Easy-to-Maintain Lawns and Ground Covers

Dew clings to switch grass in the morning sun.

Caring for a traditional lawn is one of the most time-consuming tasks during the growing season. Mowing, hand-trimming, weeding, fertilizing and watering take patience and time. But there are easier ways to obtain a great look for your front yard with less time spent performing those routine chores.

Lawn Plan

The kind of grass you plant will determine how much attention you need to give it. Also, your climate will dictate certain choices as well. Hot, dry areas usually require gardeners to water often; in such places choose an appropriate species that is drought-hardy.

Whatever type you choose, be sure you begin with its optimum health and be certain it will thrive under the conditions of your yard; consider the amount of sun and soil type. You could also plant different species for particular areas in their yard--for example, a ground cover that needs no mowing for a steep slope, or an ornamental type that surrounds a porch or deck.

There are lots of benefits to planting a mix of grasses. It may not give you the formal appearance that a single uniform lawn provides, but it will be easier to maintain. Mixing your grasses means a lawn that generally adapts better to wet and dry seasons.

Differing species have different resistance levels to critters and disease; when one type is suffering, you will not lose your lawn’s overall look because the other types will manage fine. It also creates distinctive visual interest and gives your yard a unique character of its own.

Alternative Ground Covers

Alternative ground covers are perfect for spots that are nearly inaccessible for the lawnmower, like rocky sites or sloped areas, but consider them for the other areas of your yard as well. Unless you’re completely attached to the idea of a traditional lawn, alternative ground covers may be just as lovely, but are far simpler to maintain. Just identify your yard's conditions and make a list of the ground covers that should adapt to your spot. Then, read up on a few of your choices; find one you like and determine how much work it will require from you.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor Rachel Klein adds, "A recent movement advocates growing weeds instead of turf as a lawn. Dandelions, violets, wild strawberries, and clover, to name a few, require very little maintenance and can be a unique lawn alternative!"

Lilly-of-the-Valley - There are many beautiful low-maintenance ground covers. Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) is great for cooler climates. It does well in a moist soil with partial shade. It will be all right in heavy shade, but it will flower less. Its foliage is a lush green that grow to about 8 inches. It likes nothing more than to spread out, so if you’ve got space, this is an excellent choice.

Dwarf Mondo Grass - If you still want that low-to-the-ground green look, consider planting dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) because it produces low mats of rich green, grass-like foliage. It is not an aggressive spreader, so it should stay contained where you plant it, but it is dense enough to discourage weeds. How's that for low-maintenance?

Ornamental Grasses - Clumps of ornamental grasses are not only beautiful but also drought and pest tolerant. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) or little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) can adapt to many soils and create an eye-catching bed if planted together in the full sun. Depending on the type and variety, foliage colors can range from steel blue to burgundy.

Creeping Phlox - A beautiful choice for a moist shady area is the spring-blooming creeping phlox. It forms wide, dense clumps of green ground cover that become a lush carpet of pink or lavender blooms in the spring. It is utterly lovely and easy to take care of. It needs some watering during drought conditions, but you can leave your lawnmower in the shed.

Japanese Pachysandra - A great green choice to grow near paths or walkways is Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis). Its clusters of green leaves stay bright throughout the growing season, provided your soil is rich and well-drained. It is particularly attractive as background foliage for your bulbs.

TIP: Rachel suggests, "Moss is an excellent low-maintenance grass substitute for the shade. If you have a spot on your lawn where grass will not flourish due to cool, moist, or shady conditions, this is the perfect place to grow moss instead. Encourage the growth of moss spores by upping the acidity content of your soil and spraying a mixture of 4 parts warm water and one part organic buttermilk or yogurt over the area. Clumps of grass or weeds can be pulled by hand."

Of course, there are hundreds of other species to consider; just check online or visit your local garden center.

Traditional Lawn

If you are loyal to your sod or traditional green grass. There are ways to cut down on the time you spend caring for it. One way is to reduce the area of your lawn. This may mean incorporating a small easy-to-maintain rock garden or adding in some areas of low-maintenance ornamental grasses or plants to various sections of your garden. Also, if you truly want to enjoy the beauty of your lawn, build a deck or enlarge your porch so you can shrink your mowing area, but still have some lawn to showcase. Extend your preexisting flower beds by a few feet. Plant low lying perennials in front of your trees and shrubs, and mulch well.

TIP: Rachel recomends, "If you must have grass, consider buying a no-mow seed mix. These lawn seed mixes are made up of drought-tolerant low-maintenance fine fescue. They grow very slowly and reach only 5 inches high maximum. The mixes can be purchased online or at a local nursery."

Consider mulching around all of your trees or planting alternative ground covers around them. Instead of hand-trimming along all the edges of your flowerbeds, install mowing strips, which are flat bands of brick or cut stone that sit flush with the soil; you can edge all your flowerbeds with them and they also help cut back on weeds.

Lawn Removal

To remove your established lawn grass you can either cut it away or smother it. Cutting is more difficult, but instant, while smothering is easy but can take months. To cut, use a sod cutter or the sharp edge of a spade. Cut away the sod in strips, pull it up, and shake off the loose dirt. Flip the sod over and put it back, grass down. The grass will decompose over time and nourish your lawn. If you have a few months to wait, for example if it is late fall and you will not need to plant til spring, cover the unwanted grass with thick layers of newspaper or cardboard. Make sure the sheets overlap and that all the grass is covered. Cover this layer with 6 inches of mulch, compost, or shredded leaves. Over the next few months, this material will decompose and leave your soil richer and healthier.

TIP: Rachel advises, "Always avoid using herbicides or plastic sheeting to kill off your unwanted lawn grass. They may be faster methods, but they will also kill off the beneficial organisms in your lawn that will be necessary for the growth of your new plants."

When it comes to fertilizing your lawn, try allowing the grass clippings to fall back on the lawn. The clippings provide nourishment for your lawn and save you the time of bagging them. Just don't let them form piles that could smother your grass in spots. And to keep you from becoming a slave to your hose, install a sprinkler system - this may be an expensive alternative for some, but it often waters more uniformly and may prove more economical in the end. Finally, when you lay your lawn, try to avoid sharp angles and curves; straight lines make mowing a whole lot easier.

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