Alternative Lawns

Alternative Lawns

  • By Catherine Caldwell
  • /
  • January 2015 - Vol.1 No. 1

by Cathy Caldwell

The term “grass-free lawns” came up at a recent Master Gardener presentation by Ben Kessler of C’ville Foodscapes.  Hey, I thought, I’ve already got one of those!   What really got my attention, though, was that Kessler seemed to be saying that a grass-free lawn could actually be a desirable thing — and trendy, too.  Naturally, I had to look into this, and my research led me beyond grass-free lawns to “no-mow” yards, “freedom lawns” and “tapestry lawns.”   Did someone say  “no-mow” and “freedom” in the same sentence as YARDS??  Yes!  So while you’re on your winter hiatus from grass-tending and mowing, you may want to take a look at these alternative lawn concepts.

One of the leaders in the “grass-free” lawn movement is Lionel Smith, Ph.D., of Reading University in England.  For several years, he has developed a number of trial lawns using a wide variety of plant species, most of which are flowering ground covers, such as chamomile, thyme, yarrow and selfheal lawns.    Most of his trial lawns contain a mixture of over 30 different plant species that can tolerate mowing.  Smith calls these  “tapestry lawns.”    Dr. Smith’s research indicates that his grass-free lawns need no chemical additives and can reduce the need for mowing by up to two-thirds.  Check out Lionel Smith’s work at  “Rethinking the Traditional Grass Lawn,” .  The website Grass-Free Lawns,, has lots of  information and photos, even videos showing the development of alternative lawns over the course of several years, plus links to many helpful resources.   If you’re interested in reducing the amount of your turfgrass, you’ll find lots of inspiration at these sites.


The new floral lawn at Avondale Park near Notting Hill in London has been created by Lionel Smith of the University of Reading.

The new floral lawn at Avondale Park near Notting Hill in London has been created by Lionel Smith of the University of Reading.

Here in America, you’ll find leaders of the alternative lawn movement in the Lawn Reform Coalition, which has a website,, which is loaded with helpful resources, links, and inspiring photos.  Susan Harris, the founder of the Lawn Reform Coalition, has experimented with alternative lawns in the Mid-Atlantic region, and you’ll find her photos at the website.  Evelyn Hadden’s book, Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives is available through the Jefferson Madison Regional Library.  Check it out if you’re curious about how gardeners all over America are re-imagining lawns.

There is much to admire about these beautiful flowery lawns, but we all need areas in our yards that can handle foot traffic and children playing.  Can we have that type of lawn without all the mowing, watering and fertilizing?  The answer turns out to be “maybe”  — though future developments are looking very promising.


Freedom Lawns

For years I’ve resented the clover and other broadleaf weeds in my yard.  Ever since my husband and I stopped applying ANYTHING at all — not even water — our yard on this no-chemicals diet has become a hodgepodge of species, very few of which are grass.  Even though some of these weeds — like the violets — were beautiful in spring, my yard was not pleasing to my eye — probably because it did not look at all like the manicured all-grass lawns on view in my neighborhood and in gardening magazines.  That’s the standard we all have parked away in our minds.  But now that I’ve been looking into lawn alternatives, my perspective is changing.  And guess what?  It turns out that my yard actually has a name:  it’s a “freedom lawn.”

A freedom lawn is defined as “residential land permitted to or designed to contain a variety of plants other than manicured grass, especially when containing plant life that occurs without cultivation, chemicals, or cutting.”   A “freedom lawn”  sounds desirable in many ways, and you’d expect that if you stop fertilizing your lawn, you’d help to reduce pollution in our watersheds.  BUT, that is not necessarily the case.  I spoke to Dr. Mike Goatley, a turfgrass expert at Virginia Tech, and he explained that a “freedom lawn” could actually result in the leaching of more pollution-causing nutrients than a properly-fertilized turfgrass lawn.  How could this be?

