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What to Use Instead of Grass: 21 Alternatives for Your Garden

lawn with lawnmower

Ever looked out onto your grass lawn, the very picture of suburban perfection, and wondered if there’s another way? A way that doesn’t involve endless mowing, watering, and battling weeds?

You’re not alone.

In fact, more people are starting to explore what to use instead of grass. Let’s be honest: maintaining a classic lawn often feels like a never-ending cycle of upkeep.

Seeking something different, I embarked on a journey of discovery. After extensive research (and many cups of tea!), I’ve found that, instead of grass, there is a myriad of ground cover options that not only reduce maintenance but also enhance your garden’s beauty and ecological value.

These alternatives aren’t just about aesthetics; they’re about inviting wildlife, fostering biodiversity, and creating a sustainable, low-maintenance garden. Join me in exploring these transformative ideas for a garden that thrives with life and diversity. 

Artificial Grass: A Green Alternative?

Let’s talk about artificial grass, shall we? It might seem like a fantastic idea at first glance. No watering, no mowing, and it stays green all year round! But is it really as eco-friendly as you’d think?

Despite its lush appearance and low-maintenance appeal, artificial turf isn’t the most sustainable choice for your garden. Why so? Let me explain.

Sustainability Concerns

  • Non-renewable resources: Artificial grass is made from plastic materials such as polyethylene or nylon – both derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. This means that the production of these synthetic lawns contributes to our global dependence on finite resources.
  • Pollution: The manufacturing process of artificial turf involves heavy machinery which releases harmful greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.
  • No habitat for wildlife: Unlike natural grass that provides homes for insects and small animals, fake lawns offer little to no benefit to local biodiversity.

I’m sure by now you’re starting to see why I wouldn’t recommend this option if sustainability is your goal. While there are certainly benefits to artificial grass, they don’t outweigh the environmental costs when compared with other alternatives available out there.

In the next sections of this article, we’ll delve deeper into more eco-friendly alternatives.

Ground Covers: Low-Maintenance Options for a Lush Green Yard

If you’re after a luxuriant green yard but don’t fancy regular mowing, other low-growing plants could be perfect instead of grass!

1. Creeping Jenny

Creeping jenny, or ‘Lysimachia nummularia’ stays green all year round in most climates. Its tiny green leaves form a dense mat of foliage that’s just inches high – no need for lawnmowers here.

It’s not fussy about where it grows either. Creeping Jenny thrives in both sunny areas and partial shade, making it an adaptable choice whatever the layout of your garden

The beauty of this perennial doesn’t stop at its looks though. The true gem lies in its drought tolerance which means less water consumption compared to traditional lawns. It’s hardy enough to withstand dry spells without wilting or losing its lushness.

Come late spring, you’ll witness another wonder as clusters of bright yellow flowers bloom amongst the sea of green leaves; adding an extra pop to your yard.

2. Creeping Thyme

Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is a lovely alternative to grass, offering beautiful purple flowers that attract pollinators.

As a drought-tolerant plant, it requires less water and upkeep than a traditional grass lawn.

Additionally, creeping thyme is known to repel mosquitos and provide sustenance for honey bees, making it an environmentally friendly choice as well.

3. Sweet Woodruff

Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) offers fresh, green foliage and delicate white blooms in the spring.

As a ground cover, it’s a low-maintenance option that works well in shaded areas where grass struggles to grow.

Simply provide it with some mulch and occasional watering, and it will create a lush carpet in your garden.

4. Moss

moss
A patch of moss in my garden.

If you’re looking for a low-maintenance alternative, moss can be an excellent choice.

Requiring no mowing or weeding, moss creates a soft green layer that thrives in damp, shady locations, like where trees grow.

5. Clover Lawn

Clover (Trifolium spp.) is gaining popularity as a ground cover for its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, reducing the need for fertilisers.

A favourite of pollinators, clover provides a valuable source of nectar for bees and butterflies.

Furthermore, it’s drought tolerant and requires minimal mowing, making clover a sustainable grass lawn alternative.

One thing to remember, as with all flowering lawn substitutes, is to watch for bees, especially if – like me – you like walking barefoot in your garden!

6. Corsican Mint

Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii) is a hardy, low-growing mint. It spreads effortlessly, forming a dense, bright green blanket that not only looks appealing but also releases a pleasing, aromatic scent.

Corsican Mint can withstand light foot traffic, making it an excellent choice for garden paths where you can enjoy its fragrance with every step.

As a bonus, mint also has natural pest-repellent abilities. It’s known to deter various garden pests, providing an organic solution to keeping your garden healthy.

