Dear Sustainability Sam,
We have a traditional grass lawn that is becoming sparse for various reasons. What is good alternative (renewable, less chemical-dependent) ground cover that we could fill in with? What are resources for homeowners wanting more earth friendly lawns?
Grass lawns are undoubtedly pretty to look at but they can be difficult and time consuming to maintain. In addition, to make them look their best they can be water and fertilizer intensive which is not great for those seeking more sustainable living. Here are three more sustainable alternatives to traditional grass turf:
1. Low maintenance turf. Most grass lawns are seeded with Kentucky Blue grass but there are hardier and more drought resistant varieties of grasses out there. Try planting a fescue variety. Fescues need less water and a lot less fertilizing but still look like a traditional lawn. Fescues are also slow growing so they need minimal mowing (once in mid-summer and once in late fall). Once established, fescues create a dense sod which makes it difficult for weeds to take root. And the dense sod is also great for lawns that get used recreationally by kids.
2. Pollinator friendly ground cover. Pollinator friendly ground covers are low growing flowering plants such as White Clover, Creeping Thyme, Self Heal, Ground Plum and fine fescues. These plants establish deep roots which means they need a lot less watering. They also create habitat for pollinators and improve soil health without using fertilizers. Pollinator friendly ground covers are best for lawns that are not heavily used or that are primarily aesthetic.
3. Perennial ground covers. Converting lawn into perennial ground cover offers the maximum ecological impact but takes the most work and gardening know-how. It involves the removal of turf and calls for higher levels of maintenance while establishing. Perennial ground cover needs at least an inch of water a week while the plants get established and requires a lot of weeding. There are plenty of perennials to choose from and experiment with so talk to a landscaper or a garden center representative to get started.
Another option that gives you a great looking lawn with almost no maintenance is artificial turf. Artificial turfs have come a long way in recent years. There are several varieties to choose from to get the look you want (even pet friendly varieties) and appear very natural from even a short distance away. Artificial turf requires no watering, no fertilizing and no mowing – EVER! The downside is that it needs to be professionally installed and can get very hot if installed in full sun areas. It can also be expensive. Artificial turf looks best when it is entirely contained by hardscape like a patio, sidewalk or pavers so that you can’t see the seam.
If you want to keep your traditional grass looking its best, let it grow to 2 1/2 – 3” before mowing. Longer grass allows the roots to grow deeper. A deeper root system allows the grass to access more water during dry spells. Longer grass also shades the soil surface which keeps it from drying out so that less water is needed. Water the grass only once a week and skip the watering when it rains. When you do mow, leave the grass clippings on the ground (clean up any clippings on sidewalks and streets to keep them out of the storm drains). Grass clippings will decompose and fertilize the lawn for you, requiring less chemical fertilizers to be used. Top dressing your lawn with a compost/soil mix will reduce your lawn’s water needs and make it more resistant to drought and disease. You will need to fertilize less often, and when you do, you can use less fertilizer. Lastly, if your soil is compacted or there is significant thatch build up, aerate your lawn.
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