Easy Ways to Shrink Your Lawn

By  Deborah Roberts
Orginally published in the May/June 2012 Connecticut Gardener

Our love affair with lawns has become an obsession for some. In the U.S., it's estimated that turf-grass lawns cover 62,500 square miles of ground. That's almost 12 times the size of Connecticut.

The problem with lawns isn't actually the lawns themselves but the fact that many homeowners have far too much of their landscape devoted to them.

Don't get me wrong, I think lawns have a place in our landscapes. A small swath of green can be a unifying element, bringing together all the contrasting shapes, colors and textures of a garden. And lawns are an essential play area for many families. But let's face it, most of us have more lawn grass than we need.

This existing shrub bed is being widened to make room for more plants. The edge has been cut and newspapers and mulch will be used to smother the lawn. Photo / Deborah Roberts
This existing shrub bed is being widened to make room for more plants. The edge has been cut and newspapers and mulch will be used to smother the lawn. Photo / Deborah Roberts

Not only is the typical lawn high maintenance, consuming large amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, water, energy and time to keep it looking lush and green, but we seem to think that turf grass is the only answer to the question, "So, what shall we plant over there?"

Many homeowners fight a constant battle with lawn grass, trying to force it to grow in places it simply shouldn't be growing, like a shady corner, under trees or in hard-to-mow areas.

Shrinking Your Lawn

As a landscape designer, I'm always looking for creative ways to shrink lawns. One of the easiest ways is to widen existing beds and borders by a few feet. Plant some low-growing perennials in front of your current shrubs and your garden will have an instant face-lift. More elaborate approaches to shrinking your lawn might include creating a new patio or secluded gathering area, planting a wildflower meadow, rain garden, installing a small pond or even an area devoted to edibles.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shrinking your lawn. Different alternatives will appeal to different gardeners. It's best to think about why you want to reduce your lawn area and then the appropriate solution will follow.

Perhaps you're tired of investing money in your lawn, maybe you're trying to make your landscape lower maintenance, or are ready for a new look. You might want to reduce your lawn so you can increase the biodiversity in your garden, add more plants to attract wildlife or simply have more planting space to indulge your passion for new plants.

Regardless of why you want to shrink your lawn, there are lots of plants to use instead of traditional lawn grass.

Saying Goodbye

There are several different ways to actually remove established lawn grass. The quickest method is to cut away the sod. Using a sod cutter or a straight-edged spade, slice away strips of grass. Shake out any loose soil. You can either turn the grass strips upside down in your new planting bed and as they decompose they'll feed your soil, or you can add them to your compost pile.

An easier method is to smother the grass with newspaper. This process definitely takes longer, up to several months, but it's simple. Mark out the section of lawn grass you want to kill and then cover it with heavy cardboard or several sheets of regular newspaper (discard the glossy inserts). Overlap the edges so the grass is completely covered. If it's a windy day, you can wet the newspaper to keep it from blowing away but this is not a necessary step. Once the cardboard or newspaper is down, cover it with 6 inches of natural material -- shredded leaves, compost, mulch or a combination of all three. As all the layers break down, they will enrich the soil so your new plants will be off to a healthy start. I've used this method in the fall and been able to plant the area in the spring without any issues.

Resist the urge to spray herbicides on your lawn grass to kill it or to solarize it with sheets of plastic. While quick and effective, these methods can also kill the important organisms that comprise the soil food web that will ultimately feed your new plants.

Finding the Right Lawn Alternative

Any number of plants with dense foliage or a tight growth habit can be grown as a lawn alternative. Envisioning how you want your garden to look after your reduce your lawn area is a crucial first step. Here's a look at some possibilities that can be used in large planting swaths or planted together to create a rich tapestry of colors and textures.

Possibilities for Sun

Any number of perennials can be used as lawn alternatives. Butterfly weed (asclepias tuberosa), coneflower (Echinacea), false indigo (Baptisia), hyssop (Agastache), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum), tickseed (Coreopsis) and turtlehead (Chelone) are just a few of the possibilities.

Masses of ornamental grasses offer pest-free, low-maintenance alternatives to traditional lawn grass. Ornamental grasses do not need to be mown and are grown for their distinctive shapes, interesting seed heads and the wonderful way they move with even the slightest breeze. Exceptionally drought tolerant, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) has blue-green leaves that turn shades of red, pink and orange in the fall.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is adaptable to a wide range of soils, even clay. It has an upright, open habit and when its seed heads are in bloom they create a hazy cloud of color atop the foliage. There are many cultivars of this native grass including 'Cloud Nine' that grows to about 8 feet tall, 'Heavy Metal' with its stiff, steel-blue foliage and 'Shenandoah' with burgundy-red foliage.