Corsican Mint only asks for well-drained soil and partial shade, making it a fuss-free choice for ground cover.

7. Chamomile

A chamomille lawn.

Chamomile is not just pretty; it’s tough as nails. It can handle less water and still look gorgeous. Additionally, chamomile lawns release a delightful, calming aroma when walked upon.

Once established, it can handle some foot traffic, although it is best to only occasionally walk on it.

Chamomille produces small, daisy-like flowers all summer, which I love to use to make a deliciously soothing herbal tea.

The non-flowering cultivar ‘Treneague’ is perhaps better suited for a lawn substitute as it is very low-growing and requires very little maintenance.

8. Sedum Lawn

If you’re looking for a beautiful lawn that’s kind to the environment, Sedum plants are an excellent choice! They’re much more drought-resistant than regular grass and provide year-round beauty.

However, it’s important to remember that Sedum lawns aren’t suitable for areas with a lot of foot traffic, such as a play area for kids. But if you’re looking for a grass alternative for your front garden or sloping lawn, Sedums have a unique texture that’s sure to impress.

Plus, they’re great for attracting pollinators like bees and butterflies!

9. Tapestry Lawn

Tapestry lawn in autumn. Reading University.

A tapestry lawn consists of a mixture of low-growing, hardy plants, such as creeping thyme, clover, and sweet woodruff, laid out in a pattern or mosaic. 

This innovative approach to ground cover offers a visually appealing, low-maintenance lawn that encourages biodiversity and reduces the need for traditional lawn care routines.

10. Wild Polyculture Lawn

Wild polyculture lawns are an excellent alternative to traditional grass lawns.

In fact, this is the approach I have chosen for my own garden!

I have kept some areas of lawn for playing and sitting, but I never use any fertilizer or herbicide, and I don’t water it. I only mow it occasionally, at around 4 inches tall, when it starts to look a little too wild. What about weeds? I let them grow, for the most part – nettles are not welcome in the play areas when you have small children! 

As a result, the “lawn” is full of various plant species, including dandelions, clover, violets, tansy, daisies, and buttercups, creating a balanced environment that’s full of life! 

Unlike a typical grass lawn, a polyculture lawn is made up of a variety of plants, flowers, and even edibles that are not only beautiful to look at but also provide a sustainable ecosystem.

Reduce The Size Of Your Lawn

When considering what to use instead of grass, reducing the size of your lawn can be a practical solution. Smaller lawns are not only easier to maintain, but they also consume fewer resources.

11. Flower Beds with Native Perennials: Adding Colour and Variety to Your Landscape

Native perennials require less water and maintenance than grass, and they support local wildlife by providing habitat and food. Planting these in your garden not only adds colour but also enhances biodiversity. They’re great lawn replacements!

Common native perennials include:

  • Wildflowers, such as primroses and bluebells
  • Shade-loving plants, like ferns and hostas
  • Drought-resistant plants, such as lavender and sedum

Choose plants that suit your garden’s unique soil and sun conditions to maximise growth and minimise maintenance.

12. Shrub Beds

Shrub beds are ideal to use instead of grass in small areas or shaded spots. They contribute to a low-maintenance garden, add visual interest, and provide habitat for wildlife.

Opt for evergreen shrubs, such as boxwood or yew, to create year-round interest, or choose deciduous shrubs, like dogwood or hydrangea, for seasonal colour.

13. Ornamental Grasses

© RHS/Jason Ingram

Ornamental grasses offer a versatile option for gardens with varying sun and shade requirements. They bring texture, movement, and a sense of natural beauty to any space.

They include:

You’ll find them in all shapes and sizes – from tiny tufts that barely reach a few inches high, to towering giants adding structure to the back of borders. Their variety offers countless possibilities for enhancing curb appeal.

The charm of these plants lies not just in their green leaves but also in the spectacular display they put on as seasons change. Many types boast beautiful flowering spikes late into autumn or even winter.

The secret weapon of many of these species is their drought tolerance. If your current lawn has been wilting under the summer sun despite regular watering, it’s time for some tough love. Consider switching out your thirsty lawn grass with hardier alternatives like blue fescue or feather reedgrass.

No need to fear dry spells anymore; these guys will stay green while using less water than most lawns require – which is great news if you’re trying to reduce water consumption without sacrificing beauty.

14. Raised Bed Garden

Raised beds have replaced some of the lawn in my garden.

Raised garden beds are an ideal way to grow flowers, vegetables, or herbs while reducing the size of your lawn.

I have added raised beds in my vegetable garden, and in my experience, the weed growth is much reduced compared to a traditional in-ground bed.

