Alternatives to Grass: Why Unconventional Lawns Are Gaining in Popularity

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If you’re the proud owner of a detached, semi-detached, or row house, you know that people mean business with their lawns.

More than anything else, the greenness and perfection of your front lawn is compared to your neighbours. The “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality comes from the ability to develop and maintain a picture-perfect yard, helping keep the neighbourhood values high and your neighbours happy. Right?

Well, that might not be true. If you’re keeping your lawn looking its best, up to half your monthly water bill in spring, summer, and fall could be spent on your lawn alone. And aside from the monetary cost, the environmental damage of wasting so much water weighs heavily on an increasingly environmentally aware generation of homeowners, as temperatures rise and droughts become more commonplace. Added to lawnmower noise pollution and added environmental strain via pesticides and fertilizers, traditional green lawns may be on their way out.

Here’s where unconventional lawns come in.

We’ve all seen different yards, full of rocks, turf, and innovative landscaping. Homes are popping up in the Guelph real estate market, the Hamilton real estate market, and even the Toronto real estate market with lawns not made of traditional grass. But what exactly are people using, and why? Here are a few options to change your lawn from a water-draining pit to a conscientious alternative.

Low-Maintenance Lawns

Traditional lawns are 100% fine turfgrass, like Kentucky bluegrass. Nowhere in nature is there a span of one type of vegetation like this, except in man-made yards. Low-maintenance lawns include a number of different plants, creating a green space that is less manicured, takes less work, has less environmental impact, and takes far less from your wallet.

There are a number of different plants that go into a low-maintenance lawn, but they are all slow-growing and only need to be mowed or trimmed a couple times each year. The species range from ryegrasses to red fescue and sedges, creating a more natural yet still green lawn. Some of the plants go even further to help your yard succeed; clover, for example, remove the need for fertilizer, as they add nitrogen to the soil.

Native plants

A large portion of homeowners don’t use most of their backyards. Aside from a deck or patio, those especially without children tend to leave their backyards vacant, but still dump money and time into maintaining them.

A growing trend is to allow native plants to migrate in, adding in large flowers like sunflowers and meadow plants. While it takes some initial setup time, and weeding during your first two summers, the flowers will stand maintenance-free after that. The local flora attracts bumblebees, butterflies, and birds, while allowing for a backyard view unlike any other that costs a small fraction of a typical lawn.

Some municipalities don’t allow plants of a certain height, so check with your local bylaws before you grow your own secret garden.

Rock gardens

For smaller yards, both front and back, rock gardens are a quirky alternative that have little upkeep and no yearly cost. Rock yards are not for the faint of heart, as they make a statement and have no green space. However, they use no water and have no significant environmental impact.

The downside is that the initial cost may be significant, as you need a landscaping company to haul in the materials and arrange the yard. But after that first year, you’re home-free.

The biggest shift with all alternative lawns is a mental one. If you’re the first on your street to install something out-of-the-ordinary, you have to be ready for questions and criticism. However, knowing you’re helping the environment, saving time and money, and are part of a growing trend should all help in that process.

Do you have out-of-the-box lawn tips? Let us know!

Flickr: Susan Harris

About Jam Michael McDonald

Jam is a content editor based in Toronto. He's been the editor of a community newspaper, a national magazine, and two startups. Although he lives in a tiny condo, he uses every corner, and is an avid cheerleader of the compact home movement. You can find him every day on Twitter @mcjamdonald.

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