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Landscape Tips for Reducing Lawns Without Increasing Maintenance

  • 11 min read

You’re here because you’re interested in reducing your lawn. Probably because you’re getting sick of mowing. Lawns take a lot of time to maintain, and there is a growing movement toward lawn free landscaping, which is a good thing! Other kinds of plantings support way more biodiversity than lawns.
However, sometimes people will inadvertently increase their maintenance when they remove their lawns. There is a strategy involved. In this article, I’ll share landscape tips for reducing lawns without increasing maintenance, in the form of common mistakes and how to avoid them. 

One thing I want to premise is that even though removing and replacing lawn can be more complex than you might expect, it is very possible to remove lawn and reduce maintenance, and the benefits are immense.


Why Reduce Lawn?

As of a study done way back in 2005, lawn was the largest irrigated crop cultivated in the united states. I couldn’t tell you how it’s changed since then BUT that’s still a lot of irrigation for something that doesn’t sustain many living things and is mostly used just for aesthetic purposes. There’s the chemical runoff caused by improper use of fertilizers and other lawn care chemicals, the time and money spent on mowing, the air pollution from mowing… 

Also, if you love your lawn, please don’t be offended. I’m not a lawn hater, I believe in balance. Some people take it too far, leading to unintended consequences in the pursuit of the perfect lawn. In the grand scheme of things, lawns aren't the biggest problem humans are facing as a species right now. Additionally, there are many great ecological lawn practices, but that’s a topic for another article. I do believe in in a big concept: that a lot of tiny efforts in the right direction add up to a magnified positive impact. 

So let’s replace some of our lawn with plants and other things. That was a long-winded intro to this article, about techniques for reducing maintenance when you are removing lawn. Removing lawn requires a bit more strategy than you may expect. Let’s start talking about common mistakes. 

Common Mistakes That Lead to More Maintenance When Reducing Lawns

I will start by sharing 3 common mistakes all at once, because they’re very much related 

Mistake Number 1: Forgetting to Mulch
Mistake Number 2: Letting the Weeds Take Over
Mistake Number 3: It's a Maintenance Investment!

Oftentimes, people will opt to remove their lawn and immediately and plant one big garden. This strategy can work, but it is not necessarily less work than a lawn at first. Let me emphasize this point: at first.

After removing the lawn, you need to amend the soil (with compost, ideally. Conduct a soil test to determine what your soil needs!) and then cover the soil immediately. Regardless of what you use to cover the soil, remember that the soil must be covered: otherwise nature will cover it.

You can probably guess, the first thing nature immediately does to cover soil is fill it with WEEDS. And quickly. Weeds seeds can live in the soil for decades, waiting to begin germinating when conditions are right. This is called the weed seed bank.

Mulch Prevents Weeds

At first, mulching can be overwhelming. For mulch to be effective, it needs to be a few inches deep. I have had success with two to three inches, though some sources recommend as many as five inches, depending on the mulch material you use. This means the initial mulching after removing lawn will cost the most. You will also need to reapply a thin layer of mulch periodically, every year or few years... the frequency depends on what you use.

It sounds like a lot, but as the mulch settles in over a few years, and the plants become established, you will need to weed less and less. 

Remember that compost is not mulch: mulch can include bark dust, bark nuggets, arborist chips, wood chips, hazelnut shells, the list goes on.

Also, no amount of mulch will prevent weeds entirely. You will still need to weed. Having enough mulch decreases the need to weed. At first, you will have very few. Then some will start popping up in your new mulch. Deal with these right away and you’ll find your garden settling into a rhythm of few weeds... Until the mulch starts decomposing and you need to reapply (this can take months or years depending on the material). You’ll see an uptick in weed germination when the time for this comes. 

It's An Investment of Maintenance That Pays Off Later

Young plants will also require extra care and irrigation until they are established. This takes a lot of work for the first few seasons, depending on how often it rains where you live. 

Again, once plants become established, they will fill in the space, giving weeds more competition, and thus reducing their numbers.

You are probably beginning to notice how this approach can catch some people off guard: substituting mowing and fertilizing with mulching, weeding, and watering plants.

So in summary, these are essentially 3 common mistakes, lumped together. They’re all related 
Mistake number 1: forgetting to mulch,
Mistake number 2: letting the weeds take over,
Mistake number 3: not being mentally prepared for the up front investment of work, which pays off over time.

Now, let’s talk about plants. 

Mistake Number 4: Planting The Wrong Plants

Plants that fill in quickly, compete with weeds, and are low maintenance are the best for replacing lawns.

