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Imagining a no-mow yard: 7 lawn alternatives in pictures

by Timber Press on January 17, 2013

in Design

Dry-adapted verbenas, salvias, and penstemons bloom on the slope above a courtyard. Photo: Saxon Holt

For the past century, we gardeners have loved our lawns. They have grown from an occasional play area (or status symbol) for the richest among us to a ubiquitous ‘affordable’ groundcover. But the tide is turning. For a variety of reasons, from our changing environmental awareness to our changing lifestyles, some of us are shrinking our lawns. Others are leaving them behind altogether. —Evelyn Hadden

Are you one of the many considering an alternative to your lawn? Maybe you want something that takes less time to maintain, something more earth-friendly, or something that better reflects the region where you live? Or maybe you’re just bored with turf? In any case, it can be difficult to imagine the alternative. What exactly would it look like? Here are seven lawn alternatives in pictures to inform and perhaps inspire you to lose your lawn.

Edible Gardens
Vegetables, herbs, and flowers grown together make a food garden more colorful and more productive. Companion plants provide pollen, pest predator habitat, and nutrients for soil. Homegrown food is arguably more delicious than store-bought, and certainly more nutritious, retaining nutrients that are lost in travel and storage time. Growing food is also a great way to bring people together, whether it be children helping maintain a garden, neighbors sharing gardening tips, or friends gathered for a harvest meal.

Rosalind Creasy Garden, Los Altos, California. Photo: Saxon Holt

Rosalind Creasy Garden, Los Altos, California. Photo: Saxon Holt

Rain Gardens
Rain garden plants can be beautiful as well as hard-working. The leaves of a highly managed lawn are kept too short to photosynthesize enough to grow extensive root systems and will only soak up a fraction of runoff. A rain garden, however, is designed to move the runoff from your roof or pavement into your soil before it creates problems for you and your neighbors.

Smith Garden, Maplewood, Minnesota.

Smith Garden, Maplewood, Minnesota.

One of the best reasons to give up your labor-intensive turf  is the low-maintenance – ahem – nature of an alternative lawn. Pictured below, Doug Becker maintains his rock-and-thyme patio, which he does about fifteen minutes every three years!

Shade Gardens
Woodland gardens inspire a peaceful mood, provide shade in the summer and color in urban settings, as well as masking unsightly walls or other structures. Shading your home can also save you money in reduced energy costs. While color is certainly possible, shade gardens provide a unique opportunity to experiment with textures, hues, wood, and rock.

This urban woodland garden is at its heart a multi-textured tapestry of foliage. Photo: Diane Hilscher

Why not design a no-mow yard around a soothing water feature such as a pond? This naturalistic pond, landscaped with drifts of plants, graces the home of Peter and Sue La Tourette. Says Peter: “I think a lawn is really boring after the kids grow up and don’t need if for play.”

Photo: Saxon Holt

Dry Climate
A dry climate garden does not have to be barren. Smart watering techniques can go a long way in helping you realize your dream yardscape. Dramatic succulents, deep shadows, and bright colors can all play a role. Using local rock and native plants take less time to maintain but also provide much-needed habitat for wildlife.

Recurring groundcovers - bright orange California poppy, yellow sulphur flower, and a low, white-flowering sedum - bring continuity to this diverse dry climate garden.

Recurring groundcovers – bright orange California poppy, yellow sulphur flower, and a low, white-flowering sedum – bring continuity to this diverse dry climate garden. Photo: Kelly Broich

Freedom Lawn
Not ready to dive feet-first into a no-mow lawn? Then you might try a freedom lawn. Before broadleaf herbicides became widely used, white clover was a common part of lawn seed mixes. Because it’s able to fix atmospheric nitrogen, clover acts as a built-in fertilizer for grass. It will also extend your lawn’s season of green. And it stands up against mowing. Other options include chickweed, dock, and creeping charlie.

Graham Garden, Plymouth, Minnesota.

Graham Garden, Plymouth, Minnesota.


hadden_e-sEvelyn J. Hadden is a national speaker and award-winning author of four gardening books, including Beautiful No-Mow Yards, Evelyn Hadden encourages property owners to convert unused, unloved lawns to more rewarding landscapes. She founded the informational website LessLawn.com in 2001 and is a founding member of the Lawn Reform Coalition.


Author Evelyn Hadden takes us on a tour of Beautiful No-Mow Yards:


Click image below for a look inside this book:


“It has it all: A compelling rationale for ignoring the siren song of the ‘perfect’ lawn, inspirational stories from gardeners and designers enthusiastically embracing this timely trend, and step-by-step instructions for creating easy-care, planet-friendly patches of paradise.” —Billy Goodnick, Fine Gardening

1 Cathy Smotherman January 28, 2013 at 5:45 pm

In the comments on the Freedom Lawn you mention “creeping charlie” as a good broadleaf to add to your lawn – in my experience allowing creeping charlie to start in your yard is to say goodbye to every other type of plant living there. I so wish I had poisoned it into extinction several years ago when I might have had a chance to really get rid of it; at this point I just try not to think about it. It’s like small kudzu. Never plant that stuff on purpose. It will have taken over the world soon enough without any help from humans.

2 Evelyn Hadden January 29, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Hi, Cathy. I am sorry to hear you are dealing with your own miniature kudzu! You are right — creeping charlie is not well-behaved in every yard or site. If it gets plenty of water, it can be especially competitive, just like many other members of the mint family.

As with all the plant-specific comments in the book (or any book), it’s important to take into account the location and companions of the plants as those really influence how they will behave. I have seen creeping charlie mingling well with other plants in freedom lawn and “managed field” settings, where it’s periodically mowed. It usually will make a patch in the shady damp places, and dandelions, clover, various grasses, and plenty of other plants can outcompete it in sunnier, drier places. Even violets and dock can hold their own against it in drier shady spots.

But I know how hard it is to get rid of once you have it in a lawn or a planting bed. I smothered my lawn at my last house and was able to eradicate it that way, eventually.

Thanks for commenting and for reading the book! It is so useful to hear other gardeners’ experiences.

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