Despite what your eyes may tell you, a lawn is one of the least “green” investments you can make. The water and energy it takes to maintain a “healthy” lawn is hardly justifiable in the face of its positive environmental kickback, such as swapping carbon monoxide for oxygen and natural water filtration, both of which grass does minimally.
When I spoke to Mark Cullen at this past Canada Blooms, he said a lawn need not be evil if we simply let go of our strive for perfection and let it go brown and dormant when it naturally would. But, I’m afraid an imperfect lawn is precisely the crux of North America’s decades of destructive lawn Olympics, and to teach us different now is a tall order – we simply abhor brown, patchy lawns.
Slowly but surely however, now that we know all about it, our love affair with the lawn is coming to a halt. If you’ve a large, treeless property, your options for grassless landscaping dwindle. Most organic grass alternatives – such as White Clover, moss, thyme, chamomile and certain ground covers – can’t take as much traffic and are finicky to say the least in much of Canada’s grow zones.
For those of us who have average-sized front lawns and/or backyards, we simply have to quit cold turkey. Here are my top 5 picks for grassless landscaping, some of which can still be conducive to dogs and children, even if not as soft on those knees and paws. Hey, look at it this way, fewer grass stains!
Let me be absolutely clear: by ‘paving’ I don’t mean cement or asphalt. Large, modern stone tiles (such as the ones in the example on the left) can cover quite a large area if laid in a well-thought-out pattern. Best for a backyard application, you can lay stone tile in virtually the same way you’d lay turf; all through the centre of your yard with undulating inlets of plants, such as the ornamental grasses in the example above. For a more organic look you can pave with rustic “handmade” tiles or even pebbles (as is shown in the example on the right), which opens up all kinds of creative possibilities (although rustic tiles and pebble paving are really best suited to smaller yards; large-scale, this application can look unkempt). In any case, either look is a great choice if you’d like room to move around freely.
This type of low-to-the-ground, textured splendor of a garden is one of my absolute favourites. How could you not love this? Designed by Michelle Derviss of Dervis Design, this living carpet consists of swathes of heaths and heathers with a few conifers, ornamental grasses and perennials. Although it’s not made up of actual groundcover plants, they are all dense and low to the ground (save the ornamental grasses) and the effect of these 3 acres of flora and fauna is very much akin to a carpet. Although you can do patches of this anywhere, this choice is really best for the front lawn – especially for elevated front lawns – as you can’t really walk the area. For a similar effect that’s not purely aesthetic, consider doing something like the check of creeping thyme and stone tile as shown in the example on the right. Creeping thyme can take some traffic and intermixed with tiles, this could be easily applied in the backyard.
This is perhaps one of the easiest and quickest fixes you can reach for once the panic of having ripped out your lawn sets in. As with the paving option, pebbles can be poured wherever grass would usually lay, but require very little in the way of professional labour/installation. You can lay a flagstone path in your pebble lawn, as is shown above, and embellish it with meandering flower beds, a collection of pots or even raised planters. This option also allows for space to move around freely but is kinder on little knees and paws than a paved yard.
The Boxwood Belle
As always, I must throw in a little indulgence. Although there are over 100 varieties of Boxwood, it’s well-known and loved for a general stoicism that lends itself beautifully to trimming. Boxwood was a favourite in palatial French renaissance gardens such as the gardens of Versailles, where they were shaped into living walls, creating elaborate geometric designs. Back on earth, in North America, you don’t need much to make a classical statement with Boxwood – which can be pricey – as is illustrated by the front yard example on the left. Keep it geometric and perfectly balanced, and fill all space between the boxwood with gravel, and voila! It’s a great, low maintenance (aside from the trimming and pruning of the boxwood) option if you’re ok with traveling by path, and the best part is: it’s evergreen!
Yes, I mean it. While it is 100% counter-intuitive, artificial turf has come a long, long way from those disgusting mats that lined rental apartments’ balconies, enclosed porches of the 70s and your local mini-golf course. It now comes in a variety of elaborate textures and colours – painstakingly mimicking the characteristics of natural grass – bringing with it a lawn liberty like you’ve never thought possible. No mowing, no watering, no patches, no allergies and virtually no bugs. You can leave it down all year round and it will withstand snow, hail, sleet and rain – it is, after all, synthetic. You may be recoiling in horror, but it’s a steadily growing market that may just be your only option if we assume the worst, so I would start warming up to the idea if I were you…