 

A collection of ornamental grasses can be used in place of traditional lawn grass. Photo / Deborah Roberts

There are even low-growing shrubs with berries that make fine lawn alternatives. Lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) grow well in dry, nutrient-poor acidic soil. With white flowers in the spring, blueberries in the summer and red fall foliage, this shrub has it all. You can even find low-bush blueberry sod to make growing it as a lawn alternative even easier.

Possibilities for Shade

Many gardeners consider moss in their lawns to be a nuisance, something to be killed so the grass can grow in better. Moss thrives in exactly the cool, damp, shady spots where grass languishes. Instead of fighting it, embrace the moss and cultivate the acidic soil it needs to flourish. Once you stop applying lime in an effort to help the grass grow, you'll be amazed how quickly the moss fills in all those bare spots. Tufts of grass and weeds can be removed by hand and a solution made from 4 parts warm water and 1 part organic buttermilk (or plain yogurt) can be sprayed on the area to encourage the moss spores to grow.

Stop fighting it and let the moss take over a shady spot.  Photo / Deborah Roberts

Ferns are another moist-shade loving plant. Combine different types of ferns to create a dramatically textured planting. Native ferns such as autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), hayscented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), lady fern (Athyrium filixfemina), maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) and ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) can all be planted as lawn alternatives and are used by an array of wildlife including hummingbirds, frogs, toads, salamanders and insects.

If you're looking for a lawn alternative for the shade that flowers, there are lots of different options. Cranesbill (Geranium maculatum) has clusters of lavender flowers in April and May. Spotted deadnettles (Lamium maculatum) offers colorful foliage as well as long-blooming flowers in white, pink or shades of purple. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) quickly forms a dense mat of shiny green foliage that smothers weeds. Its fragrant white flowers in late spring are an added bonus.

One of my favorite flowering lawn alternatives for shade is foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). Spiky clusters of white or pale pink flowers in spring sit above the delicate, heart-shaped foliage. Depending on the cultivar, the leaves may be finely cut or speckled with purple markings. Planting several cultivars together, such as 'Black Snowflake,' 'Brandywine,' 'Oakleaf' and 'Running Tiger,' is an easy way to create a spreading, living tapestry.

Possibilities for Slopes

Trying to establish lawn grass in hard-to-grow or hard-to-mow areas like steep slopes is often an exercise in futility. A better way to control runoff and manage erosion is by planting a lawn alternative adapted to these challenging sites. Woody groundcovers are especially effective since they have a stronger root system than lawn grass.

Gro-low fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica 'Gro-low') spreads by suckers to form a dense stand of vegetation. Small yellow flowers, fuzzy red fruit and shiny leaves that turn a show-stopping orange-red in fall combine to make this a colorful option for slopes in full to partial sun.

Despite its common name, sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) is actually a deciduous shrub whose finely cut foliage resembles a fern frond. This little known native plant is ideal for colonizing slopes with poor, dry or gravelly soil.

Lawn Look-a-Likes

If you want the look of a lawn that will withstand some degree of foot traffic think about planting barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), brass buttons (Leptinella squalida) or common bugle (Ajuga reptans) for sunny spots.

For sites with some shade, you can try creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) or Meehan's mint (Meehania cordata).

There are also several varieties of sedge (Carex) that, when planted closely together, can make a soft, undulating lawn alternative. Try C. pensylvanica or C. flacca 'Blue Zinger' for a bit of extra color.

Clumps of Carex flacca 'Blue Zinger' create the look of a lawn without all the fuss. Photo / Hoffman Nursery, Inc.

If you simply must have grass, consider using one of the 'no-mow' lawn seed mixes made up of drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, cold-climate fine fescues. Sold under names such as Eco-Lawn, once established these fine fescue grasses typically don't require supplemental irrigation or fertilizers and grow slowly to about 5 inches tall.

Regardless of why you want to shrink your lawn, take the first steps and commit to planting at least one lawn alternative this season. Without so much high-maintenance lawn grass to take care o

f, you'll have more time to enjoy your garden.

 

Deborah Roberts is the owner and principal designer of Roberts & Roberts Landscape and Garden Design in Stamford. They specialize in sustainable designs for both residential and commercial clients. She is a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) and is a founding member and current treasurer of the APLD Connecticut Chapter.

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