9 Eco-Friendly Grass Alternatives

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various wildflowers in an area together, with a large sunflower in the middle

Lawn work isn’t just physically exhausting. It also exhausts natural resources and pollutes the environment. Using a gas-powered lawn mower for an hour produces the same amount of emissions as 11 running cars. Fertilizing and weekly waterings also strain ecosystems.

Making your lawn gentler on the environment isn’t difficult to do. It takes some planning to DIY, but the outcome is a lush, eco-friendly space that will make you feel good about your carbon footprint. 

What does “eco-friendly” mean? 

An “eco-friendly” choice is designed to have minimal to no damaging effects on the environment. “Eco-friendly” is an umbrella term to describe practices that conserve water, decrease energy usage, and reduce pollution.

An eco-friendly lawn requires:

  • Less watering
  • Little or no mowing
  • Few or no fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides

Depending on the grass alternative you choose, your lawn also can attract pollinators and promote biodiversity.

Eco-friendly lawn alternatives

From ground covers to hardscapes, you’ve got a treasure trove of options for a beautiful, sustainable lawn.

Ground covers

close-up of carpet sedum ground cover
Michele Dorsey Walfred | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Ground covers are low-growing plants that will fill out your lawn with zero mowing and little to no fertilizer. There’s one for every region and every lawn style, from creeping evergreens to springy moss to flowering perennials. 

To minimize maintenance and increase biodiversity, plant a ground cover native to your area

Make sure that the ground cover plant you choose isn’t invasive to your region: Ground covers like creeping Jenny and ajuga are invasive in certain states. Check your state’s invasive species list or contact your local Cooperative Extension office. 

Eco-friendly ground covers include:

  • Carpet sedum (Sedum lineare), also known as stonecrop, is an evergreen, pollinator-friendly succulent that thrives in rocky areas with poor soil. It is heat- and drought-resistant, and it needs little to no fertilizer. 
  • Creeping thyme is a fragrant, sun-loving perennial that will fill your lawn with tiny purple flowers in summer to attract pollinators. It doesn’t require fertilizer and needs little watering. 
  • Corsican mint is an aromatic shade-lover that takes time to establish, but once it’s settled, it will spread well and lavish your lawn with delicate lilac blossoms. It requires fertilizer and regular watering, but it’s a good no-mow alternative  — plus, you can cook and bake with it. It’s considered invasive in the Southeast.
  • Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) is a dense, flowering ground cover that thrives in sunny areas, forming a mossy mat underfoot. It requires fertilization and needs to be watered in the heat of summer, but it resists diseases and attracts pollinators.

Where to grow ground covers: 

  • Your region, climate, soil type, and level of sunlight will determine the best ground cover for your lawn. 
  • Check your plant hardiness zone to determine which ground covers suit your lawn.
Pros of ground coversCons of ground covers
✓No mowing required
✓ Little or no watering required
✓ Many attract pollinators
✓ Protect against erosion
✓ Native ground covers won’t require fertilizer
✓ Many perennial and evergreen options
✓ Can be used as a full lawn substitute or as a landscaping accent
✗ Can be invasive to your region
✗ Take time to establish: As the saying goes: “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep and the third year they leap”
✗ Some require watering and trimming

Native plants

To save energy and increase biodiversity, native plants are an excellent lawn choice. Because they’re adapted to your region, they require far less water than turfgrasses and they won’t need fertilizer or frequent mowing.

The National Audubon Society calls native plants “the ecological basis upon which life depends, including birds and people.” Native plants provide valuable food and shelter for butterflies, birds, and bees.

Where to grow native plants: 

Native plants vary by region. To find the best native plants for your area, use the National Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder or contact your local extension service. 

Pros of native plantsCons of native plants
✓ No-mow
✓ Low-maintenance
✓ Many repel mosquitoes
✓ Help manage rain runoff
✓ Little or no watering required
✓ Attract pollinators
✓ No fertilizer necessary
✓ Promote biodiversity
✓ Reduce air pollution
✗ Many native plants cannot handle heavy foot traffic
✗ Not a good option for play areas

Wildflower meadow

various types of wild flowers in a field
Time Green | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Native wildflower meadows are gorgeous, low-maintenance biodiversity powerhouses. They don’t need fertilizer, herbicide, or frequent watering, and they only need to be mowed once a year.

