Lawn Alternatives: Choose Your Compromises

— Written By Paul McKenzie
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A common question from the gardening public is “what’s a good alternative to turf?” It’s a valid question. Maintaining a home lawn and landscape requires a significant investment of time and money, both of which are limited commodities. Given the choice between spending time mowing the lawn or planting more flowers, I’ll choose the flowers! 

There’s also a common belief that turfgrass requires excessive amounts of water, fertilizer and herbicides, but I think that’s a misconception. In fact, the turfgrass management program recommended by N.C. Cooperative Extension is designed to minimize those inputs by using the right amounts, and only when absolutely necessary.

And if we’re honest, we have to acknowledge that turf does serve certain functions, and serves them rather well. If we’re going to find an alternative, a good starting point is to identify those functions that we would like to replicate.

First, it’s easy to walk on. The leaves and stems are fairly soft, especially when mowed to the correct height.

Second, it controls erosion well. The root system does a great job of holding the soil in place, even on relatively steep slopes.

Third, it’s a good surface for games and play. It’s ideal (or nearly so) for activities like volleyball, badminton, tag, cartwheels, somersaults, Easter egg hunts and flag football. I can personally attest to that for everything except cartwheels. It offers good traction (at least when dry) for running and jumping, and is fairly forgiving should someone fall.

Fourth, and closely related, it’s fairly durable. Now durability differs among species, but in general it will tolerate a decent amount of traffic and play with minimal damage. Even the occasional vehicle traffic can be accommodated.

Fifth, it provides an attractive background for the more colorful components of the landscape such as flower beds, blooming shrubs and spring bulbs.

Sixth, weed management is fairly straightforward. If you start with a good stand of turf, then it’s simply a matter of mowing at the correct height and making timely applications of widely available herbicides.

The number of alternatives that accomplish all of those functions is approximately zero. Thus, any substitute will involve compromises. Let’s consider a few.

Shrub beds are great for erosion and can look fantastic, but they make terrible badminton courts (or so I’ve heard) and don’t tolerate vehicle traffic especially well.

A four inch layer of mulch will control erosion (although not as well as turf since it can be washed away), but it doesn’t make a great playing surface for most lawn games. Weed growth will need to be managed either by hand pulling or with a herbicide spray.

Some low-growing plants that spread (i.e. groundcovers) are fine for erosion control and can be quite attractive, but make poor surfaces for walking and play. Herbicide options are quite limited, so regular hand weeding will be a necessary task. Compared to turf, getting the plants established will cost significantly more dollars, and getting full coverage of the area will take longer.

Concrete and pavers make a fine walking surface and can be quite decorative. Weed growth should be minimal. However for somersaulting and cartwheeling, a softer landing surface is preferred by at least three out of four doctors.

Moss is a great option for moist and shady areas. I occasionally get calls from folks wanting to get rid of moss, but I’m not sure why you’d want to. In my opinion it looks great. Besides, if you have a good stand of moss, it’s likely an area that is unsuitable for turfgrass so getting rid of the moss is really just shooting yourself in the foot. Weed management is fairly straightforward (occasional spraying plus a bit of hand weeding) and it does a great job at controlling erosion. The only downside is that it won’t stand up well to games and play.

I suspect when most people ask about turf alternatives, they are looking for something that accomplishes all the same functions but which is easier to maintain. I can assure you that when I find that unicorn, I plan to sell my patented solution to the highest bidder. Until then, choose your compromises, or just stick with the turf.