Lawn Alternatives

Photograph provided by Garden Search & Rescue

Lawn, grass, or gramina (Latin), whatever you call it, can be wonderful when lush and verdant, but maintaining its velour isn’t always the easiest or most practical. Thankfully, we live in an era and area full of parks where grassy lawn spaces exist to enjoy or play in without the maintenance. So what could we do with existing lawn space? There are a plethora of lovely options, most requiring much less work than a traditional lawn. Lawn can be fickle, drying out and dying due to heat, water loss, dog urine, and heavy tread; infiltrated with weed seeds; and require repeated mowing, fertilizing, watering, and raking. It’s exhausting to say the least.

Most living in Greater Madison have anywhere from 1/8 to 1/2 acre, so our space isn’t that large to begin with. Identifying ways to fill the space could lead to a need for assistance with layout, fundamentals, and features. Having an interplay of people and open space is a personal preference, and the applied features need only be as large as you deem necessary. Even downsizing some of your lawn will make an impact on your workload and the habitat you’re creating.

Why not lawn? Besides the aforementioned challenges, lawn doesn’t support much in terms of beneficials, offering less microbiological activity, insect life, and so on up the scale. Lawn is also only able to drink so much water before it becomes soggy and runoff occurs, which takes away nitrates and other fertilizer components with it. When coupled with our homes and driveways, we should look at overall impermeableness. Adding lawn alternatives is a fantastic way for the soil to drink in more, feeding our water table.

Visually obvious things would include furniture spaces for a hammock, fire ring, kid zone, cook station, gathering space, and eating area. Art, statues, stone candle huts, hanging chimes, and bird stations surrounded by mulch or placed on stone can be very enticing and entail less physical upkeep. Less attention-seeking areas could be space for yoga, dance, and a long dog run. Having lawn under any of these spaces requires additional energy to move and remove for mowing and tending, while placing these settings on gravel, mulch, or a no- or low-mow option means they stay in place while you tend around them.

Outdoor area rugs are also a fantastic way to claim a little non-lawn space. They instantly soften and provide a landing pad for something more original. Removing the lawn under as prep isn’t always needed; lawns are fickle and perish fairly easily under any kind of stress.

Walls, boulders, rocks of all sizes, winding paths, patios, and other landscaping are all large and mighty ways to have an entertaining space, but sometimes just a little bit goes a long way. A precisely placed boulder with a little garden can be just as intentional and lovely. Small gravel pools invite butterflies and moths to feed on salt and moisture, and a small rain garden can do the heavy lifting while plants nearby benefit plenty. Adding parking or walking space with permeable stones is aesthetic and functional. And, of course, there are the numerous kinds of gardens one could implement: food forest, rolling, tall, woodland, short, low grow, or a mix.

Food forests are becoming increasingly popular and are an amazing way to feed you, your kids, and birds. Rolling gardens would be taller perennials, perhaps prairie or butterfly-type species with grasses and are generally later blooming in nature.

Tall gardens could be that or a more English presentation with shrubs and tall, orderly flowers, such as delphinium or hollyhocks. Shorter gardens would be all the forbs at less than 15 inches, so more woodland, shade mix, and specific sun species, like salvias, perennial alliums, bergenias, and Hakonechloa macra.

Low-grow or no-mow gardens would be mostly less than six to eight inches in height with possible blooms exceeding that, but by minimal means. Stars of this crowd would be creeping thyme, creeping sedums, Irish moss, dianthus, creeping phlox, and ajuga.

Another option in the mid to low category is to let it just grow and see what happens. White clover, creeping Charlie, and even dandelions both fix soil and feed the bees way more than any hybrid perennial can, and they often give way to more appealing things, like zig-zag goldenrod or dwarf asters. This is best tended with some very high mowing once or twice a season, what we call a fire drill, where you just weed the seed you don’t want or cut the seed heads if you don’t have time to weed, balancing your seed bed.

These styles of lawn-be-gone can be mixed and matched with the sunlit areas in your space and your personal preference. They will all boost aesthetic, interactive space, and habitat. Adding them as slowly as you’re comfortable will allow you to transition at your own pace. You’ll find them to be more resilient, beautiful, and much less work than the lawn counterpart previously established. Happy takeover!

Karina Mae is the designer and team leader at Garden Search & Rescue.

Garden Search & Rescue
Madison, WI


Food Forest Plants: serviceberry, chokecherry, cherries, pears, plums, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries, grapes, blueberries, and mushroom logs

Tall, More Orderly Plants: hollyhocks, delphinium, liatris, hybrid echinacea, lilium lilies, and peonies

Mid-Height Wonders: sedges of all varieties, Hakonechloa macra, hostas, lupine, low geraniums, and toad lilies

Low-Grow Varieties: ginger, bergenia, sedums, ajuga, creeping phlox, creeping thyme, Irish moss, dianthus, heuchera, woodruff, primrose, and prairie smoke. CAUTION with both vinca myrtle and pachysandra, as they’ve grown aggressive

Good Weed Lawn Varieties: creeping Charlie, white clover, dandelion, plantains, purslane, and violets

Bad Weed Lawn Varieties: Aegopodium podagraria (bishops weed), campanula, red clover, vetch, beggar’s tick, stickseed, and tickseed (the three main scarf destroyers)