Lawn Alternatives to Turfgrass

Maintaing a traditional turfgrass lawn can be a lot of work!
Turf alternative
A traditional mowed lawn is not the only option.

A lush green lawn is a goal for many homeowners, but getting a lush green carpet of turfgrass requires a lot of money and time spent on chemicals, mowing, watering, seeding, weeding, and other chores. 

While a well-maintained lawn provides a great space for recreation as well as a perfect backdrop for your home and garden beds, turfgrass is not the only option. Beautiful landscapes can also include a lawn created from many other plants that can provide a more interesting mix of color and textures as well as food and habitat for pollinators.  All of this while requiring fewer inputs!

Below are several alternative lawn options to consider.


Pollinator Lawns | Turf-Like Alternatives | Groundcovers | Create a Garden | Prairies & Meadows | Reduce Mowing | Mulch, Gravel, & Patios | Moss


Pollinator Lawns (aka Bee Lawns)

picture of turfgrass with clover
Lawns that incorporate flowering plants, like the white flowers of Dutch clover in this lawn, can help support pollinators

Turf performs very well in full sun, but the monoculture of grass requires many inputs to keep it healthy and attractive.  Bee lawns are mixes of traditional turfgrasses and other flowering plants.  By interplanting turfgrass with other broadleaf, flowering plants, you can increase the diversity of plant species which reduces the time and money needed to keep it looking good.  This mix of plants is beautiful and provides more food and habitat for pollinators.  Additionally, when the right plant species are selected you can still maintain the same functionality of the lawn as a recreation space and a beautiful backdrop for the home and garden.

More information about planning, establishing, and maintaining a pollinator lawn can be found in this article: How to Create a Pollinator Lawn


Turf-Like Alternatives

In Iowa, the most commonly grown turfgrasses are Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, and fine fescues.  These cool-season grasses require many inputs to keep them healthy and attractive.  Additionally, they typically go dormant for part of the summer leaving the lawn brown in July and August unless regularly irrigated.  Several plants are available that look much like the turfgrasses we are familiar with but require fewer inputs.  Most of these turfgrass alternatives can be minimally mowed, or in some cases not mowed at all. 

prairie dropseed as a lawn alternative
This unmown prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) lawn is beautiful and low maintenance compared to a traditional lawn.
Birch with groundcover
This periwinkle (Vinca minor) groundcover grows much better than traditional turfgrass in the shade of these trees 

More information about creating a lawn using turf-like alternatives can be found in this article: Low-Maintenance Turfgrass Alternatives


Groundcovers

Groundcovers are an excellent alternative to turfgrass. Once they are established, groundcovers require less maintenance than turf, they can out-compete most weeds, and many have attractive flowers. Groundcovers will require more time to establish initially but are worth the effort in the long run.  While a few can tolerate light foot traffic, groundcovers will not create an area conducive to recreation, but they do provide a nice backdrop or carpet to highlight the house and landscape.

When considering a groundcover to replace turfgrass, select species well suited for the growing conditions.  There are a wide variety of options for full sun to full shade as well as dry to wet soil conditions.  Remember, the area can be a mix or matrix of several different species to provide interest all season.

A partial list of groundcovers that are good turfgrass alternatives is provided below.  The plants are listed from shortest to tallest.

