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Lawn-Less Yard Solutions

By Jeanne Huber, This Old House magazine
Photo:  Karen Bussolini
Major Curb Appeal
Less lawn can result in outdoor living spaces that demand less of your time and energy—not to mention less water, gas, and electricity. Fall's cooler temperatures make now a good time to set the wheels in motion for a new and improved yard.

Less-lawn solution: If you live where every house flaunts an immaculate, weed-free front lawn, giving up grass entirely might read as an act of rebellion. But you can gradually shift toward a front yard that's more garden than lawn by establishing deep planting beds that curve along the front and sides of the house.

Experiment with designs by laying out garden hose in a gentle curve, then bring out the mower and test to make sure that whatever lawn remains takes a shape that's easy to trim. If you have an in-ground sprinkler system, also factor in the area that individual sprinkler heads spray: Plug heads you don't need, or convert them to supply a water-efficient drip irrigation system for the new planting beds. Your yard will be lushly planted—and easy to maintain—if you add wide borders with low-care perennials and shrubs to the mix.
Photo:  Karen Bussolini
Outdoor Living and Dining Space
Less-lawn solution: Transform a well-defined area close to the house by trading turf grass for a dry-laid brick patio or a patch of gravel with outdoor furniture. Just be sure to choose permeable paving that allows water to percolate through (not a broad expanse of concrete), so you don't create a parking lot–type yard where rain collects in puddles and storm drains instead of returning to the soil.

Define the space with a low wall, a perimeter of planting beds, or a collection of container plantings. Create an inviting path from one area of the yard to another with flagstone pavers: By tucking spreading, tread-friendly groundcovers like creeping thyme into the crevices, you'll create a rock-garden feeling and cut down on watering
Photo:  Keller & Keller
Play Areas for Kids to Explore
Less-lawn solution: For many kids today, what's missing from their lives isn't a play structure or a sports field (parks and after-school activities offer plenty of that), but the chance for a one-on-one connection with nature. In that sense, a small flower or vegetable garden or, for older kids, a backyard pond that supports fish, frogs, or other wetland creatures can provide more lasting play value than a lawn alone. A low, freestanding deck connected to the rest of the yard with paths that wind among shrubs can serve as a base for forts or a stage for plays.

For toddlers, an oversize sandbox is a great choice. Cover it with bird netting, rather than plastic sheeting, between uses to keep cats and other critters from using it as a litter box while permitting sunlight, a natural sanitizer, to reach the sand.
Photo:  Garden Picture Library
Habitat for Birds, Bees, and Butterflies
Less-lawn solution: Outside a kitchen or home-office window, position shrubs that provide food and cover for birds, such as highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera), common spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and viburnum varieties. Add a small water feature—a birdbath or fountain—as the focal point. Then, when you want a distraction from the mundane tasks, you can watch the wildlife.

If you have the space, establishing a "minimeadow" as a border or boundary area is another effective way to attract birds, as well as beneficial insects. Native plants like goldenrod, sunflower, and coneflower supply nectar for butterflies and, in fall, produce seeds for birds to enjoy. Make sure you have a sunny site—and can tolerate a weedy look at the edge of your property. Check that you won't run head-on into local ordinances or subdivision rules that require lawns to be mowed to a certain height. At American Meadows, you can find seed mix custom-blended for your part of the country. Watching what happens is part of the fun. Cornflower, cosmos, and other annuals typically grow quickly and put on a great show the first year; then perennials come on stronger and eventually take over.
Photo:  Saxon Holt
Green Carpet That's Not Grass
Less-lawn solution: If you crave the open look of a lush lawn, low-growing groundcovers may be your best alternative. TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook warns that many low-growing groundcovers are sold as small plants, and establishing them over a large area can be costly. So he often uses higher-growing groundcovers along the edges or creates a patchwork quilt that mixes high-growing types (such as sweet woodruff, or Galium odoratum, and ferns) with low growers. He favors bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) on sandy sites and junipers in sunny spots; where it's okay for plants to die back in winter, he often plants hostas.

Foot-traffic-friendly groundcovers that compete well with weeds and stay relatively short without mowing include mat-forming creeping thyme, grasslike blue sedge (Carex glauca), and mounding moss phlox (a good choice on hillsides where mowing is difficult). The Plant Info section at Stepables includes a feature to help you find suitable species according to the amount of foot traffic they will get (and accounts for sun and water needs, as well). With a little searching, you can find a spreading groundcover that gives you the kind of green space that appeals to your sense of style, makes fewer demands on your time—and is easier on the earth.

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