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Replacing traditional grass lawns with eco-appropriate species

Alternative Groundcovers

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."

Natural landscapes:

  • require less maintenance (a saving of money and energy);
  • are less susceptible to disease or weed infestation;
  • promote water conservation (select suitable species to climate);
  • reduce storm water runoff entering storm sewers and rivers reducing potential for downstream flooding/erosion and pollution;
  • do not require fertilizer or pesticides;
  • provide food, shelter and protection for wildlife;
  • provide shade to buildings, reducing energy requirements.

Determining the right natural landscape for you

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:

  • limiting grass;
  • using native plant and tree species;
  • planting tall grasses/groundcovers on slopes to slow storm water runoff/erosion; and
  • choosing more perennials than annuals for seasonal colour.
  • Landscaping for wildlife habitats focuses on providing food, water and shelter.
More information on this subject is available in the brochure Natural Home Landscaping produced by the Markham Conservation Committee and Town of Markham-Environmental Services 1996. To request a copy call, (905) 477-7000, ext. 270.

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
  • English ivy with lobed, dark-green leaves 5-10 centimetres (2-4 inches) long, spreads along the soil by trailing stems that put down roots.
  • Periwinkle is a trailing vine that likes a little more sun than ivy. Its small oval leaves grow in pairs opposite each other and it sprouts blue or white flowers in the spring.
  • Pachysandra is an elegant groundcover with dense shiny green leaves that grow in whorls at the top of 15 cm (6 in) stems. It spreads by underground runners and prefers fairly nutrient-rich soil. Japanese pachsysandra (P. terminalis) does best in northern climates making it ideal for use in Southern Ontario.
  • Lungwort a perennial, combines delicate flowers with beautiful foilage (Bethlehem Sage is the most common type) and has pink flowers with pointed oval leaves dotted with silver spots. It grows 22-40 cm (9-18 in) tall and blooms in the spring.
  • Ferns work very well in the shade. Some fern types include: Maidenhair at 30-50 cm (12-20 in) tall), is quite elegant; Lady has 71-91 cm (30-36 in) fronds; Cinnamon reaches 1.2 -1.8m (4-6 ft) in height (may require a lot of moisture); Ostrich; Christmas; and Shield.
  • Hostas (while not a native specie) are one of the best known shade perennials and they do well in moist soil and can also tolerate dry shade. There are many types to select from.
Additional suggestions for shady areas:

  • Wild Ginger Lamium (False Salvia)
  • Astilbe Forget-Me-Not
  • Barrenwort Catnip
  • Flowering Spurge Solomon's Seal (wildflower)
  • Lily-of-the-Valley Foam Flower (wildflower)
  • Sweet Woodruff Euonymus fortunei "Coloratus" (winter creepers)

Alternative groundcovers for sunny areas:
  • Alyssum (Gold Dust) Pussytoes
  • Barrenwort Thyme
  • Perennial Geraniums Sedums
  • Moss Phlox Strawberries

Alternative groundcovers for hot, dry soil:

  • Lambs Ear Sedum Acre
  • Snow-in-Summer Dianthus (Pinks)
  • Pussytoes Creeping Thyme
  • Himalayan Geranium Lady's Mantle
  • Geranium "Johnsons Blue" Thread-leafed Coreopsis
  • Geranium lancastriense Vinca Minor (sun or shade)
  • Woolly Yarrow

Other natural groundcovers:

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