Groundcover Alternatives to Turfgrass

Common NameScientific NameHeightLightComments
BugleweedAjuga spp. 2 to 8 inchesSun to Part ShadeLow growing with coloful leaves
ThymeThymus spp.3 to 6 inchesFull to Part SunFragrant, dark green, gray or variegated leaves; purple flowers in early summer
StonecropSedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ and other species or cultivars2 to 8 inchesFull to Part SunYellow, succulent leaves that turn reddish in fall; other species with many leaf colors; dry soils best
MoneywortLysimachia nummularia4 inchesFull Sun to Full ShadeCan be an aggressive spreader in moist soils, use with caution
Barren StrawberryWaldsteinia fragarioides4 to 6 inchesFull Sun to Part ShadeSmall yellow flowers with strawberry like foliage
Moss PhloxPhlox subulata4 to 6 inchesFull Sun to Part ShadePink, white, blue/purple, red, and bicolor flowers in spring
Roman ChamomileChamaemelum nobile4 to 6 inches Full Sun to Part ShadeDaisy flowers and aromatic foliage 
PeriwinkleVinca minor6 inchesFull Sun to Full ShadeLilac-blue flower in spring
Sweet WoodruffGalium odoratum6 to 8 inchesFull to Part ShadeLeaves are fragrant
English IvyHedera helix6 to 10 inchesPart Sun to Full ShadeSemi-evergreen, Marginally hardy in northern Iowa
Lily-of-the-ValleyConvallaria majalis6 to 12 inchesPart to Full ShadeAggressive spreader, use with caution
Japanese SpurgePachysandra terminalis6 to 12 inchesPart to Full ShadeGlossy green foliage
BarrenwortEpimedium spp.8 to 12 inchesPart Shade to Full ShadeGreat for dry shade
Creeping Lily-TurfLiriope spicata8 to 12 inchesPart to Full ShadeGrass-like dark green foliage 
Creeping ButtercupRanunculus repens8 to 12 inchesFull Sun to Part ShadeAggressive spreader, especially in organic moist soils.  Use with caution
Spotted DeadnettleLamium maculatum8 to 12 inchesFull to Part ShadeOrnamental flowers and foliage
Yellow ArchangelLamium galeobdolon12 to 15 inchesFull to Part ShadeYellow flowers in spring
Bishop's GoutweedAegopodium podagraria 'Variegatum'12 to 30 inchesFull to Part ShadeAggressive spreader, use with caution
Allegany SpurgePachysandra procumbens12 to 15 inchesFull to Part ShadeNative
Creeping JuniperJuniperus horizontalis1-2 feet tallFull to Part SunAdaptable evergreen
Lamb's EarStachys byzantina8 to 15 inchesFull to Part SunSoft, gray leaves; dry soils best
Hardy Geranium Geranium spp.6 to 24 inchesFull Sun to Part ShadeFlowers in spring, often have red foliage in fall
HostaHosta spp.12 to 36 inchesFull Shade to Part SunThe large leaves shade the ground

More Information on Groundcovers


Create a Garden Bed

Perennial border
Creating this garden bed with a mix of shrubs and perennials is a great alternative to the traditional lawn.

Consider eliminating the lawn altogether and replacing it with plants or garden spaces that don’t require frequent maintenance, support native insects and wildlife, as well as provide beautiful colorful spaces year-round. Replacing turf with perennials, groundcovers, shrubs, and trees can reduce water consumption, pesticides, and fertilizers while increasing soil organic matter, building soil quality, and helping to retain and infiltrate stormwater.

Options for new garden spaces include building a pollinator garden or establishing a vegetable garden.  Establishing garden beds comprised primarily of trees and shrubs can create some of the lowest maintenance spaces you can have in a landscape. The cost to planting new garden beds can be higher up-front but the time and money saved in reduced maintenance more than makes it up in the long term.  Remember, you don’t have to remove the entire lawn all at once. Phase in the transition from lawn to garden space. Even just eliminating a portion of the turf in your landscape can provide all the benefits and reduce the amount of turfgrass you need to maintain. 

More Information on Creating Garden Beds


native prairie planting on hillside
A native prairie planting on this hillside is much easier to care for than mown turf.

Prairies and Meadows

Almost 85% of Iowa was originally covered by prairie.  This diverse and resilient ecosystem is a great alternative to lawn areas, especially to replace large open areas of turfgrass or those spaces that are not used for recreation.  The terms "prairie" and "meadow" are often used interchangeably as they both describe large open treeless plantings that contain mostly grass with some flowering perennial plants. While both prairies and meadows are essentially the same type of ecosystem, prairies specifically describe the grasslands that dominate central North America.  Because Iowa lies in the center of North America, when establishing native grassland plantings in Iowa they can be called prairies. Whereas a meadow can be used to describe any grassland planting and could contain plants both native and non-native to Iowa.