It takes planning and some elbow grease to DIY a wildflower meadow, but the results will dazzle you, your neighbors, and local birds, butterflies, and bees. 

Where to grow a wildflower meadow:

  • Wildflowers tend to grow best in open, sunny areas with low foot traffic. 
  • Choose a high-quality mixture of flowers that are native to your region
    • Most wildflower mixes blend native flowers with native grasses. 
    • Grasses prevent erosion, crowd out weeds, and act as a food source and habitat for wildlife.

Ten popular wildflowers for butterflies and bees:

  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Common madia (tarweed)
  • Arroyo lupine
  • Purple coneflower
  • Gum plant
  • Goldenrod
  • Aster
  • Milkweed
  • Yarrow
  • Golden Alexander 
Pros of a wildflower meadowCons of a wildflower meadow
✓ Grows in poor soil
✓ Adds natural color to your landscape 
✓ Does not need frequent watering
✓ No fertilizer required
✓ Little to no herbicide and pesticide required
✓ Great for pollinators
✓ Promotes biodiversity and reduces pollution
✓ Many wildflowers are native perennials
✗ Takes time and labor to establish seeds
✗ Sensitive to weeds
✗ Cannot tolerate high foot traffic
✗ Can look messier than a traditional lawn
✗ Requires a spacious yard

No-mow and low-mow grasses

You don’t have to sacrifice a green lawn to go eco-friendly. There are low-mow and no-mow grasses for every region. Low-mow grass lawns reduce gasoline usage and greenhouse gas emissions from mower exhaust. Plus, they need less water and fertilizer than regular turfgrass. 

In cooler climates, hard fescue and fescue mixes are the way to go. 

In warmer climates, no-mow Zoysia (Zoysia tenuifolia), buffalograss, and centipedegrass are popular options.

  • Hard fescue (Festuca longifolia, brevipila, or trachyphylla) is a strong, fine-bladed grass that needs little watering and naturally protects against weeds. You’ll only need to mow your lawn once or twice a year. 
  • No-mow Zoysia (Zoysia tenuifolia) is a hardy warm-season grass that only needs two mowings per year (unlike other Zoysia varieties that need to be mowed weekly). It requires moderate watering and fertilization.
  • Buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides) is a hardy warm-season turfgrass that thrives in sunny areas and is heat- and drought-tolerant. For a meadow-like lawn, it only needs to be mowed once every spring. Buffalograss requires less maintenance than regular turfgrasses, but it still needs watering and fertilization. 
  • Centipedegrass (Eremochloa ophiuroides) is an apple-green colored, slow-growing turfgrass. It requires mowing, but much less than the average turfgrass lawn, hence its nickname, the “lazy man’s grass.” It grows best in hot, sunny southern lawns, and requires infrequent, deep waterings and very little fertilizer. 

For more information on each of these grasses, as well as sedge, clover, and ornamental grasses, check out Lawn Love’s “Low-Maintenance Grasses as Grass Alternatives.”

Where to grow low-mow or no-mow grass

  • Hard fescue should be grown in the North and Transition Zone (USDA planting zones 4 to 9).
  • No-mow Zoysia should be grown in the South and Transition Zone (USDA planting zones 6 to 11).
  • Buffalograss should be grown in the South and Transition Zone (USDA planting zones 7 to 10).
  • Centipedegrass should be grown in the South (USDA planting zones 7 to 10). 
Pros of no-mow or low-mow grassCons of no-mow or low-mow grass
✓ No mowing
✓ Requires less frequent watering than a traditional lawn
✓ Requires less fertilizer than traditional turfgrass
✓ Low-maintenance and hardy once established
✓ Can tolerate moderate foot traffic
✗ Some no-mow and low-mow grasses are non-native
✗ Does not attract pollinators
✗ Requires watering, fertilizer, and herbicide

Rain garden

infographic explaining how a rain garden works

Rain gardens are a beautiful way to protect aquatic ecosystems, conserve water, and create a habitat for local wildlife. A rain garden will strain out harmful chemicals from rainwater before the water reaches local ponds, streams, and lakes. Plus, it will protect your yard from flooding.

