No mow grass? No problem: 5 low-maintenance lawn alternatives
While there will always be those who enjoy lovingly tending to their lawns, many Canadians are likely wondering why they bother devoting their weekends to the whims of their yards. If you’re thinking about ditching your lawn, here are a few options to consider, from most drastic to least. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Published Thursday, June 18, 2015 6:30AM EDT
The summer has only just begun, but already communities in Saskatchewan and Alberta are in the midst of drought and appealing to homeowners not to waste water maintaining their lawns.
In the American West, many homeowners are simply giving up on their yards. With stringent water bans in place, it’s all but impossible to keep grass green. The state of California, in its fourth year of drought, is even going so far as to offer homeowners rebates if they rip out their lawns.
There are now even landscaping companies in the state that will pull up homeowners’ lawns and install alternative materials, in exchange for cashing in the rebate money and handling all the paperwork.
It’s no surprise that so many municipalities has declared war on lawns. You would be hard pressed to find a thirstier water guzzler than a patch of grass. According to Environment Canada, more than half of residential water use in the summer goes to lawn watering or “landscape irrigation,” and much of that water gets lost to evaporation or run-off.
While there will always be those who enjoy lovingly tending to their lawns, many Canadians are likely wondering why they bother devoting their weekends to the whims of their yards. If you’re thinking about ditching your lawn, here are a few options to consider, from most drastic to least.
Why slave away at real grass when the fake stuff looks almost as good?
Artificial grass has come a long way since the AstroTurf days of the 1960s. With a softer feel and a more realistic look, artificial lawns can easily be mistaken for the real thing, which may be why they’re popping up in residential yards, commercial green spaces and even municipal areas such as boulevards.
An artificial lawn is more expensive to install than natural grass, but the annual savings from never having to water and fertilize often takes care of the upfront costs. Artificial grass never requires mowing or weeding, lasts 15 years or longer, and can be kept clean with a garden hose or even a vacuum.
Detractors point out that fake turf doesn’t offer the cooling effects of grass, nor a place for insects to thrive. Others have raised concerns about the safety of the turf material and the black “crumbs” sometimes used to hold the lawn down, though no studies have proven the turf present a health hazard. But for the look of a lawn with none of the expense and headache, artificial grass is proving to be a popular alternative.
Paint it green
When a lawn turns brown in the hottest, driest days of summer, it can mean one of two things: either the grass has gone dormant to protect itself, or it’s just plain dead. Either way, the result is a sad landscape that many homeowners can’t stand to look at.
The solution could lie in a simple bottle of paint. Lawn paint is fairly new but already proving popular. The paint is made of a non-toxic, vegetable-based dye that is water-resistant and binds to the grass for 12 weeks or more. It doesn’t hurt the grass, and can be mowed away once the lawn starts growing again.
Companies that will do the lawn spraying for you are sprouting up across the country, but do-it-yourselfers can also buy the paint concentrate, mix it with water and spray it themselves. LawnLift, the biggest lawn paint distributor in Canada says its product dries quickly, is safe for pets, and will not rub off on shoes, clothes or paws.
Many a frustrated homeowner has thrown up their hands at a dying lawn and declared: “I’m just going to pave over the whole thing.” True, paving is an option, but there are more visually appealing hardscaping options as well.
Dry gardens made of any combination of stone chips, pea gravel, ornamental grasses or succulents can make for a unique and attractive alternative to grass or tarmac. A well-designed rock garden will still absorb rain and provide colour, while requiring much less weeding and maintenance than a lawn.
The downside is that it can be labour-intensive to establish a hardscape garden, as the rocks and gravel need to be hauled in and landscape fabric needs to be laid down to stop the growth of weeds. The stones can also get hot under the mid-day sun and are likely not a practical option for families with small kids.
But there are landscaping companies happy to help and the costs of switching over to a dry garden quickly pays for itself from the money saved by never needing to water or mow again.
Native plants and meadows
Imagine ditching a monochrome green lawn for a field of flowers that attracts bumblebees and butterflies and is sustained only by the sun and the rain.
More and more homeowners are ripping up turf in favour of plants and wildflowers that grow with almost no help at all. While each region of Canada has its own native species, some plants that grow well in most parts of the country include wild strawberry, yarrow, coneflowers and asters.
Establishing a prairie garden can take a bit of work, as invasive weed species will try to move in. But once established over a couple of years, native flower gardens becomes virtually maintenance-free, requiring only an occasional mow-down.
The downside of “natural gardens” is that many cities simply don’t allow them. They have bylaws in place restricting plant height, usually to avoid seed spread, and deter vermin. But many cities are now relaxing these laws to grant certain yards “natural garden” status
Finally, for those who are not quite ready to get rid of their lawns but still want to cut back on their water use, there are lots of options to mimic the look of soft grass but with a fraction of the maintenance.
Drought-tolerant grass alternatives include microclover, white clover, creeping red fescue, ryegrasses and sedges. These varieties can either replace a typical lawn completely, or be sown in with regular grass to reduce the water needs of a lawn. Some choices, such as clover, actually add nitrogen to the soil, thereby eliminating the need to fertilize the grass around it.
The downsides of these grass alternatives is the seeds are often hard to find in stores, but can be ordered online. Fescues and ryegrasses are not as soft as turf grass, and while clover is soft, it can also flower and attract bees. But many of these problems can be managed with regular mowings.