Benefits of Prairies and Meadows

There are many advantages to replacing the lawn with prairie or meadow plantings.  Thousands of grasses and forbs are native to these ecosystems and with proper selection, a mix of these grassland plants can be selected to grow in any type of soil and environmental conditions.  Once established, prairies and meadows need much less regular maintenance than the traditional lawn requiring no irrigation or fertilization and minimal mowing (or burning).  These plantings support an incredibly diverse range of wildlife, pollinators, and other insects. Prairies and meadows improve water infiltration, reduce nutrient loss in the soil, and prevent erosion.  Plus they are beautiful garden spaces that provide color and interest all year.

Important Considerations Before Planting a Prairie

Before swapping lawns for prairies and meadows it is important to understand these unique ecosystems.  A good understanding of the soil and environmental conditions in your landscape will be important to select a mix of plants that will perform well.  For example, prairie plants well adapted to dry conditions would not thrive in wet areas of the landscape causing plants to die out and weeds to fill in the open areas left behind. 
Both native and non-native seed mixes for various site conditions are available to be purchased.  Keep in mind that meadow “wildflower” seed mixes found in garden centers and hardware stores typically include annual flower seeds that are not native or well adapted to Iowa. These seed mixes can create a colorful flower garden in their first year, but then leave behind open spaces in subsequent years allowing weeds to take root.

Meadow lawn
This meadow planting is a mix of native and non-native species and serves as a beautiful alternative to a traditional lawn.
Prairie planting
This large area is much easier to maintain and supports pollinators when planted as a prairie rather than traditional turfgrass.

Planting and establishing a prairie or meadow is a multi-year commitment.  Most prairie plantings take 3 years for the area to look like a cohesive prairie planting and seven years to become fully established.  During the establishment period, proper management is essential.  Without proper management, these plantings are quickly overtaken by weeds and other unwanted plants.  While this management is typically much less labor intensive than the traditional turfgrass lawn, there are still things that must be done on a regular basis to keep these native plantings healthy, weed-free, and beautiful.

More Information on Prairies and Meadows

There are many reliable resources available to help you learn about planning, establishing, and maintaining a prairie or meadow planting.  The Prairie Restoration - Habitat Headquarters website from Iowa State University is a collection of many of the best resources available on prairies.  


Reduce or Stop Mowing

When looking to reduce inputs, increase diversity, and promote pollinators and other wildlife one of the easiest things to do is to simply stop mowing and let whatever grows, grow!  While this option can be attractive in its simplicity, it can lead to unintentional issues.   

Not Mowing Has Negative Consequences

In Iowa, nearly all lawns are comprised of non-native grasses and most of them have some (or many) weeds that are also non-native plants. If you stop managing the lawn it will not revert to a more natural space. Instead, it will be a collection of non-native plants allowed to grow unchecked. Often plants that are normally not an issue in a mowed lawn will become a problem when the space is no longer regularly mowed.  Woody plants like mulberry, Siberian elm, or honeysuckle as well as other weedy forbs like velvetleaf, leafy spurge, and garlic mustard can become established and crowd out native plants.  Simply ignoring or halting the maintenance of the lawn is not a responsible way to manage these non-native plants.  Additionally, most municipalities will issue citations for unkempt lawns.  Simply not mowing or otherwise managing the space will often result in fines or mowing fees.  

Mown turfgrass vs unmown turfgrass
Mowing less frequently and letting the turfgrass grow longer produces a lawn that looks just as nice as one mown more frequently but requires less time mowing, watering, or fertilizing.

Instead, Consider Mowing Less 

For much of the growing season, especially spring and fall, it is typical to mow the traditional lawn once a week in Iowa. Rather than not mowing at all, mowing less frequently can support pollinators and reduce inputs while avoiding many of the drawbacks.  Most flowering plants in lawns, like dandelion and clover, flower even with mowing making them available to bees and other pollinators. By extending the time in between mowings from every 7 days to every 10-14 days (14-20 days in summer), you can continue to manage your landscape in a way that supports the pollinators and wildlife with more flowers and avoids many of the drawbacks such as citations, undesirable weeds, and stress to the lawn.

