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Downsizing Lawns

The American vision of England’s picturesque landscape is a great expanse of green lawn. Of course, there is really nothing like the versatile lawn as a ground cover and play surface. But this idea was imported from cool, damp Great Britain, and many turf grasses do not grow well in our climatically diverse country. Hence, we must expend great effort and cost to maintain so much unusable, nonproductive land.

Since the limitless “greensward” design concept, originated by renowned landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted in noteworthy parks throughout the country, grass has been the conventional choice for our residential landscapes. In fact, homeowners spend an estimated 40 billion dollars per year on their lawns--watering, fertilizing, applying pesticides and mowing--all to maintain an unnatural monoculture. A small, 1,000-square-foot lawn could require as much as 20,000 gallons of water per year to be green. It is estimated that more than 50% of residential and commercial irrigation water use goes to waste due to evaporation, wind, over watering and poor system design. In the Southwest, where costs for water can become prohibitive, many people are replacing lawns with Astroturf. This artificial covering not only blocks the flow of natural elements between earth and sky but also heats up so much that it can burn children and pets.

As concerned gardeners, we can take steps to minimize the overuse and non-sustainable consequences of the American lawn: water wastage; groundwater, river and ocean pollution; and sterile habitats that harbor disease and insect pests. The artificial environment created by great expanses of grass discourages native diversity and wildlife, while the use of fossil-fuel powered machinery for maintenance causes pollution and further oil dependence. Possibly the most dangerous effect of the myriad pesticides used is the risk posed to the health of children and animals. Our choice to stop using pesticides will benefit people, pets and wildlife in the community.

Steps for Downsizing Lawns

As a first step to downsizing, rethink the meaning of the word “weed.” Simply allow a part of your backyard to revert to nature; let whatever chooses to seed itself take over. To prevent a succession of trees and shrubs, this area can eventually be mowed, preferably with a manual mower. Native plants use fewer natural resources and attract wildlife. The potential of this type of mixed planting is enormous for wildlife and plant conservation and has been dubbed the “freedom lawn.” This small action will reduce the need for water and chemicals.

A second step is to convert some lawn space into a more productive vegetable/herb garden using only organic fertilizers and mulches. An edible and/or native wildflower garden is a desirable and useful alternative to an all-grass lawn. Remember, any grass areas that remain depend upon site characteristics such as shade tolerance, drought tolerance and maintenance requirements. Choose appropriate lawn grasses: a good mix for full sun and medium maintenance contains mostly Kentucky bluegrass blends mixed with fine fescues and perennial ryegrasses. A 100% fine fescue blend works best in shady areas.

The possibilities for good landscape design combinations are endless when you use ground covers, ferns, evergreens, and ornamental grasses in addition to or instead of lawn. Even some “hardscape” elements such as gravel or mulch surfaces and paving stones offer good design solutions. Little by little, that hungry and thirsty green lawn can be whittled down to a more manageable size. Although it will take a shift in thinking because we have been conditioned to the idea of a well-manicured lawn for so long, we can ensure our downsized lawns become more of an environmental asset than a liability.

Low Maintenance Plantings


Adiantum pedatum       maidenhair fern
Ajuga reptans bugleweed
Alchemilla mollis lady’s mantle
Asarum canadense    American wild ginger 
Ceratostigma plumbaginoides     dwarf plumbago
Convallaria majalis lily-of-the-valley 
Coreopsis verticillata  coreopsis, tickseed 
Epimedium spp.  barrenwort 
Festuca ovina glauca  blue fescue 
Gallium odoratum  sweet woodruff 
Geranium sanguineum  cranesbill, hardy geranium
Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'  golden hakonechloa 
Hedera helix  English ivy 
Heuchera  spp. coral bells 
Juniperus conferta  shore juniper 
Lamium maculatum  spotted dead nettle 
Nepeta x faassenii  catmint 
Onoclea sensibilis  sensitive fern 
Ophiopogon planiscapus  black mondo grass 
Pachysandra procumbens  Allegheny pachysandra 
Pachysandra terminalis 'Variegata'    variegated Japanese spurge 
Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldstrum'  goldstrum coneflower 
Sedum reflexum  spruce-leaved sedum 
Sedum spurium  two-row stonecrop 
Skimmia japonica  Japanese skimmia 
Vinca minor  myrtle 

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