Alternatives to Lawns

By Deva Luna

Lawns have their place – there’s nothing like them for kid play, for croquet, for walking barefoot on the grass – but that doesn’t mean they should be all over the place! Perhaps you are tired of mowing your lawn. You want to save water and create habitat for native birds and butterflies. And stop using fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. You want to do all that good Earth-friendly stuff.

Garden styles and themes

Many people have no idea what to put in place of their lawn, so here are some ideas to get you started. First think about your personal style. Any of these can be executed using California native plants: Asian/Japanese/Zen, Modern/Contemporary, English Cottage/Perennial Border, Woodland, Formal/European/Italian/French, Mediterranean, and (my personal favorite) Eclectic.

Your drought tolerant garden will benefit if you can keep all of the water that falls on your property on-site.

Whatever style you choose, you may want to incorporate some of the following ideas and themes. I offer these to encourage you to escape from the monotony of lawns!

  • Children’s Garden

    Native plant border along pool Photo: Elizabeth Wallace
    Native plant border along pool Photo: Elizabeth Wallace
  • Fairy Garden
  • Butterfly Garden
  • Water Garden
  • Habitat Garden
  • Bird Watching Garden
  • Sculpture Garden
  • Edible Garden
  • Herb Garden
  • Cutting Flower Garden
  • Zen Meditation Garden
  • Feng Shui Garden
  • Cactus/Desert Garden
  • Rock Garden
  • Games (giant chess set?)
  • Dog garden (include a ‘digging area’ to hide bones)
  • Electric train garden
  • Outdoor camping area with a fire circle
Photo: Linda Smith
Hummingbird sage along pond Photo: Linda Smith

Green space

From a design standpoint you might still want a large expanse of green space. We designers call this “negative space” and it’s a relief for the eye and an important contrast to the showier focal plants. There are several ways to get this without relying on thirsty turf. Here are some of your options when you decide to give up some or all of your turf, and you may decide to use more than one strategy:

  • Meadows or “No-Mow” grasses
  • Herbal lawns
  • Low-growing ground covers
  • Hardscape, such as a patio and paths
  • Synthetic turf

Synthetic turf

Let me say that while synthetic turf initially sounds like a great idea, I have several beefs with it. Unlike true lawns, synthetic lawns do not respire and cool the area; they are notoriously hot and children have been burned playing on them. They also do not give anything back to the Earth (living plants have a reciprocal relationship with the soil and all microorganisms); they don’t decompose and enrich the soil. I would rather appreciate a new aesthetic rather than a plastic imitation. Worst of all, even though some utilize some recycled content, they are not recyclable when you are done with it—a large plastic mass goes into the landfill. (have I dissuaded you yet?)


A meadow conjures images of a grassy field filled with wildflowers, and you can create that at home. Meadows require a different mind-set than a lawn, as they don’t look the same all year long. The seed heads sway in the breeze, flowers come and go, and there may be a dormant period. To get a meadow established you must control the competing weeds, including invasive European annuals like foxtail and wild oats and perennials like oxalis and Bermuda Grass. You should start by pre-germinating and then killing the weed sprouts, and then controlling them as they come back. Decide whether you want a bunch grass like leafy reed grass (Calamagrostis foliosa) or California fescue (Festuca californica), which would allow some flowers to be interplanted, or a mildly running grass like red fescue (Festuca rubra) or dune sedge (Carex pansa), which eventually chokes out the flowers and creates a more uniform appearance. Some grasses are available to plant from seed and others are only available by plugs or larger plants. Just recently, several mixtures of native meadow grasses have become available in sod form. Many of the valleys we currently inhabit were once meadows of deep-rooted perennial grasses, and it takes a bit of time to bring them back, so be patient and persistent!

Herbal lawns

Although an herbal lawn made of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (for sun) or yerba buena (Clinopodium douglasii) (for shade) has the same down-sides as any monoculture, it is more drought tolerant than a turfgrass lawn, and doesn’t require weekly mowing. You can occasionally walk on these plants, but regular foot traffic should be diverted to a path or stepping stones. Yarrow should be cut back after blooming. Thrift sea pink (Armeria maritima) can be a showy and unusual “lawn”, as well.

Low growing, spreading ground covers

Here’s a way to cover a large expanse without a large expense, I think this is the least expensive strategy. Fast growing plants like Ceanothus ‘Yankee Point’ or bee’s bliss sage (Salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’) can cover an 8 foot wide area within two years! This chokes out weeds and creates a large uniform planted area, that can contrast beautifully with taller accent plants.

CA Native plant entry garden with Ceanothus ‘Yankee Point Photo: Saxon Holt


Hardscape is the landscaping term for all the areas that aren’t soil and plants – the patios, decks, paths, walls, etc. May I put in a pitch for permeable hardscaping? Your drought tolerant garden will benefit if you can keep all of the water that falls on your property on-site. Instead of concrete, consider pervious concrete and pavers, decomposed granite, gravel and mulch.

Pathway to seating area Photo: Hilary Brown

Once you have decided to make the environmental switch to a lawn alternative, you are ready to think about how to remove that lawn…and that’s the subject of another article.

Deva Luna works for a sustainable landscape contractor, EarthCare Landscaping, in Cupertino, California, and loves to replace lawns with native plants.


    1. It’s not neccesary if you have enough space around the plant to reach maturity. Over time, removing the existing lawn while the ceanothus is growing isn’t ideal but could work. Summer is the perfect time to sheet mulch and remove lawn before planting ceanothus and other native plants in the fall.

    1. This is a great time of year to remove lawn because the summer heat will help you get the work done. Check out this article for guidance. Then head over to to find the native plants that work for your location. Calscape also has garden planners for inspiration.

  1. Is it possible to say replace the lawn with something like ceanothus and also have vegetable plants here and there?

    1. Most ceanothus don’t tolerate summer water, so it would be better to group your ceanothus away from your vegetables.

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