Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Kill Your Lawn!
Alex Steffen, 19 Jul 08

One of the house projects we've been working on at home is replacing as much of our lawn with garden beds as makes sense. We do want a little bit of (unwatered, organic) lawn, for sitting, but we're planting most of our mid-sized urban lot in vegetables, herbs and bird-/butterfly-friendly flowers. We aren't talking the 100-yard diet, and we definitely have a ways to go before you could call our backyard a wildlife sanctuary, but just removing some the grass has already made us feel more comfortable in our home.

We're not alone. One of the biggest underground cultural shifts in North America is focused in some vague yet powerful ways on the question of sod. Big, perfectly smooth, green lawns have become for many of us, a symbol of unsustainability that rivals the SUV.

We've written a lot about the problems with lawns and about innovative ideas for replacing them. Covering the same turf is Elizabeth Kolbert, who's latest New Yorker article is a must-read:

To advocate a single replacement for the lawn is to risk reproducing the problem. The essential trouble with the American lawn is its estrangement from place: it is not a response to the landscape so much as an idea imposed upon it—all green, all the time, everywhere. Recently, a NASA-funded study, which used satellite data collected by the Department of Defense, determined that, including golf courses, lawns in the United States cover nearly fifty thousand square miles—an area roughly the size of New York State. The same study concluded that most of this New York State-size lawn was growing in places where turfgrass should never have been planted. In order to keep all the lawns in the country well irrigated, the author of the study calculated, it would take an astonishing two hundred gallons of water per person, per day. According to a separate estimate, by the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly a third of all residential water use in the United States currently goes toward landscaping.

What's your favorite idea for replacing lawns?

Bookmark and Share


we have a small home that was nicely planted when we bought it . the grassy areas of the little lot had been well tended but were to me amazingly diverse . i noticed lots of tiny flowering grasses with different colored blossoms ,i didn't have the heart to chop their little heads off with my mower and so it grows . it is out of view for the neighbors and no one has is in it's 6th summer of wild growth and takes care of itself beautifully. we have a ground hog named mister cookie that lives there and many cardinals and gold finch .blackberry and wild strawberry grow but we don't eat them really we leave them for mr. cookie and the's lovely how rapidly this has happened.many native plants grow in the yard now including lambs ears , milkweed and others whose name i don't know but have observed in the woods. also we are in sight of a former forge with it's towering scrubbers and mechanical apparatus , railroad tracks and all.

Posted by: karen dodson on 20 Jul 08

I'm currently an apartment dweller with no yard access; when I do have a yard, though, I'm planning on a backyard with a large patio, a small spot of lawn for yard-games, an area for composting, and food-garden in most of the rest. The front yard will be native plants... so I think that would mean prairie grasses and flowers if I stay in here in Chicago.

Posted by: TRBeck on 20 Jul 08

Aah. Here where I live it enviromentally doesn't matter whether one has a lawn or not. In Finland there's enough of rain. Just to make you envy us :D

Posted by: Masapena on 20 Jul 08

We have a large front lawn, it's zozha (sp) so we never water it and it does fine. My husband, being a golfer, loves his lawn. But if I had my way, I'd carve out a huge curving bed, with a path down the center that led to the front door. In it I'd plant lavender, cone-flower and day-lilies; a couple of small fruit trees and blueberry bushes and some evergreen shrubs. I already have the flowers in other parts of the garden, they are beautiful, useful (lavender needs no explanation, cone-flowers are medicinal and day-lilies are edible, the flowers and the corms), bees love 'um, they don't need a lot of water, they are super low maintenance and multiply every year. Maybe my husband will come around.

Posted by: rf on 20 Jul 08

My former lawn is now producing blue berries, raspberries, strawberries and various vegetables. I couldn't be happier with it!

Only problem is it's tough to fight the grass that still tries to grow among my crops.

Posted by: Alex Tinker on 20 Jul 08

We've replaced a lot of "lawn" with vegetable garden, fruit trees and shrubs, a couple of ponds, flower beds and a deck. Next up, patios and more garden.

