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Welcome to the No-Mow Zone: New Ways to Ditch Your Lawn

Say goodbye to high-maintenance grass and hello to sustainable landscaping

spinner image Clinton Lak photos are of his yard in Venice, FL.
Courtesy of Clinton Lak, ArtisTree Landscape

In America, large, well-manicured lawns are a source of pride. But that lush green grass comes with a price: mowing marathons, weeding, watering, edging and, often, environmentally unfriendly chemicals.

It might be time to consider saying goodbye to high-maintenance lawns and hello to sustainable landscaping: Welcome to the no-mow zone.

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That's what Neil Diboll, 67, owner of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin, and his wife, Maureen, did decades ago.

Diboll has been preaching sustainable landscaping for nearly 40 years. Now, instead of mowing, he enjoys prairie gardens and meadows filled with wildflowers that attract monarch butterflies on his property.

"People want to control their garden,” Diboll says. “When you are in a joint venture with nature, you are playing by her rules.”

spinner image Side profile yard
courtesy Ching-Fang Chen

Want to scrap your lawn? Check for restrictions 

While some states, particularly those that have experienced drought, encourage homeowners to give up their lawns, other areas are not as tolerant. Make sure to check your local regulations, including homeowner association rules, regarding what is permitted in your area.

Limiting the front lawn

Though it might not be to everyone's taste, the American Society of Landscape Architects encourages people to replace grass with drought-resistant ground cover that requires no mowing. Reducing or eliminating a lawn and opting for sustainable landscaping can ultimately be more affordable, manageable and better for the environment, Diboll says.

Lawns can be replaced by everything from native perennials to rock gardens, vegetable and herb gardens, mosses or hardscaping. Some homeowners in hot, drought-prone areas swap their lawns for pea gravel or even artificial turf.

However, opting out of a lawn isn't a simple process. It can be a good idea to consult experts if you have a project in mind.

"Transforming a standard lawn into sustainable landscape is certainly not a weekend project,” says Clinton Lak, a landscape designer with ArtisTree Landscaping in Venice, Florida. “You'll literally need to remove your lawn and any plants that don't fit with your new plan.”

Ching-Fang Chen, 55, remembers the odd looks her McLean, Virginia, neighbors gave her in 1999 when she covered her entire front yard with newspaper to prep the soil for sustainable landscaping.

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An award-winning landscape architect and project manager for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Chen transformed her typical suburban corner lot with a traditional lawn into a garden showstopper.

"Lawn is a food desert for insects, birds and small animals,” she says. “It has very low ecological function and requires a great deal of maintenance."

Chen used the no-digging method to get rid of the lawn she planned to replace. The strategy involves laying newspaper or cardboard on the grass, and then covering with mulch.

"Let the bed sit for a few weeks,” she says. “The grass and roots will rot and become compost.” The newspaper or cardboard suppresses weeds while allowing water to filter through.

Today, Chen's yard includes a lily pool designed to fit into a steep slope by the driveway. She has a slate dining terrace sheltered by a hemlock hedge and a kitchen garden for edibles including fruits, vegetables and herbs. She retained some lawn on the quarter-acre property as a path so people can circulate throughout the yard, push trash containers, walk and enjoy the garden.

Leaves from the garden are recycled in planting beds, and high-nitrogen-content sludge from a biological pond filter is used as fertilizer for woody plants and fruit trees. She has to water the garden only during severe drought.

"We enjoy the beautiful and year-round garden, love to be surrounded by birds, bees and butterflies,” Chen says. “We cook with fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden.… The garden is our pride."

spinner image One is her kitchen garden, which she uses to feed or family and share with friends.
Chen's kitchen garden is used to feed family and share with friends.
courtesy Ching-Fang Chen

Beyond traditional turfgrass

Most American lawns are composed of some form of turfgrass, which requires more water and maintenance than ground covers such as ornamental grasses and hardscapes, decorative rocks, stones, slate or pebbles.

If you want to stick with the grassy look, Diboll recommends a no-mow lawn seed mixture of fescues that does well in both sun and shade and in moderate climates like the Midwest. These options form a soft green grass — nature's version of shag carpet — that needs minimal watering, no fertilizers and mowing just twice a year.

"If hardscapes such as rock paths or stone-paver patios are desired, bring in the supplier early to discuss ideas and show them your proposed plan,” Lak says. “They are a great source of knowledge."

Lak likes to blend decorative stone with ground cover for an affordable, sustainable alternative to a lawn. Native plants typically adapt best. “You have to do your homework to make sure it will thrive in the area you live,” he says. “Research plant material that's suitable to growing in [your] area.”

In hot climates like Florida, Lak suggests replacing grass with plants like sunshine mimosa, perennial peanut and beach sunflower. They thrive in sandy soil where grass barely survives. Perennial ground-huggers like lantana and blue daze will spread quickly.

But not everyone is ready to relinquish the lawn. “A person with a tight, manicured lawn living next to a neighbor who mows infrequently and lets flowering weeds or wildflowers spread will likely think the ‘wild, carefree’ look makes his own property look bad,” Lak says.

No-mow options aren't about letting weeds take over or letting your traditional grass grow six feet high. It's about working with nature in a thoughtful way.

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett is a contributing writer who covers sports, interior design, business and human-interest stories. A former reporter for Sports Illustrated and tennis columnist for Bleacher Report, her work has also appeared in Essence and Black Enterprise. She is the author of the biography Serena Williams: Tennis Champion, Sports Legend and Cultural Heroine.

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