They’re easy to maintain, can be filled with good soil, promote healthy soil structure, and optimise space. As a bonus, they can be adapted to fit any garden design, from traditional to contemporary.

15. Food Forest

Credit: Permaculture a Beginner’s Guide by Graham Burnett

Transforming a portion of your lawn into a food forest not only reduces lawn size but also creates a productive and sustainable space.

This approach involves planting fruits, vegetables, and herbs in a way that mimics the structure of a forest, with taller trees, medium-sized shrubs, and ground-covering plants. This increases biodiversity, maximises yield, and minimises environmental impact.

Great low-growing plants in a food forest include:

  • Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca),
  • Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus),
  • Comfrey (Symphytum spp),
  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis),
  • Mint (Mentha spp),
  • Sage (Salvia officinalis).

16. Wildflower Meadow

A stunning wildflower meadow at Cambridge Botanical Garden.

Creating a meadow in your garden brings a touch of wild beauty, and attracts wildlife. A wildflower meadow can be grown from seed, or it can be laid using a wildflower turf mat.

Include native species, as they require less maintenance and support local ecosystems.

17. Gravel or Rock Garden

If you’re looking for a garden that’s easy to maintain, a gravel garden is a fantastic option.

Japanese gardens often use gravel and rocks in a minimalist design, accentuated by select plants.

Alternatively, if Mediterranean aesthetics appeal to you, focus on drought-resistant herbs like lavender, sage, rosemary and thyme. These species flourish in gravel environments and are magnets for a variety of insects, thanks to their nectar and pollen.

Olivier and Clara Filippi‘s Le Jardin Sec: a Mediterranean gravel garden

Non-Plant Lawn Alternatives

When pondering alternatives to grass, numerous non-plant options exist that are both low-maintenance and visually appealing.

Although I wouldn’t suggest these alternatives for an entire garden, they can be highly effective when integrated with plants or flowers.

Additionally, these options are excellent for minimizing lawn space or substituting it in areas where grass growth is challenging, like shaded spots.

18. Gravel and Cobbles

Gravel and cobbles are versatile and easy-to-install options, providing excellent ground cover and excellent drainage.

They can be used to create informal pathways or to cover larger areas, offering a more natural look.

With a wide range of colours and sizes available, you can achieve a bespoke appearance that fits your garden’s theme.

However, it’s important to note that small stones might pose a choking risk, so caution is advised in gardens frequented by young children.

19. Stepping Stones

The stepping stones path in my garden.

In my garden, I’ve found that incorporating stepping stones is a game-changer for managing how people move around the space.

Instead of trampling on the cover plants or flowers that I’ve painstakingly grown, visitors are guided along a set path. This is especially beneficial in high-traffic areas where grass alternatives may not withstand constant pressure.

20. Wood Chips and Mulch for Ground Cover

Mulch and bark make an attractive and functional alternative to grass, while also providing nutrients to the soil beneath. These natural materials not only cover the ground but also enhance the soil by slowly decomposing and releasing nutrients. Today, they serve as a ground cover; tomorrow, they’re nourishing your plants.

They can be used to cover large areas, creating a neat and lower-maintenance garden space. They’re also great for children’s play zones.

21. Patio Paving or Decking

I don’t advocate for paving your whole garden. However, replacing grass with a stylish patio or raised decking in a strategic area of your garden can transform it into a hassle-free zone, perfect for social gatherings or relaxation.

Conclusion

Exploring what to use instead of grass has led us on a journey through some stunning, eco-friendly alternatives. These options are not only appealing but practical too.

Ground covers offer vibrant hues without high-maintenance mowing while flowers bring life to any garden with an array of colours and pollinators. Not forgetting edible landscapes that mix functionality with beauty.

So next time you look at your lawn remember – there’s always an alternative!

Frequently Asked Questions

What alternatives exist to traditional grass lawns?

There are numerous options for replacing traditional grass, including low-growing plants, a variety of flowers, or even organic materials like mulch and bark. Integrating flowers with stepping stones can also create a visually appealing and functional alternative.

What’s the most economical replacement for grass?

One of the most budget-friendly choices is utilizing native plants or mulch. These alternatives demand less upkeep and water than standard grass lawns, offering a cost-effective and eco-friendly solution.

How can I redesign my yard without using grass?

To transform your yard without grass, consider designing pathways for functionality, injecting color with diverse flowers, or adopting low-maintenance ground cover plants. These strategies can create a vibrant and user-friendly outdoor space.

Which type of grass requires the least maintenance?

Fescue grass varieties are known for their low maintenance requirements. They typically need less watering and mowing, thanks to their deep root systems, making them a practical choice for a hassle-free lawn.