Posted by: David Foley on 20 Jul 08

In my neck of the "woods" in north Jersey. A green lawn is a sort of status symbol. Not for me. I would feel better about myself if it something that was more sustainable and needed less water and or maintenance. BUT the fact of the matter, around here anyway, is that the local municipalities (including state/county Soil Conservation Agencies) want everyopen space covered in grass. Even a properly planted "useful" garden doesn not have the soil retention charisteristics to satisfy the powers that be. I have only found a few species that look nice and are not invasive AND root themselves in such a way to restrict soil loss. Any suggestions for low or zero water alternatives would be greatly appreciated. We have bee fortunate with plenty of rain so there is no threat of any drought, but the next drought I will make myself a nice rock garden.

Posted by: Mike on 21 Jul 08

Well we're in the middle of the transition. I grew up on a farm with an acre veggie garden so for me to be without garden is like a fish without water.

So far: 4 raised garden beds. The boulevard is part of the way to a mix of perennial flowers and useful herbs.


is overseeded in the rest of the lawn. Three trees taken down with two apple and two plum (dwarf) in part of the replacement.

Further plans:

remove the rest of the trees and decorative bushes

add two more raised beds (maybe three if we can fit them in)

put grapes on the arbor, raspberries in place of the decorative bushes and two chestnut trees to replace the silver maple and dead mulberry.

Would like to replace the mulberry but can't seem to fit it in the lawn.

The city forestry department specifically forbade me to plant fruit or nut trees in teh boulevard. As we have a VERY small yard that limits our options. Am somewhat upset about not being able to use the boulevard as we have to maintain it anyways and water the trees they plant there anyways.

But so it goes.

The neighbor's reactions have been:

what do you have planted there?
how do I do that? I have sun in my backyard.
You should put in sour cherry, kale etc. etc. (from the quite elderly french lady)

most comments have been "beautiful" or "what is that" and have been a touchstone for the neighbors to talk to us - a lot!

Posted by: mud on 21 Jul 08

In Northern Colorado, we are on water restrictions and most people either have a brown, dead lawn or ignore the restrictions and have lush lawns with little or no landscaping. Being environmentally conscious, my husband John and I have opted for the more sustainable route. We have two vegetable gardens in the back yard, of which we will enlarge next planting season. These two gardens alone have provided us with a bounty of fresh greens and vegetables for salads, salsa, side dishes, and healthy snacks. They take less water than a lawn, and actually provide something in return that is useful, not just a pretty view. We have planted trees (this house had NO trees when we moved here 6 years ago; it now has 7), floral beds, and a privet hedge that does not necessitate much watering. We are planting berries next spring, enlarging our butterfly/bird gardens, adding to the floral beds in the front yard, and zeroscaping the remainder of the front yard in Autumn. Too many people in our community vie for golf-course lawns in an area that is typically desert. They are demanding too much of the earth by trying to reshape it, rather than embrace what is right before them. There are so many beautiful flowers and shrubs indiginous to Colorado, it is a mystery to me why people do not landscape with these plants instead of miles and miles of sod.

Posted by: Melissa Dennis on 21 Jul 08

Synthetic lawns are really making a big impact. There are many choices so get educated. Cheap turf won't last so do your homework. and And yes, I sell the best synthetic lawn on the market. If you are in the L.A. area and looking to fix your problematic lawn, cut your water bill and tell your gardener take his manure elsewhere, email me at

Posted by: Stephen on 21 Jul 08

A Locally Grown Diet With Fuss but No Muss

"Eating locally raised food is a growing trend. But who has time to get to the farmer’s market, let alone plant a garden?

That is where Trevor Paque comes in. For a fee, Mr. Paque, who lives in San Francisco, will build an organic garden in your backyard, weed it weekly and even harvest the bounty, gently placing a box of vegetables on the back porch when he leaves."

their website:

Posted by: mf on 21 Jul 08

I have no lawn, I have raised beds for veggies, side lots with hummingbird and bee-friendly flowers, herbs and some natives; but my main internal gleeful moments come when I walk barefoot on the paths between the beds: I planted different herb groundcovers and with every step a waft of lemon thyme, oregano and marjoram surrounds me. I don't water them, they prevent weeds from coming up and are soft on my feet. They also sare simple and not fussy, I've only bought the initial batch, then rip some up and relocate to a new place, in a month it's happy.

