Why & How To Ditch Your Lawn For A Grass-Free Yard

From the time and money you'll save to the benefits for pollinators and the planet, there's never been a better time to grow a grass-free yard.

by Susan Brackney
PHOTO: Susan Brackney

It’s been slow going, but, year after year and little by little, I’ve been reducing the size of my lawn, with the eventual goal of having a grass-free yard. In place of my old patches of grass, I’ve planted a mix of annuals and native perennial flowers to attract bees, butterflies, birds and other critters.

And it’s working.

My honeybees get to stay a little closer to home. I’ve noticed more hummingbirds, wild canaries and even the occasional rose-breasted grosbeak.

Best of all, once these newly planted areas become well-established, they require next-to-no attention from me. I rarely weed since my yarrow, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susans and other flowers shade out unwanted competitors.

And, because most of my plantings are naturally accustomed to the growing conditions in my region, I seldom have to water.

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Hidden Costs

Of course, you don’t have to be a wildlife fanatic to want to replace the lawn with a grass-free yard. There are plenty of other reasons to mothball the lawnmower—and just as many ways to use the land you free up.

Maintaining a healthy-looking lawn is very resource-intensive. There’s the need to water and, perhaps, fertilize. If you simply won’t tolerate dandelions or grubs, then you might be applying herbicides and pesticides, too. And don’t forget the mowing.

Each of those inputs is costly in its own way. For instance, shortages of potable water in some parts of the country preclude regular watering. Various lawn chemicals can be harmful to people, pets and pollinators—not to mention the excess runoff which can make its way into the water supply.

Got a gas-powered lawnmower? Depending on your lawn mower’s age, it can release a surprising amount of emissions. These emissions can exacerbate health problems like asthma, and they contribute to climate change.

Mowers built after 2011 and 2012 were required to adhere to EPA low-emission regulations. As such, newer mowers may be more efficient. However, they still pollute.

Other Pain Points

Electric mowers are a bit better, but, indirectly powered by coal, these also contribute to emissions.

Human-powered, mechanical “reel” mowers are another alternative, but they require frequent blade sharpening and other maintenance in order to work properly. They’re also not ideal for cutting large or steeply sloped areas.

Environmental issues aside, paying for water, fertilizer and gasoline really can add up. So can paying someone else to care for your yard.

One of the other reasons I personally decided to swap out my lawn? Time. It’s a truly finite resource that I’d rather not spend mowing!

Baby Steps

Let’s say you replaced half of your grass with herbs, flowers, veggies or an alternative low-growing ground cover. You would still cut the time and money you spend mowing in half.

For my part, I transform a couple of small patches of grass into permanent garden space each year.

To start, I spade up a one-foot-square section of grass and turn it upside-down. I repeat this step until all of the grass in my new garden-to-be is soil-side-up. (If you have fresh compost, now’s also the time to sprinkle it around.)

Next? I cover the whole spot with weed barrier. I used to purchase landscaping fabric for this purpose. These days, I use thrifted cotton sheets and cotton tablecloths instead.

Making sure that the fabric covers the area completely, I then secure it with landscape pins. (Heavy sheets of cardboard held down with bricks or cinder blocks will also work in a pinch.)

At this point, I cut holes through the fabric, carefully work the soil within the hole, and then either direct sow seeds or place bedding plants. I’ll also ring the area with scrap fencing to protect tender plants from opportunistic deer and rabbits.

Finally, I top any exposed sections of cloth with a couple of inches of mulch.

In time, the plants will spread and fill in. Once they’re established, I’ll remove the protective fencing.

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What’ll the Neighbors Think?

Depending on your proximity to neighbors—and whether you have a home owner’s association to appease—it’s courteous to let those around you know your plans for a grass-free yard before you break ground.

You might show them some sketches of your final landscape plan or photos of some of the species you’ll be planting, so they keep their cool when the shovels come out.

If you do choose to replace some or all of your grass with a pollinator garden or wildlife habitat, consider officially certifying the spot. Both The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Pollinator Conservation and the National Wildlife Federation have certification programs complete with durable, outdoor signage you’ll be able to post with pride.

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