Down With Mowing 

Alternatives to grass in your yard

After the seemingly endless inversion that suffocates this valley every late winter, the arrival of spring is a welcome relief. Early signs of the season pop up all over: birds and squirrels, crocuses, daffodils and tulips, yellow splashes of forsythia everywhere, and ... grass. Yep, with the spring season you get mowing ... lots and lots of mowing. There's sun, some rain, some more sun, and the grass gets long and green overnight—and about a foot high before we drag ourselves outside to give the lawn its first crewcut of the season with the stinky, polluting gas lawnmower. Oh, and then there's all the watering—grass takes an enormous amount of water to keep it green and healthy. Grass is labor-intensive and uneconomical, so why put up with it? For a landscaped yard that doesn't resemble a putting green (or require the work of one), there are alternative landscaping techniques that don't involve anything with the words "rye" "Kentucky" or "bluegrass."

Whatever route you decide to take in lawn elimination, a little research is required before getting started. It will help you decide what look appeals to you, what kind of soil condition and site preparation is required, and how much work the project will entail. A variety of vegetation can be planted in the yard instead of grass—some dramatic, some quite simple and some just out there. Take your pick—there's something for everyone.

Ornamental and meadow grasses are one way to go—providing a kind of prairie look, and for the timid an easier transition from traditional lawn. A meadow is still grassy, but yields a wild look that you don't have to mow. Garden supply catalogs offer many beautiful and interesting options in ornamental grasses. (The downside: if you do plant decorative grasses in the front yard or a visible area of your lot, a code enforcement officer just might mistakenly ticket you for tall weed violation. Just in case, keep receipts and cut pictures from the gardening catalogue to use as court exhibits when fighting the ticket.) If you like the idea of an unfettered meadow but not a grassy one, you could always transform the entire yard into a wildflower meadow. Very pretty, a bit showier than meadow grass, plus if any weeds pop up, chances are you won't be able to find 'em.

If meadows don't do it for you, there are a variety of hardy mosses and ground covers that can be grown in lieu of lawn. This look would be easiest to maintain in smaller yards. With a lot of aesthetic choices, ground covers have that advantage over traditional grass, which, let's face it, all look about the same. Some of them, such as thyme, are fragrant. Flagstone walkways nestled into the groundcover can protect the growth from the brunt of abuse, even though many are hardy enough to walk on. (You still may not want to plant a groundcover yard where there are going to be kids or dogs.) What you can achieve with a good moss or groundcover is the same coverage as grass but without the mowing.

Speaking of walkways, there a several variations on this theme in the search for a grass-less yard. Durable paths can be made from flagstones, bricks, concrete, gravel, sand—there is a wide range of choice. In the plots between paths wooden decking could be constructed, or flagstone terraces, or raised beds for flowers, or a vegetable or herb garden.

If you don't merely object to grass, but categorically reject anything you have to weed, mow, water or otherwise tend, then a rock garden might be for you. There are ways to give a rock garden visual interest so your yard doesn't look like a gravel pit. Some businesses specialize in landscape rock, offering many variations in color, size and shape. You might section off parts of your rock with distinctly different rocks, or plant a few ornamental shrubs or trees, or invest in a couple of really big stones as central pieces. (Again, this idea might not be kid- or pet-friendly.)

Perhaps you're looking to do something a little more ... unique. You might fill your yard with gravel and spray-paint the little buggers green. Kind of looks like a lawn if you squint. You could turn your yard into a giant sandbox. Or what about paving it? Make a parking lot, charge five bucks per axle during parades or ballgames (whatever entrepreneurship your house's proximity allows). An army of garden statuary—gnomes, fairies, deer, frogs, cherubs—makes a bold statement, staring out shoulder to shoulder at the sidewalk or curb (unless someone steals them) at uniform attention. And of course, there's that disturbing simulacrum that is the anti-lawn: green Astroturf.

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