Posted by: Renee on 22 Jul 08

Personally, I lived in Arizona for many years and we never had any grass, and I never wanted any grass. I come from a family of farmers, gardeners, and landscapers, and both my Grandfather and my Mother managed golf courses at some point in their lives. I used to go to work with my mom on the golf course in AZ, and it was a little appalling to see all that water pouring out of sprinklers onto green green grass, when there was a dry river bed not 100 yards away. Here in Maryland, much of what I remember as crops and dairy farms as a kid is now part of a huge network of sod farms that covers Frederick and Montgomery counties. I have to wonder what good growing all that grass does for anyone, except the guy (Coughahem, Chuck Wade!) who is selling all that sod. And the guys he pays to mow it, maybe.
Anyway, my mom's house in AZ is all native plants that were growing there before the house was built (you can't remove some of them anyway, because they are protected. Go Saguaros!) and a couple of really nice fruit trees, oranges, apricots, and a large garden. Of course in AZ, growing food requires actual watering more than it would here in MD, but still, its better than 2.5 acres of useless grass! I live in a townhouse and have a postage stamp sized lawn that never requires watering due to our geographic location, and I wouldn't water it anyway, even if it all shriveled up and died. I really would like a veggie garden, but the topography of my postage stamp would require a lot of leveling and terracing to make that work, and then there'd be no where for the dog to do her business. So I'll just stick with my low maintenance lawn care for now.

Posted by: Jax on 22 Jul 08

I bought a house this spring in Pittsburgh, PA where it rains enough to never need to water my lawn. (though some people still do water their lawn to get late spring greenness in August). I live adjacent to a small wooded park in the middle of a fairly dense suburb close to the city limits. Right now I've got lots of trees & flowers, some wild, some planted, including (too many) hostas, and many day-lilies. We also have a few black berry bushes, and poison ivy. (I'm trying to eradicate the poison ivy without too many chemicals, but in the process I've been exposed twice now this summer, so I'm losing patience). A previous owner had clearly been a good gardener, but later owners did not maintain it well. We're trying to remove the invasive weeds, reduce the amount of grass in favor of a vegitable or fruit garden, and plant selective trees for afternoon shade on the house.

Posted by: Jake on 23 Jul 08

I live out in the country - on a mostly wooded large piece of family land. I have a very small yard behind my house (roughly 50 feet by 30 feet) for the kids to play on and that's it. In front of our house where the builder had intended there to be more lawn under the trees we've instead planted over 50 varieties of native plants (including some grass varieties - but we don't cut it!). This is amazingly attractive, with flowers of various types (mostly called "weeds" by others) blooming all spring and summer long, no watering needed for any of it, and very easy to maintain (just have to remove the invasive non-natives now and then and keep a two foot barrier between the plants and the house in order to make the house less attractive to bugs - this is done with a strip of crushed glass obtained for free from the county recycle center and periodic hand trimming at the edge). All other areas remain wild.

Aside from not having to water and having very little to mow, we also save tremendously on heating and cooling from the deciduous trees. The house was built with almost no northern exposure (that's where the garage is) and a large mostly-glass southern exposure. We get great solar gain in the winter, and not only does evaporative cooling from the trees' leaves help to cool the area generally, but the trees also block the sun during the summer.

This house and general plan wouldn't work everywhere - this is the midwest where it's relatively easy to grow a forest and wild-flower patches. The point is that we took advantage of the natural features of the area, and took three years to carefully plan it out. This plan wouldn't work in other parts of the country, but works well here. There are other plans that wouldn't work well here that would work wonderfully in other parts of the country. You have to look at how the natural world behaves in your area, then try to fit into it rather than trying to change it.

Posted by: Eric on 27 Jul 08

My mom uses distilled vinegar for weed control on the premise that it's safer for the animals. She swears it works amazingly well. She uses vinegar on the brick patio & once for a poison ivy infestation.

I haven't used it myself, hand-weeding has worked great for me.

Any opinions from anyone regarding how appropriate using vinegar for weed control is for the environment? Any unintended consequences? I mention this only in response to Jake in Pittsburg: perhaps this is a potential solution for your poison ivy problem.

Posted by: Tori on 28 Jul 08



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg