The Replacements

By Frank Wagner

February 15, 2008 5 min read


Alternatives to lawns if you want to cut the grass

By Frank Wagner

Copley News Service

In desert communities of the parched Southwest, grass is the exception, not the rule.

"Most people don't put in lawns," stated landscape designer Rosalie Gage of Horticulture Unlimited in Tucson, Ariz.

"Lawns are the standard of the North, Northeast and Northwest," she observed. "In the Southwest there's more water conserved if you don't have lawns."

Some agencies have even posted bounties on grass. In mid-2007, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District approved a measure to pay homeowners rebates of 30 cents per square foot of lawn replaced by turf. The Southern Nevada Water Authority offers a $1.50 per square foot rebate for converting lawns - money sure enough that even Las Vegas casinos are betting on artificial turf.

The Southwest isn't the only region with second thoughts about grass. In late 2007 in the normally humid Southeast, cities in Florida and North Carolina resorted to lawn-watering bans in the face of an extended drought.

Even in areas not afflicted by drought, grass is losing its appeal among some. For example, in State College, Pa., the ClearWater Conservancy urges people to replace lawns with meadows, woodland gardens and ground covers. These indigenous plants support wildlife - notably butterflies and birds - and require less watering and maintenance than lawns.

Conservation biologist Katie Ombalski works with the conservancy to promote habitat creation. In 2003, it ripped out the front lawn and parking area of its headquarters and devoted the space to a model habitat. The habitat approach will demand initial diligence.

"It takes better than three years to become established, five years to become stable," said Ombalski. "A lot of plants come and go in the first year." And it's never maintenance-free, "but the rewards are well worth it," she says.

So, from A to Z (more or less), here are some of the popular alternatives to the traditional grass yard:

- Artificial turf. "I do artificial turf quite a bit - people still want green," said Gage. It "costs twice as much (as lawns), but in three years it pays for itself in water conservation and lasts for 10 years."

According to manufacturer SYNLawn (, residential options run from $2.49 to $6.29 per square foot. The Web site of another leading manufacturer, Astrolawn (, pegs installation at another $3.50 to $3.75 per square foot - although turf can be a do-it-yourself project.

- Clover. It grows quickly and easily, is low-maintenance (mowing optional, fertilizer unneeded) and withstands dry summers. According to the Web site, it can cost about $4 to cover 4,000 square feet of turf. But clover is nowhere as durable as grass, so it's not suitable for high-traffic or playing surfaces.

- Flower and shrub beds. These can add color and interest, although they might not replace your entire lawn. Low-maintenance, native perennials are a good bet, and a trip to a local nursery or garden center can give you an idea of what's best. Flower beds should be narrow (three feet or less) to facilitate maintenance and raised to deter erosion.

- Ground cover. They spread, need no cutting and many will choke out weeds. Some flower, some (such as berries) are even edible. Perennials and evergreens are the most popular; annuals will require seasonal work. What's best - and what it costs - will vary by region. Your local nursery or landscaper, or an online supply site such as Springhill Nursery (, can be an excellent starting point.

- Natural meadows. The conservancy's Ombalski suggests consulting with "whatever agency is responsible for regulating flora" to determine what's best in your area. Also, consult local laws.

"If there are weed ordinances, tall, herbaceous vegetation is often seen as weeds," she notes. "But there are ways to make it more neighborly."

A mowed "neat line" can delineate the parcel.

"It needs to look intentional to be acceptable," the biologist noted.

- Xeriscaping. A word coined by the Denver Water Department in 1981 (from the Greek for dry plus landscaping), this is selecting plants based on water efficiency.

"There's a lot of xeriscaping in California," said Gage. "Some counties are asking homeowners to do it." Xeriscaping is lush and uses a wide variety of water-efficient plants to create an oasis-like feeling. "A lot of people confuse it with 'zero-scaping,' which is a lot different."

- Zero-scaping. This is a non-landscaping approach. Rocks and nearly no-maintenance plants like juniper, cactus or yucca are its hallmarks.

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