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Downsizing Lawns: Home

Photo of a vast lawn in Sussex England; courtesy of Flickr cc/Steve Slater
A vast lawn in Sussex England; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Steve Slater

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.

Coreopsis verticillata (tickseed) is a low maintenance lawn alternative;photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Coreopsis verticillata (tickseed) is a low maintenance lawn alternative;photo by Ivo Vermeulen

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. Mowing just once a year is enough to prevent most woody plants, that will be hard to remove later, from establishing themselves.  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 rye grasses. 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.

Fronds of Onoclea sensibilis (sensitive fern)
Onoclea sensibilis (sensitive fern) can grow in partial to full shade

Low Maintenance Plantings

Botanical Name

Common Name

Adiantum pedatum
maidenhair fern
Ajuga reptans
Alchemilla mollis
lady's mantle
Asarum canadense
American wild ginger
Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
dwarf plumbago
Coreopsis verticillata
coreopsis, tickseed
Epimedium ssp.
Festuca glauca
blue fescue
Gallium odoratum
sweet woodruff
Geranium sanguineum
cranesbill, hardy geranium
Hakenchloa macra 'Aureola'
golden Hakone grass
Heuchera spp.
coral bells
Juniperus conferta
shore juniper
Lamium maculatum
spotted deadnettle
Nepeta x faassenii
Onoclea sensibilis
sensitive fern
Ophiopogon planiscapus
black mondo grass
Pachysandra procumbens
Allegheny pachysandra
Pachysandra terminalis 'Variegata'
variegated Japanese pachysandra
Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii 'Goldsturm'
black-eyed Susan
Sedum reflexum
spruce-leaved sedum
Sedum spurium
two-row stonecrop
Skimmia japonica
Japanese skimmia
Vinca minor
Blue fescue grass (Festuca glauca 'Silver Lining') growing in NYBG's Native Plant Garden; photo by Marlon Co
Blue fescue grass (Festuca glauca 'Silver Lining') growing in NYBG's Native Plant Garden; photo by Marlon Co

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