Annuals and herbaceous perennials tend to not be as good at this. I like to recommend people think about shrubs and trees as much as possible when replacing areas of lawn with landscaping. Of course, some herbaceous perennials require less maintenance than others, and some shrubs and trees can require more maintenance than others, so this is a generalization. In general, seek out low maintenance plants.

You can learn more about selecting the right plant for the right place in my free mini course: HOW TO CHOOSE THE PERFECT PLANT.

I created this mini course to make choosing the right plants for your yard, easier. I hope it helps you! To sign up you just create an account to keep track of your progress as you move through the course, it's free and here to help.

Free Mini-Course

HOW TO CHOOSE THE PERFECT PLANT

Learn how to come up with ideas and research the perfect plant to fill that empty spot in your yard, even if you're new to gardening.

Mistake Number 5: Forgetting About Native Plants

You have probably heard a lot of good things about gardening with native plants. They are great alternatives for replacing lawns.

This is because the right native plants for your yard will fill in space quickly, and are adapted to regional soils and weather patterns. This means less maintenance. 

Of course, you need to do a little homework to ensure the native plants you are choosing will do well in your yard. Just like any other plant, native plants are adapted to certain environments. A native plant adapted to growing on top of a mountain may not do well in your front yard. Learn more about choosing the right plants for your yard in my free mini course! I hope it helps you! 

Mistake Number 6: Replacing Lawn With Only  Ground Cover Plants

Pulling up your lawn up and replacing it entirely with a ground cover can lead to problems. There are very short plants that are designed to be walked on, and many people assume that these are perfect alternatives to lawns. While these kinds of ground cover plants can serve great purposes in your yard, I don't recommend replacing your entire lawn with them.

They can take time to fill in large spaces, can sometimes look patchy, and don’t compete very well with weeds. Small areas of these ground covers can be delightful and effective, especially around pavers in pathways, alongside driveways, or in between other plants. As a substitute for an entire lawn? Maybe not as much. 

Mistake Number 7: Forgetting About Artificial Turf, When Appropriate

This is a more controversial topic, but another mistake is that people entirely discount the idea of artificial turf. 

While I don't much know the environmental impact of producing, maintaining, or eventually disposing of artificial turf (and artificial lawn supports even fewer living things that a traditional lawn), I do recommend you look into it as an option if you are hoping for only a small patch of lawn in your landscape design.
I say this because in my experience offering in-person landscape design services, sometimes people have a hard time entirely letting go of the grass in their yard, perhaps for a picky pet or for the curb appeal (note that pets don't require lawn, but that's a tangent for another article). 
I do not have the expertise to fully evaluate and compare the data, but I imagine that having a yard that includes diverse plantings alongside a small patch of artificial turf is overall better than just having a large lawn. And why deal with a mower, sprinkler system, and fertilizer for just a small patch of grass?

A common objection to artificial turf is that it looks fake or tacky, but a lot of modern artificial lawn materials actually don’t look as bad as you might expect. Some are designed to have textures and discoloration that makes them look more like real grass.

In my opinion, too much artificial grass in a landscape can look kind of weird. Which moves me onto the next biggest mistake I see.


Mistake Number 8: Not Having a Good Landscape Design Plan

In my opinion, the biggest mistake when removing lawn is not having a plan in place for what to do with the space instead.

Instead of going from 100% lawn to 100% garden, what can you do to reduce the maintenance while simultaneously increasing the usefulness of the space? Having a great plan or a landscape design can help with this.

What other elements could you incorporate that could reduce the amount of space that needs to be either lawn or garden?

Instead of going from solid lawn to solid garden, or solid artificial turf, or solid ground cover , what can be done with the space? 
Consider how could you use the space.
What about a place to sit? Some meandering pathways? A deck or a small sitting area? A nature play area for your kids?

Additionally, a good landscape design can help you break down your project into bite sized pieces, so maybe you will feel less overwhelmed when reducing or replacing larger sections of lawn. 

In a future post, I'll talk about use-first design. For now, remember that having a landscape design can help make your lawn removal process less intimidating.

In summary, there is no quick lawn removal tip. However, these tips will collectively help you remove lawn, successfully. 

Remember that having a more "wild" lawn, using fewer or no chemicals, allowing weeds like white clover and dandelions (depending on your HOA or neighbors association requirements), and planting no mow species of grass are also alternatives.
Simply reducing lawn, instead of entirely replacing, also helps. Remember that a lot of tiny efforts in the right direction add up to a magnified positive impact. 

There is so much to learn about lawns and lawn alternatives, so this is all for now. Let me know your additional questions in the comments below. 


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Eve Hanlin

We are an online education company offering online landscape design and gardening resources to help you with your next garden project.