Mowing less frequently will require you to set the mower height high to avoid removing too much leaf material at once. The good news is that mowing grass at a taller height promotes a healthier lawn. Mowing at a height of 3.5 to 4 inches promotes a larger, more drought-tolerant root system, can help shade the soil surface reducing undesirable weeds, and allows you to use less pesticide and herbicide on the lawn because the turf is healthier.

No Mow May

No Mow May is a conservation initiative that promotes leaving your lawn unmown for the month of May, creating habitat and food sources for early-season pollinators. This initiative can help to support pollinators (at least for one month), but also has limitations.  More information about participating in No Mow May can be found in this article: Tips for Participating in No-Mow-May


Mulch, Gravel, and Patios

Organic Mulches

When areas under trees are so shady and dry that few plants grow, a good alternative is to lay down a layer of mulch.  Mulch helps suppress weeds, conserves soil moisture, and provides an attractive alternative to bare soil or sparse plants.  Mulch has the added benefit of creating a great growing environment for the tree by eliminating any plants that would compete with the tree for water and nutrients. 

Shredded or chipped wood or bark mulch, as well as pine needles, are great options as they are attractive, weed-free, and decompose slowly.  Spread the mulch 2 to 4 inches thick and refresh thin or bare spots every few years.  

mulch area
Mulch is a great alternative to turfgrass in this shady site with a lot of foot traffic.

Gravel and Patios

Utilizing gravel, stone, or paving materials can be another alternative to turfgrass.  These long-lasting options can provide the same uniform backdrop for the home and garden beds as turfgrass can, but require fewer inputs.  Additionally, they can still allow for some functional or recreational use of the space. Utlizie materials like pea gravel, crushed granite, river rock, and other types of gravel as well as patios built from concrete, brick, or pavers.  These materials all work well to provide a low-maintenance alternative in areas with a lot of foot (or vehicle) traffic or areas that tend to be hot and dry.  

While gravel and patios are low-maintenance, that does not mean they are no maintenance.  Regular weed control through hand-pulling or with herbicides will be necessary to eliminate the plants that emerge between the stones and cracks.  Initial installation costs can be higher as you will need to purchase the stone or pavers as well as cover the costs to ship, deliver, and install them.  Create barriers to prevent the stone from shifting or washing away.  Rock is not organic so it will not help build better soils and it will not support most pollinators and other wildlife.  These materials can absorb heat and in some situations may significantly warm the ground and surrounding areas, especially in sunny locations.

More Information on Mulch


Moss

moss
If moss is growing in your lawn, it could be a good opportunity to embrace it!

Moss can be difficult to establish in an Iowa landscape, but if you already have moss growing it can be a good opportunity to embrace it and utilize it as a groundcover instead of the typical lawn.  Moss does well in damp, shady locations; an area where turfgrasses do not grow well.  When growing in these conditions, moss becomes a low-input, easy-to-care-for lawn alternative.  However, just like any other plant, when moss is grown in less-than-ideal conditions, it becomes high-maintenance and difficult to grow.  If you already have moss in your lawn, encourage it to spread naturally. Remove any remaining weak turfgrass. Pull out weeds and rake out any debris like fallen leaves and twigs. 

If you have conditions perfect for moss and want to establish some, transplanting is the best option.  Move small clumps or sheets of moss with some of the underlying soil still attached to the rhizoids (root-like structures of moss).  If needed, use moss pins or wooden toothpicks to hold the moss in place and keep the area shaded and moist until they become established and begin to spread.  Skip the "moss smoothie" technique of blending moss with buttermilk (or beer, egg whites, potato water, or any other number of potential mix-ins).  While mixing with food additives is touted by some garden bloggers as a good method of moss propagation, very little research has shown it to be effective at much more than growing fungi and attracting insects. Transplanting clumps or sheets of moss locally sourced from vendors or approved/permitted areas is the best way to establish new moss plantings.

More Information on Growing Moss

Authors:
Last reviewed:
September 2022