Alternatives to lawns for better water conservation

Bermuda grass; an alternative to the thirstier Kentucky Blue Grass

I hope it’s common knowledge by now that we need to conserve our precious natural resources. They are finite, and once they are gone or polluted, the damage is irreversible.

Water is the source of all life. We cannot live without it. We need to conserve it and keep what remains of out water as clean as we can. As the earth’s climate is changing, we are seeing drier growing seasons, meaning water is rationed, wells run dry, and irrigation ditches do not run. Our situation is dire this spring here in New Mexico.

So why do we plant grass?

We have been in love with the lush green lawn for too long. Kentucky Blue Grass, the most common for lawns, is planted in more places than just Kentucky! It needs a lot of water, even if it’s planted in a humid, eastern suburb where it rains regularly. It’s just not suited to all climates.

There are many alternatives to that expanse of green grass. Get educated, change your thinking, and you will not cherish it anymore. End the love affair!

Ideas for grass lawn alternatives

I think people are afraid to make a huge change, like removing their grass and landscape differently. It pays to do a little research online or at your local garden center. Visit botanical gardens for even more inspiration. Ask questions and take notes, or high a professional landscaper to design and install a new yard for you. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Reasons to do replace grass lawns with an alternative ground cover

1. Replacing grass lawns will conserve water.

2. There will be less maintenance – mowing, weeding, fertilizing – which means you will have more time to enjoy summer!

3. You will lessen the chance of insect and disease damage. Grass is a monoculture crop, one thing planted in the same spot for a long period of time. This breeds pests, from insects to disease. Mother Nature did not create monoculture. Her world is diverse!

4. Your yard will have more visual interest than a sea of green (or brown, in a drought!)

Incorporate native grasses and plants

Plant native and adaptable trees, shrubs and flowers. Not only will you live within and enhance your local ecosystem, you will also feed and shelter wildlife, and conserve water. Native and adaptable plants are drought tolerant, need very little maintenance, and they are beautiful year round.

Native grasses are drought tolerant and gorgeous to look at in every season, too. Being naturally acclimated to your environment,  mowing may be optional and no fertilizer is needed to get native grass species to thrive. Depending on your area, you can plant:

  • Tall Fescue (likes hot and humid)
  • Bermuda Grass (hot and dry year round),
  • Zoysia
  • Buffalo Grass
  • Blue Grama

Talk to your county extension agent or a reputable nursery for species that work best for you.

Create an edible landscape

I heard that the price of food is going to skyrocket this summer. By planting vegetables, fruit and herbs, you can buffer yourself from rising food costs, no matter when that happens. Plus, you know what you are eating, you can grow hard-to-find specialty items, and you can continually experiment in the kitchen.

Plant groundcovers

Decide how heavy the foot traffic is in the various areas of your yard, and plant accordingly. Some groundcovers are hardier than others and will tolerate more wear, so they should be grown in major walkways. Mother of Thyme is a common, hardy groundcover that smells wonderful when walked on. I have it planted between flagstones to soften the look. Mints, sedums, Irish Moss, Speedwell, Vinca, Chamomile and creeping Junipers are more excellent, easy groundcovers.

Rock gardens and native shrubs can be a great replacement for traditional, thirsty lawns. Planning them can save you time, boost the visual appeal of your property, and of course save water too.

Plant a wildflower meadow

This is quite a process, but so worth it! Consult with a nursery or your extension agent about suitable plant mixes. They will also give you instructions on how to prepare, plant and maintain the area until the plants are established. It takes a bit of planning, but it is maintenance free in the end. It will also attract wildlife for food and shelter. When you use plants that easily reseed, your meadow will look different every year.

Plan hardscaping layouts instead of lawns

Just like it sounds, hardscaping is the hard part of your yard – walkways, driveways, structures and so on. Hardscaping is used in tandem with plantings. It creates boundaries and definition, as well as visual interest year round.

1. Build patios and outdoor living areas adjacent to your house. Expand your living area outdoors with a covered flagstone patio that includes kitchen and living areas. We don’t need to entertain on grass! Build a gazebo in a far corner of your property for a covered place to sit with a different perspective.

2. Create paths. The best material for this will allow rainwater to drain into the ground instead of running off. Run-off erodes soils and washes it into the storm drain. Use crusher fines, pavers or gravel to prevent run-off. Fine mulch can be laid, but will need to be replenished every year or two depending on how much foot traffic it gets. You can also put down stepping stones and plant a groundcover between them. Paths can connect various outdoor living areas or simply replace lawn walkways.

3.  Create a water feature. This could be a pond or a fountain. You can line a natural swale with gravel and have it catch in a small pond. To build a natural pond, it will have to be in a low-lying area where the water table is high.

Wildflower gardens are beautiful, resilient, and don't require intervention when it comes to water use, since they've got survival capabilitiies built-in.

4. Border your hardscaping with plants. I have a flagstone walkway planted with Potentilla verna, which loves the heat produced by the stone. I can’t walk on the stone barefoot, but the plants are thriving! Plants also soften the hardness of the hardscaping.

The lawn care industry is a multi-million dollar business that is based on toxic pesticide use. Any bit of lawn you can replace with plants and/or hardscaping will help the environment. The less lawn you have, the better off your health and the health of the planet will be.

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