Rain gardens are made up of native perennials, shrubs, and flowers that are planted in a depression on a slope. For single-family homes, rain gardens are typically 150 to 400 square feet, but even a small rain garden makes a big impact on local ecological health.

How a rain garden works:

  • When it rains, water flows down the slope from driveways, roofs, patios, and lawns. 
  • The rain garden acts like a bathtub, temporarily stopping and holding the water.
  • Permeable soil and deep plant roots filter the water, straining out nutrients, chemicals, and sediment. 
  • When the water reaches streams and lakes, it’s much cleaner and it won’t shock aquatic ecosystems.

Where to plant a rain garden: Plant on a slope at least 10 feet away from building foundations. When choosing a location, take note of your lawn’s natural drainage pattern: The best place for a rain garden will be in a low spot where runoff collects. 

Call utility companies before you begin digging to make sure you don’t hit any underground wires, cables, or pipes. 

Pros of a rain gardenCons of a rain garden
✓ No mowing or watering once established
✓ Pollinator-friendly
✓ Promotes biodiversity and creates a habitat for wildlife
✓ Conserves water
✓ No fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide required for native plants
✓ Protects local waterways from harmful chemicals and algal bloom
✓ Reduces potential of home flooding
✓ Increases property value
✗ Can be more expensive to establish than a normal garden
✗ Building a rain garden can be a labor-intensive DIY project
✗ Can get clogged if surrounding landscape is not maintained
✗ Since they take more than 24 hours to drain, they can be breeding grounds for mosquitoes
✗ Requires some upkeep: Weeding, cleaning, and re-mulching

Rock garden

rock garden surrounded by colorful succulents
cultivar413 | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Trying to grow lush, green grass in sandy, drought-prone regions exhausts resources and takes a toll on the environment. A rock garden lets you display your unique lawn style while also conserving water, decreasing fertilizer use, and cutting mowing out of the equation. 

Rock gardens can be state-of-the-art or understated: You can build stone pathways and layer rocks for a statuesque, multidimensional look, or you can simply ring a boulder with succulents, gravel, or sand.

Popular elements of a rock garden include: 

  • Cacti and succulents
  • Ornamental grasses 
  • Native perennials
  • Drought-tolerant ground covers
  • Gravel
  • Sand
  • Stepping stones 
  • Natural boulders

Before you launch into a DIY, note the weight of the rocks you choose: One cubic foot of sandstone weighs about 150 pounds, and other rock types weigh more. You’ll need a dolly and a pry bar for leverage — or you may want to hire a professional lawn care crew

Where to grow a rock garden: If you live in the drought-prone Southwest, replacing turfgrass with drought-tolerant plants can conserve natural resources and put money back in your wallet. Xeriscaping (landscaping to reduce the need for water) can make you eligible for a governmental rebate

Pros of a rock gardenCons of a rock garden
✓ Drought- and heat-tolerant
✓ Adds dimension to your landscape
✓ Prevents erosion
✓ No mowing and little watering required
✓ Little or no fertilizer required
✓ Can be pollinator-friendly and native, depending on the ground cover you choose
✓ Long-lasting once installed
✓ Rebates available in some states
✗ Boulders and rocks can be expensive
✗ Installing a rock garden yourself can be physically strenuous
✗ Some maintenance required: Must be raked out periodically
✗ Must be weeded during establishment
✗ More watering required during dry periods

Mulch and gravel

Large pile of mulch with a wheelbarrow next to it
Joe Hoover | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Mulch and gravel are unsung heroes in the quest for an eco-friendly lawn. They may not be eye-catching, but they’re great at preventing weeds and reducing erosion. By using mulch and gravel, you can decrease the amount of herbicide, fertilizer, and sediment that flows into waterways.

