Like many Master Gardeners, I volunteer at farmers’ markets every summer, answering yard and garden questions from the public. This year, I’ve gotten quite a few questions from people who are having trouble with their grass and want to know if there’s something else they could grow instead – something easier to care for, something that doesn’t need a lot of watering or fertilizing or mowing, maybe even something that benefits pollinators. Luckily, there are a number of great alternatives to a traditional lawn.
If you’re considering replacing your lawn with something else, there are two main ways to go about it. The first is renovation – in other words, removing all the existing sod to create a clean, blank slate of bare soil for your seeds or plants. The other option is overseeding. This involves cutting the lawn very short, aerating to loosen any compacted soil, and sowing seeds on top of your existing grass. There are benefits and drawbacks to each option. Renovation is more labor intensive but ensures that no grass remains. Overseeding is a bit easier to do, but grass will grow back among whatever other plants you choose (which may be a positive or negative, depending on your plans and preferences!).
Now let’s talk about plants. First, if you like the look of a grassy lawn but want something more drought-tolerant and easier to care for, consider using fescue grasses. Most lawns are largely made up of Kentucky Bluegrass, which is very tolerant of high foot traffic, but has shallow roots and requires regular watering and fertilizer applications to stay in good shape. Fescues, on the other hand, are slightly more fragile, but can remain green for weeks without water, can tolerate shade and poor soil conditions, and are very cold tolerant. Additionally, they grow relatively slowly and require less frequent mowing. For extremely high-traffic areas, consider a mixture of fescue and Kentucky Bluegrass to reap the benefits of both.
An increasingly popular option is to plant a mixture of fescue grasses and low-growing flowers to attract pollinators – commonly referred to as a “bee lawn.” In addition to fescue, bee lawn seed mixes generally include some combination of white clover, creeping thyme, and self heal. These flowering plants can tolerate being mowed and stepped on, so you can still use your lawn for recreation and relaxation while providing food for pollinators at the same time. I recently planted a bee lawn at my own house and although it’s certainly not a perfectly uniform carpet of grass, I love that it will need little maintenance to stay green throughout the summer and will attract pollinators to my vegetable garden!
For areas with less foot traffic, there are several groundcovers that make an excellent low-maintenance alternative to traditional turf. Creeping thyme and self heal are commonly part of a bee lawn mix, but either one could be planted alone (or in combination) to create a low-growing carpet of tiny flowers. The foliage of creeping thyme has a lovely fragrance and it blooms from July to September. It prefers full sun. Self heal can grow in sun to part shade and is adaptable to many soil types. It has small purple blooms from June to August. Self heal is native to Minnesota and, according to a study done at the U of M, is especially good at attracting native bees.
Moss is another option for a low-maintenance green ground cover, especially in moist, shady areas (although a few species can tolerate drier, sunnier conditions). You can buy moss from nurseries or online, or you can collect it yourself (with permission). To plant moss, clear the area of debris and weeds and water thoroughly. Press the moss patches into the ground and continue watering daily until the moss is established, about 2-3 weeks. The patches will spread and join together to create a dense, soft carpet. A moss lawn will never need to be mowed, and if planted in the right area, will rarely need to be watered. Although moss can’t tolerate a lot of foot traffic, you could place stepping stones to create a path.
As you can see, there are lots of interesting, low-maintenance grass alternatives. And remember that you can start small – no need to replant the whole yard at once. If there’s a particular area of your lawn that doesn’t grow well, try planting something else there and see how you like it!
For more information, check out the University of Minnesota Extension Yard and Garden website. Extension resources are written by experts and contain the latest and most reliable research-based information. Happy gardening!
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