Alternatives to Turf Grass

When you work at an ornamental grass nursery, you spend a fair amount of time explaining to laypeople that you don’t sell sod. The horticulture industry distinguishes turf from ornamental grasses for a number of reasons, including big differences in production and maintenance regimens. We think turf grass can work well for certain applications, and we think there’s room for both in modern, environmentally friendly landscapes.

This photo, taken by Susan Harris, shows the gorgeous lawn of Sporobolus heterolepis at the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College.

That said, there’s a movement afoot to reduce the size of resource-intense turf grass lawns. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends reducing mowing by replacing areas of typical lawn with plantings that require little or no maintenance. Here are some of the reasons why.

  • Running a gasoline-powered lawnmower for one hour creates as much pollution as driving a car 20 miles
  • It is estimated that half of water used for commercial and residential irrigation is wasted through evaporation, wind, poor design or overzealous watering.
  • Nationwide, an estimated one-third of all residential water use (more than 7 billion gallons per day) goes toward landscape irrigation.
  • The rate of residential application of pesticides is typically 10 to 20 times per acre greater than that used on agricultural crops
  • Each year Americans spend an estimated $950 million on fertilizers and $1.5 billion on pesticides for landscape uses.

There are remarkable landscapes that replace traditional lawn with rich, diverse plantings, and a quick online search reveals loads of info. A place to see great examples is the website for the Lawn Reform Coalition, a group of writers and activists who’d like to see less lawn. Also, Sunset magazine has an article on 21 inspiring yards that have lost their lawns.

Carex pensylvanica substitutes for lawn in shady areas

For areas that do not need to take foot traffic, the following grasses can create a low, green,ground cover to take the place of traditional turfgrass. These lawn alternatives do not need regular mowing, but can be cut back once a year in late winter before new growth appears. Some are appropriate for sun, others for shade, and some are evergreen in mild climates. You can find these and other lawn alternatives in our Find Your Plants section of this website.

  • Bouteloua gracilis (Blue Grama, Mosquito Grass)
  • Carex appalachia (Appalachian Sedge)
  • Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania Sedge)
  • Deschampsia cespitosa (Tufted Hair Grass)
  • Deschampsia flexuosa (Crinkled Hair Grass)
  • Eragrostis spectabilis (Purple Love Grass)
  • Juncus tenuis (Path Rush)
  • Sesleria autumnalis (Autumn Moor Grass)
  • Sporobolus heterolepis (Prairie Dropseed)

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