Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Lawn Alternatives

Turf has a calming, even essential quality.  Most landscapes require some.  For the past

couple decades, we have reduced turf to areas used for entertaining or installed alternatives that require less care than the standard monoculture of Kentucky bluegrass (actually from England).  Costs associated with standard lawns include: weekly mowing and watering, fertilization, herbicides to control weeds, insecticides fungicides and various other control techniques where moles or other animals are uprooting the manicured look.  Natural lawns and be a mix of native diversity, monoculture of sedge or other low growing native grass species, or–our favorite–”No-Mow,” a blend developed by Prairie Nursery in central Wisconsin.  This mix includes several species of fine fescue; tough plants for well drained loam in the sun.  Once established, this blend requires no irrigation, fertilizer or mowing.  It can be cut to yield a more manicured look, but should be cut high.

This site, featured on the MNLA Garden Tour in 2010, shows No-Mow's ability to perform well in challenging sites, such as along roadways.

Here in the upper Midwest, we are blessed with a tremendous diversity of over 300 sedge species.  Their habitats range from the soggy edge of marshes, to raingardens (being mostly dry but occasionally flooded) to dry sand.  Pennsylvania sedge is perfect for dry, sandy soil in full sun with no irrigation.  It is difficult to establish from seed, but will fill in from plugs transplanted at 12-18″ apart.

The most difficult habitat for a dense turf appearance is deep shade with heavy clay soil.  There are a couple of sedges we are testing that show promise for lawn alternatives in even these sites.  The principle is that if the habitat exists, some plants have evolved to successfully colonize that setting.  The longer term questions is whether that species will hold on to that site or will the site ecologically succeed into some new mix of plants.  It is easy to see this progression where plowed fields are left fallow.  A series of plant species move into the initially bare site.  These can include trees like box elder and white pine, or annuals like rag-weed and mustards.  Out of this list most are gone within just a few years.  White pine are the exception, persisting for hundreds of years once their bark is thick enough to withstand ground fires.

One challenge with No-Mow turf is that it does not stand up well to heavy foot traffic. In high traffic areas we use natural flagstone, such as Chilton Dolomite in this example, to create a step-stone path through the turf. The fescue spreads vigorously between the stones.


In a garden setting, we can control this ecological succession by picking which species are allowed to become established, set seed or spread through rhizomes (in the case of sedges) or above ground stolons (in the case of strawberry).  Each step of the way does require energy input.  Our goal is to find a plant that will persist, once established, with the least amount of care.  Native grasses are a potential solution, however, being bunch grasses, they grow with space between them and wait to come out of the ground until ground temperatures indicate spring fires have passed.

Pussytoes is an example of a spreading ground-cover that can substitute for turf in a difficult setting. Here it has performed wonderfully in very well drained gravel next to a flagstone path.

Fire is a great way to singe off undesirable trees, but having to wait until late May for controlled burns is a significant drawback.  Non-native, high maintenance turf will green up weeks earlier than the native grasses.

Sedges seem to have the greatest promise for meeting every goal.  Stay tuned to see what mix of species we find to be best for your habitat!

Please visit these other contributors to the Garden Designer’s Roundtable for more perspectives on Lawn Alternatives:

Susan Harris : Garden Rant : Takoma Park, MD

Susan Harris : Gardener Susan’s Blog : Takoma Park, MD

Billy Goodnick : Cool Green Gardens : Santa Barbara, CA

Evelyn Hadden : Lawn Reform.Org : Saint Paul, MN

Saxon Holt : Gardening Gone Wild : Novato, CA

Ginny Stibolt : Florida Native Plant Society : Green Cove Springs, FL

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Laura Liven Good Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT


3 Responses to Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Lawn Alternatives

  1. Saxon Holt says:

    Great to see designers working with the sedges. There are so many and we are just scratching the surface as to the best regionally appropriate ones. Designers here in CA have been lured into using ‘Berkeley Sedge’ thinking it is a CA native. It is actually a robust (and very useful sedge, Carex divulsa) from central Europe that got its name because noted grass expert John Greenlee found it in a small Berkeley nursery and did not know what else to call it.

  2. I’m looking forward to hearing about your ongoing sedge trials. The Pennsylvania sedge (Latin name?) sounds like it has some potential for my region (Denver) where we also struggle with the issue of cool season grasses vs warm season grasses. Thanks for the great info!
    (PS photo captions very difficult to read as white on white)

  3. Love your no-mow garden strip along the street – usually an area sorely neglected around here! I’m also looking forward to hearing about your ongoing sedge trials.