Canadians Against Pesticides
Replacing traditional grass lawns with eco-appropriate species
It is not necessary for homeowners to have grass lawns. Other landscape options exist that may better suit your site and even reduce maintenance and yard waste. Consider the combination of a traditional mowed grass lawn and a naturalized landscape comprised of meadows, wildflowers, trees, plants and native grasses. Other options include using mulches such as leaves, wood chips or stones. Letting certain areas grow "wild" doesn't mean haphazard or messy. It means you could, with strategic planting of native species, create a "self-sustaining plant community."
Take time to decide how you are going to use your site before selecting a natural landscape to ensure it will work with your site conditions and expectations.
Know your site
Map the physical aspects of your yard to show sunny and shady areas, drainage paths, poorly drained areas, slopes and flat sections, windy areas, position of existing trees, shrubs, gardens, soil types and surrounding boundaries.
Decide your site needs/goals
Do you want some lawn as a play area, outdoor dining space, or garden? Relate these needs back to the physical aspects of your site to ensure compatibility.
Select your groundcover
Make your choices based on seasonal bloom, colour, plants that can be viewed throughout the year, drainage conditions, rate of spread (certain types can be invasive) and exposure. Try going "native" to reduce the need for water, fertilizer and pesticides. See the "Suggested generic species list."
Two major components of alternative landscaping are diversity and interplanting. Varied plantings attract birds, ladybugs and other beneficial insects that will help you control backyard pests. Interplanting or companion planting can help prevent pests and disease (see factsheet Using plants to protect other plants under the Household Hazardous Waste section.).
Evaluate long-term costs and maintenance requirements
No choice will be cost or maintenance-free but both can be kept to a minimum by:
Suggested generic species list
Within a species there can be a number of varieties, some of them native, others not and some that have become naturalized to our region. Any one of them could thrive on your site. For this reason, the following lists remain generic and don't include specific Latin names, allowing you to discuss your particular situation further with an expert.
Alternative groundcovers for shady areas
Whole leaf mulch is an option for areas under trees or shrubs. To convert from lawn to leaf mulch, scalp the grass down to the ground (you could use a mulching mower at its lowest setting, followed by an electric string trimmer). Rake leaves into the area, 10 -15 cm (4-6 in) deep. This area gives you a place to rake leaves to for home use and by the next fall they'll have disappeared into the ground. Earthworms will drag the leaves down to eat them. Worm castings are an excellent source of slow-release nitrogen. There will be no need to aerate this area as the worm's movements will do it for you. Use native deciduous trees and shrubs for leaves or select from such native evergreens as Black or White Cedar.
Wood chips or shredded wood make a good groundcover that still affords an ornamental, manicured look. Types of wood to use include such native evergreens as Black Cedar or White Cedar, pine or spruce varieties like Colorado Blue, White, Alberta Dwarf, as well as junipers.
Stone mulch, another option, is comprised of varying sized, shaped and coloured cobblestones. First, you may wish to lay down a geo-textile cloth (filter cloth), which permits air and water flow but prevents weeds from growing up through the stones.
Contact your local garden centre for more information on any of these options.
If you have an interest in water-conserving landscaping, view the factsheet Xeriscaping. The factsheets mentioned throughout, and others related to natural lawn and garden care, are available by calling the Toronto Works and Emergency Services Publication Orderline at (416) 397-7100