A blue fescue sward by a path. Photo by: Marion Brenner.

For over 20 years, California nurseryman John Greenlee has promoted the idea of using all types of grasses in garden design. Part of his vision is a bold new approach to lawns. “Conventional lawns are the gas-guzzling SUVs of the plant world, requiring constant mowing and summer irrigation to keep them looking good,” Greenlee says. On a gallon-for-gallon basis, power mowers are far more polluting than cars. According to the California Air Resources Board, 2006 lawn-mower engines, per gallon of gas, contribute 93 times more smog-forming emissions than 2006 cars. Water runoff pollution is another downside: To keep turf perma-green and weedfree requires a cocktail of fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides applied regularly via the irrigation system.

The Case for the Alternative Lawn Greenlee advocates partnering with nature to make what he calls “natural lawns” using a whole range of grasses or grasslike plants. “Every region and every ecology in this country has its own regionally native sods, which, with very little mowing or cutting, grow naturally as a turf,” he says.

Greenlee has created many sustainable alternatives to conventional lawns. Composed of region- and climate-specific plants that are low-growing by nature, these alternative lawns don’t need constant mowing to stay short. A handful of trims a year, depending on the plants and site, will suffice. Compare this with 30 to 40 mowings a year to maintain a conventional lawn.

Buffalo grass lawn (Buchloe dactyloides) in New Mexico. Photo by: Saxon Holt.

Carex lawn by John Greenlee. Photo by: Saxon Holt.

Prairie junegrass lawn (Koeleria macrantha) by Bernard Trainor. Photo by: Saxon Holt.

Designing Alternative LawnsMost designers would agree that in certain situations there is no aesthetic or functional substitute for a lawn. Garden-floor treatments define function, and lawns suit areas of high use such as family games spaces and also provide a visual foil for plantings and other features.

However, if one thinks of lawns simply as low, evergreen ground-level panels, there are alternative lawns to suit every region and type of space. Native grass species, such as buffalo grass, are tough enough for soccer games yet soft enough for bare feet.

Grasses can be mixed with low-growing flowering broadleaf plants, and they work brilliantly as a transition between formal garden and meadow or woodland, connecting cultivated space and the wider landscape. Alternative lawns thrive on steep slopes and in deep shade where conventional types would have difficulty if not fail outright.

With certain types of plantings, alternative lawns are a better choice on aesthetic as well as sustainable grounds. For example, in xeriscape gardens suited to arid regions and Mediterranean-style landscapes, manicured, emerald-green turf grass looks incongruous alongside plants that thrive in poor, dry soil.

Aesthetically, embracing the look of alternative lawns involves a shift in attitudes. Taking pride in the kind of conventional lawn that acts as an immaculate place setting for the house is an entrenched tradition. But longer grass length and some flowering “weeds” do not necessarily equate to lack of grooming, and a family lawn doesn’t need to be a uniform, chemically dependent space.

Plants for Natural Lawns This brief list offers some native and sustainable grasses for lawns around the country:

  • West Coast: Carex praegracilis (syn. C. pansa), California meadow sedge; Agrostis pallens, seashore bent grass.
  • Prairie states: Buchloe dactyloides, buffalo grass.
  • New Mexico, Texas: Bouteloua gracilis, blue grama grass.
  • Midwest: Carex pennsylvanica, Pennsylvania sedge; Carex appalachica, Appalachian sedge.
  • Pacific Northwest, Montana, parts of northern California: Festuca idahoensis, Idaho fescue.
  • Northern states: Festuca rubra, red fescue.
  • Southeast, including Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida: Carex alba-lutescens, Florida meadow sedge; Carex perdentata, Texas hill sedge; Carex texensis,Texas sedge (not native but sustainable for lawns).

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