Well, as Dr. Goatley says, covering the ground is the key to preventing the runoff of sediment, and sediment contains nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that cause algae growth pollution in bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay.  So the goal for any lawn is to provide adequate coverage of the soil and healthy plants that can trap runoff.  If your “freedom lawn”  has areas of bare soil or thin plant cover, you’ll have more runoff, and that runoff may contain pollution-causing nitrogen and phosphorus.  Read all about it in the article  “Are Freedom Lawns Environmentally Responsible?”  at   The author of this article, Dr. Erik Ervin of Virginia Tech, urges homeowners to strive for a sustainable lawn that has minimal impact on water quality.  To do that, follow the best management practices (BMP’s) for turf, which are discussed in Dr. Ervin’s article and in a podcast at

Research on this topic is continuing, but so far, it reveals that fertilizing your turf grass — assuming you do it at the proper time and in the proper amount — will not lead to the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus, except if there’s a heavy rain right after you apply fertilizer.  As the scientists put it,  “Healthy turfgrass systems absorb the majority of nutrients when applied at recommended rates, thus minimizing leaching and runoff from landscape surfaces.”   (Brown et al., 1977; Easton and Petrovic, 2004; Frank 2008; Hull and Liu, 2005; Shuman, 2001).  It’s worth emphasizing that the key is proper fertilization because  “excessive amounts or the wrong type of fertilizer will not provide an effective treatment for your lawn and may increase the risk of groundwater contamination.”  Pub. No. 426-059  “Groundwater Quality and the Use of Lawn and Garden Chemicals by Homeowners,”

So I’m keeping an eye on  my own personal “freedom lawn”  — no thin cover for me!  As Dr. Goatley says, whatever is covering the ground must be healthy in order to do its job of absorbing leaching nutrients.   Excuse me while I go spread some compost on my lawn.

By the way, you can watch a video about composting your lawn at

New Varieties of Grass

Could there be other ways to make our urban turf areas healthier and more environmentally sustainable?  This is an area of some very exciting research.  Some scientists are developing and experimenting with new types of grass cultivars that require less mowing, as well as less fertilizing, watering and pesticides.   To learn more about this effort, read about Dr. Thomas Turner’s new fescue varieties at the University of Maryland,  “Report from the Transition Zone: Sustainable Turfgrasses Tested at U.Md.” at

Thomas Christopher is a Connecticut horticulturist with 40 years of experience, and his goal is to develop a biodiverse lawn that includes turf but is more environmentally sound than the turf grass in use today.  To that end, he has been experimenting with new grass cultivars developed by Rutgers, Cornell and the University of Connecticut  — sheep fescue (Festuca ovina) and hard fescue cultivars — which are very slow growing — and get this — require mowing only 2 or 3 times per year!  Christopher is combining these low-growing grasses with turf-compatible plants such as white clover and strawberry clover.   He discovered that lawn guides from the pre-chemical era were extremely helpful and that “one such book from the 1920’s, for example, included more than two dozen flowers it recommended including in the lawn.”    Find Mr. Christopher’s article posted at, (2013).    

If you’re intrigued by these lawn alternatives and  want to try the least radical approach, start by allowing clover into your lawn.  It fixes nitrogen in the soil,  and that cuts the need for fertilizer.   There’s a lot of hopeful research on clover, although the jury is still out on whether an all-clover lawn will be viable in the Mid-Atlantic region.


And then there’s MICROCLOVER!  That’s right, the University of Maryland is creating new lower-growing clovers that will be more compatible with fescues, but apparently it’s a work in progress.    Read about it in  Over in England, Lionel Smith has been breeding new varieties of clover that will be more suitable for lawns.  Take a look — there are some real beauties.   Clover is looking better and better to me!  I’m eagerly awaiting more research on microclover.


According to Ben Kessler, a mostly-clover lawn can be created by a cycle of mowing and seeding.  Here’s Ben’s method:

  • First, cut the grass as low as your mower will go
  • Then sow clover seed (white clover — Trifolium repens — is the usual choice because it stays lower and can tolerate heavy foot traffic)
  • Wait one season
  • Crop the grass again, and sow clover seed again
  • Wait another season
  • Crop & sow one more time.  That’s three mowing/sowing sessions, and that should do it.

You may not be ready for a lawn composed of clover, chickweed and creeping charlie, but exploring the wide variety of  lawn alternatives out there has been an eye-opener for me.  Take a look — you just might gain an entirely new perspective on your own lawn.