Mulch keeps roots moist and gives them a nutrient boost, so you can conserve water and use less fertilizer. It’s a great addition to flower beds, rain gardens, shady spots under trees, and anywhere else where your soil could use some nutritional TLC. 

Spreading gravel around ground covers and in rock gardens is an eco-conscious way to improve water drainage while suppressing weeds and keeping plants firmly in place. 

A gravel walkway is an environmentally friendly alternative to less permeable surfaces. Unlike traditional stone pavers, gravel is porous, allowing water to drain into the soil instead of forcing it to flow directly into waterways. 

Where to add mulch and gravel: 

  • Wherever you live, you can add gravel as an eco-friendly lawn accent: 
    • Around fire pits 
    • Under arbors 
    • Around pathways and patios
    • In rain gardens
    • On inclines where plants struggle to grow
  • You can add mulch to almost any area that needs a nutrient boost: 
    • Around trees and in shady areas
    • In herb gardens and kitchen gardens
    • In flower beds
    • In rain gardens
  • However, note that certain plants thrive in poor soil conditions. 
    • Wildflowers, succulents, and other native plants may prefer rocky, sandy soil with minimal nutrients. 
Pros of mulch and gravelCons of mulch and gravel
✓ No mowing or fertilizing required
✓ Prevent erosion
✓ Decrease stormwater runoff
✓ Suppress weed growth, decrease need for herbicide
✓ Easy DIY choices for areas where grass struggles to grow
✓ Mulch improves soil and plant health
✗ Will not be the stars of your lawn: You’ll need other landscaping elements
✗ Mulch discourages wildflower growth
✗ Gravel requires edging to stay in place
✗ Depending on the color and type of the rock, gravel can get hot underfoot

Hardscapes

construction of a stone patio
Andrew Malone | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Installing a hardscape feature can minimize your lawn work and give your ecosystem a lift. You won’t have to mow, water, fertilize or use harsh chemicals. 

Lawn hardscapes include: 

  • Patios
  • Decks
  • Fire pits
  • Outdoor kitchens
  • Fencing
  • Fountains
  • Paved pathways

Hardscaping can benefit the environment. However, hardscapes are also … hard. 

Many hardscape surfaces are impermeable, which means they do not allow water to penetrate. This forces stormwater runoff and triggers the heat island effect (hard surfaces absorb and re-emit heat more than surrounding greenery, raising the air temperature). 

Fortunately, there are more eco-friendly hardscape options like permeable pavers that are available for homeowners. They tend to cost more than traditional options, but they’ll protect aquatic ecosystems from stormwater pollution.

To mitigate the heat island effect, choose a hardscape with high solar reflectance

Where to hardscape: Wherever you live, you can add hardscaping features to your lawn. It’s important to make sure the area is even before you begin the installation. For complex hardscaping projects, you may want to call in a local expert or crew to put your design into motion. 

Pros of hardscapesCons of hardscapes
✓ Add dimension and interest to your landscape
✓ Increase curb appeal and home value
✓ No mowing required
✓ No fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide needed
✓ Easy maintenance
✓ Long-lasting
✓ Fantastic for social gatherings
✗ More expensive than garden and planting options
✗ Can be impermeable, contributing to runoff
✗ Can trigger the heat island effect
✗ Do not attract pollinators or promote biodiversity 

Flower beds and borders

To stop mowing and start attracting pollinators, flower beds and borders will give you gorgeous blooms while decreasing the amount of space devoted to turfgrass. Bordering your flower beds will reduce erosion and protect against nutrient-filled runoff flowing into waterways. 

For a healthy, lush garden, choose flowers that best suit your region, soil type, and sun exposure. Pick native perennial flowers, shrubs, and succulents. Maximize compost and minimize synthetic fertilizer to nourish your flowers. If fertilizer is needed, choose an organic variety

If you’re interested in eco-conscious eating, also consider a vegetable garden or kitchen garden.

