just a 4’x4’ area of grass and replacing it with plants in one year, and then expand the area in subsequent years by dividing plants or adding new ones. This could be in the form of a garden “island” in your yard or a border along a driveway or sidewalk. Garden maintenance takes about the same amount of time as lawn care.
Try gardening with a theme:
- Naturalistic/Native Gardens
- Native plants are among the very best choices for turf alternatives.
- Native plant gardens, whether they are of flowers, shrubs, trees, ornamental grasses, vines, or groundcovers, will reflect your region’s unique beauty and character and will create a sense of place and a portal to nature right in your yard.
- Pollinator gardens or wildlife gardens: Use a variety of plants that bloom at different times throughout the season. Add native plants that provide nectar and pollen, berries, seeds, and bird nesting sites. These are just a few of the many choices available:
- For beneficial insects: Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), mountain mints (Pycnanthemum spp.), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
- For hummingbirds: Eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
- For songbirds: American holly (Ilex opaca), inkberry holly (Ilex glabra), gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), black cherry (Prunus serotina)
- Conservation landscaping: Replace a portion of turfgrass with native plants to improve water quality and wildlife habitat. A rain garden may be suitable in an area where you want to slow down rainwater runoff and increase water infiltration into the soil. Several Maryland Counties offer rebates or tax credit incentives to defray a portion of the cost of implementing approved stormwater management projects. Refer to (PDF) Conservation Landscapes - Watershed Academy Manual.
- Edible landscaping: Add a raised bed garden or an in-ground garden and grow some of your own vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Many herbs are deer-resistant and can be incorporated into ornamental gardens. Here is information on Soil to Fill Raised Beds for an edible garden.
Plant a tree
- Your yard may have space for the addition of a tree or two – and the benefits of trees are numerous. Properly placed trees, once mature, can provide shade and reduce home energy costs, provide privacy, and add value to your property. Trees reduce air pollution, store carbon, and help control stormwater erosion.
- The Maryland Department of Natural Resources offers a $25 coupon to help Marylanders plant trees when you choose from their recommended tree list.
- Place 2-3 inches of mulch underneath the dripline of the tree and/or plant groundcovers under the tree.
- Do you have a large area that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight daily? A meadow can enhance biodiversity by providing shelter, food, and nest sites to birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, and pollinators.
- Meadows are composed of 50 to 70% native grasses and flowering native perennial plants adapted to your ecoregion and soil conditions. Maryland native meadow seeds are not commercially available, so establishment with native plant plugs is recommended. The next best available option would be to use seed from a supplier that collects their seed from a similar ecoregion in a neighboring state.
- Native meadows are often expensive to establish and take about three years to reach maturity. They require weeding during establishment and occasional mowing. For this reason, we recommend Recommended Species for Meadow Creation in Maryland's Coastal Plain
- Meadow “wildflower” seed mixes found in garden centers and hardware stores typically include annual flower seeds that are not native or adapted to Maryland. These can create a colorful flower garden in their first year, but their survival is limited and weed encroachment typically ensues. Refer to Wildlife Meadows: Let’s Get Real.
- Refer to additional meadow-making information from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. https://dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife/Pages/habitat/wawildflowers.aspx
- If you have a large area of land (e.g., several acres), consider maintaining a small lawn just close to your home where it is most often utilized. Leave the farther areas unmowed and naturalistic. This can save you time and money and result in a beautiful natural landscape that attracts a variety of songbirds, pollinators, amphibians, and other wildlife.
- If you leave a portion of your land unmowed it will begin to go through the natural stages of succession. One type of vegetation will follow another – first grasses and other herbaceous plants followed by shrubs, tree seedlings, and mature trees.
- As you allow an area to go through natural succession, be prepared to manage invasive plants.
Mow less often
- Fine leaf fescues, such as hard, creeping red, Chewings, and sheep fescue require less frequent mowing than tall fescue. In fact, these grasses should not be mowed during hot, droughty summer conditions.
- Fine fescues do not tolerate heavy foot traffic.
- This group of grasses is recommended for shady conditions. Hard fescue and sheep fescue are the best of the fine fescues for full sun. Left unmowed in the summer months, fine fescues can grow to 4”+ and form a clumpy, windswept look.
- Fine fescues are prone to thatch buildup and require periodic dethatching.
- Refer to (PDF) Establishing and Maintaining Fescues for Low Maintenance Sites.
- Turn all or a portion of your lawn into a natural woodland area. A woodland can provide habitat for wildlife, improve water quality, and provide privacy and solitude.
- To get started, read The Woods in Your Backyard and explore the information provided by the University of Maryland Extension's Woodland Stewardship Education program.
- Watch the University of Maryland Extension videos: The Woods in Your Backyard and From Turf to Trees: How to Convert Lawn to Forest.
- The use of tree tubes is recommended to protect tree seedlings from deer browsing damage during establishment.
- Grass not growing well under a tree? Too much shade and too much competition for water and nutrients from the tree roots will prevent turf from performing well under shade trees.
- Add 2-3 inches of wood mulch under the tree all the way out to the dripline. This will reduce weeds, retain moisture, increase soil fertility and structure, and protect the tree trunk from mower damage.
- If moss is growing in your lawn, it is a sign that the area is unsuitable for turfgrass. Instead of trying to fight the moss, why not embrace it? Moss has aesthetic and ecological value and makes a suitable groundcover that prevents soil erosion.
- Moss lacks roots and takes in moisture through its leaves and stems from rain, dew, or surface water. Most mosses do well in damp, shady sites.
- If you already have moss in your lawn, encourage it to spread naturally. Remove any remaining weak turfgrass. Pull out weeds and rake out fallen leaves and twigs.
- Refer to Moss in the Landscape and Virginia Tech (PDF) Lawn Moss: Friend or Foe?
Turf removal methods
For successful establishment of your new plants, you will need to smother and kill or remove an existing layer of turfgrass. Options for turf removal include:
- No-till gardening - Lay down several layers of newspaper or one layer of overlapping pieces of unwaxed cardboard. Apply a 4-8 inch layer of shredded leaves and/or grass clippings (avoid clippings from lawns to which herbicides are applied). Then top off the area with a 2-4 inch layer of compost.
- Cover sunny areas with a reusable tarp or woven fabric weed barrier. Leave the cover in place for two to three months, then apply a 2-4 inch layer of compost.
- Refer to our page on Lawn Removal Methods for more details and photos.
Potential problems with removing lawn
- Be conscious of your neighbors’ opinions. Some may not appreciate any deviation from the usual look of the neighborhood or may feel that your choice of plants looks “messy” or “weedy.” Talk with them. Put a sign in your yard that explains what you are doing. Keeping a neat border will help. Your neighbors just might love what you’re doing and look to you for advice for their own yards.
- Some neighborhoods have homeowner associations that sometimes impose rules about the extent to which you can replace your lawn, particularly your front lawn. Start with the more private areas of your yards. Check local ordinances and work to change restrictive measures.
- While an established native or new landscape can be beautiful and eventually save you time and money, it’s not easy. Spreading the job out over a few years can save your budget and your back. It may take a few years to really rid your property of turf and to establish your new plants. You will always need to weed your gardens, prune trees and shrubs, divide crowded plantings, and move or remove overgrown plants.
Your yard is your private space, but it is also part of the world. What you put there matters. By replacing turfgrass, you can, without too much trouble, foster a healthier watershed and ecosystem as you create beautiful, enjoyable, wildlife-friendly yards that require less maintenance, water, and chemicals.