Grass isn't always the best ground cover for a yard: It's thirsty at a time when water is becoming scarce, it attracts fewer pollinators, and it requires expensive chemicals to maintain. That's why many property owners are downsizing their lawns or simply exchanging turf grass for something more functional and less demanding.
"We're recommending ecosystem changes provided by a more productive landscape, instead of a monoculture from grass," says Susan Barton, an extension horticulturist with the University of Delaware. "A lawn should not be a default vegetation, but it should be more purposeful, more diverse."
She suggests alternatives to turf grass:
• Landscape beds
• Woods or natural conservation areas
•Paved, permeable hardscapes.
"All of these provide more ecologic service," she says. "We're talking clean water, more habitat for insects, more oxygen taken in and less carbon dioxide given off."
Downsizing or replacing turf isn't simple or cheap, but it can be done in stages. Start with your toughest-to-grow or hardest-to-mow sections.
"Use the 80-20 plan, where 20 percent of your area requires 80 percent of your maintenance," says Evelyn Hadden, a founding member of the Lawn Reform Coalition and author of Beautiful No-Mow Yards (Timber Press, 2012).
Pam Penick, a garden designer from Austin, Texas, makes use of weak spots. "Look first at areas where the grass is already suffering — that strip along the street that's hard to water or trampled by people getting off the bus," says Penick, the author of Lawn Gone!: Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard (Ten Speed Press, 2013).
Use ecological grasses if you don't want to eliminate turf, Penick says. "Consider ornamental grasses," or "some of the new ground covers (aromatic herbs, succulents, low-growing shrubs, ferns). Edibles. Larger shrubs. You can have a nice-looking yard yet be conservation minded."
Any lawn renovation project should be regionally appropriate. "What we're really talking about is using native vegetation," says Barton.