Where to plant flower beds and borders: 

  • You can plant flower beds around your home exterior, beneath trees (if your flowers are shade-tolerant), next to a footpath, or in terraced beds on a slope. 
  • Flower beds can brighten up small spaces in your yard where grass is difficult to grow. 
  • If you live in a drought-prone region, you may want to consider other grass alternatives, as flower beds require regular watering and many flowers prefer moist soil.
Pros of flower beds and bordersCons of flower beds and borders
✓ No mowing required
✓ Less fertilizer and chemicals needed than for a traditional turfgrass lawn
✓ Borders prevent erosion and decrease runoff
✓ Vibrant flowers are visually appealing
✓ Resilient once established
✗ Establishment requires fertilizer and frequent watering
✗ May require herbicide and pesticide
✗ Without adequate drainage, roots can rot
✗ Beds require some maintenance: cleaning and trimming

Why should I use fewer fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides?

Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are expensive and can harm both your lawn and your local ecosystems. This is why eco-friendly lawn alternatives are a great option.

  1. If too much fertilizer is applied, lawns can suffer from fertilizer burn and soil imbalances, which can stifle plant growth and kill grass.
  1. Fertilizer runoff causes harmful algal blooms in aquatic environments.
    • Blooms create a “dead zone,” an area of extremely low oxygen where plants and animals either die or are left without a home.
    • Overgrown algae can release toxins that contaminate drinking water and cause illnesses in humans and pets.
  1. Pesticides kill more than just the pests: They also can harm native wildlife and decrease biodiversity.
    • Honeybee and bird populations decline with the use of harsh chemicals.
    • Soil quality declines as microorganisms die. 
  1. Routine application of herbicides and pesticides causes genetic resistance to develop. 
    • It becomes increasingly difficult to eliminate weeds and pests, so increasingly toxic chemicals must be used. 
  1. Pesticides can be harmful to children and pets. 

Why should I conserve water?

Eco-friendly landscaping is a great way to reduce water usage. Water is a renewable resource, so outside of lowering your bills, why use less of it? 

For one, water takes energy and time to clean. 

  • The EPA estimates that “drinking water and wastewater systems account for approximately 2 percent of energy use in the United States, adding over 45 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.”
  • Every time you use water, it must be treated to remove pathogens and contaminants before it can go back into circulation. 
  • While the water is being treated, it isn’t available for consumption. 

Water isn’t spread out evenly across the world, and it’s not easily portable.

  • A water shortage in San Francisco can’t just be fixed by driving or flying in water from Baton Rouge. 
  • Homeowners in drought-prone areas must often restrict their lawn watering so there is enough water for people to drink. 

No matter where you live, it’s a great idea to conserve water, both for your bank account and the environment. Not needing to water your lawn every week is a fantastic place to start. 

FAQs

1. How long will it take my low-mow or no-mow grass to start growing? 

According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “a low-growing turf lawn will ‘green up’ about two weeks after seeding,” depending on the weather and water levels. Your grass type will determine when seedlings emerge. You can check specific germination rates for an expected timeline.

2. I want to be more eco-friendly, but my lawn has a lot of shade. What should I do? 

Ground cover is your best friend. There is a host of shade-loving ground covers that will grow where no turfgrass dares to enter. Check out shade-tolerant perennials and ground covers like English ivy, ajuga, hosta, sweet woodruff, and pachysandra

3. I’ve seeded my wildflower meadow. How long will it take to bloom?

It generally takes six to 12 weeks for wildflowers to begin blooming, depending on your climate and the seed mix you selected. Don’t panic if your meadow doesn’t immediately look the way you imagined it would. Annual flowers will visually dominate your meadow in the first year, while perennials may not bloom until the second or third year. 

So many options for an eco-friendly landscape

Whether ground covers, wildflower meadows, or hardscapes catch your eye, going eco-friendly doesn’t mean settling for uninspired, limited options. If you’re craving more creative lawn choices, check out Lawn Love’s “15 Inspiring Alternatives to Grass.” 

If you’d like an extra pair of green thumbs as you go green, call a local lawn care professional to help out with planning, planting, and installation. 

Main Photo Credit: Capri23auto | Pixabay

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