dean fosdick/associated press


Three truckloads of topsoil converted this formerly ragged stretch of lawn into a natural or woodland garden. A few bulbs and some rose bushes added spot color. The addition of a birdbath, butterfly plants and some woody props is making it an inviting area for wildlife — and the family cat.


If you’ve finally had it up to here with grass, primarily the repetitive mowing, weeding, watering and feeding routines, then you’re in luck.

You don’t have to look far for some attractive and less labour-intensive alternatives.

Consider the merits of replacing or at least downsizing your lawn with clover, moss, ground covers, rocks, water features, succulents (particularly sedges) and other grass-like plants, herbs, shrubs and trees, when it’s time to give your yard a facelift.

Vegetable gardens and flower beds are good landscaping choices, too. But the kinds of non-grass options we’re talking about here are the “plant it and forget it” or at least an easy-care substitute.

Check with city hall or review your neighbourhood association ground rules before pulling up any sod, however.

Some alternative plants may be classed as weeds; weed ordinances were crafted out of concerns about invasive plants and horticultural eyesores being introduced into residential areas.

Some colourful exotics can attract all sorts of creepy-crawly critters along with creating sightline or traffic hazards.

“Usually the only time someone needs to be concerned about weed ordinances which stipulate the height for grass and other ‘weeds’ to be maintained at, is if they use a meadow grass or a stand of native grass or the low-growing fescues that only need to be cut once a year to tidy them up,” said Stevie Daniels, author of The Wild Lawn Handbook: Alternatives To The Front Lawn.

“It is best for them to have a professional plan done to show their municipality board with a complete plant list including documentation about the fact the plants are indigenous to their area and may even be endangered, so their garden would actually be a way of helping preserve their area’s horticultural heritage,” Daniels said.

“It is also important for them to maintain their meadow or native planting well and keep a half a metre wide strip between their yard and their neighbour’s (yard) mowed and neat,” she said.

“The more people understand about what they are doing and why, usually the less problems occur.”

Aside from saving time and money, grass alternatives may be just the ticket for problem growing areas - shady spots and sections slow to drain, for example.

“The majority of our customers are replacing or trying to replace their lawns because they can’t get grass to grow,” said Heidi Masucci, operations manager for Moss Acres Inc., a mail-order company.

“They establish moss as an alternative.”

Moss grows especially well in acidic soils (pH around 5.5), and in ground that is compacted, shaded or cool and moist.

Moss provides a lush green backdrop even in winter, when most plants have dropped their leaves. Also, it doesn’t have to be mowed, fertilized or pruned.

“With moss, you can get away from all that weeding,” Masucci said. “It’s less time-consuming. It’s also good for the environment.”

Clover is an Earth-friendly, nitrogen-rich lawn plant. Its blossoms give off an attractive aroma, attracting a steady parade of honeybees and butterflies. It also recovers quickly when mowed.

Xeriscaping, or replacing grass with more drought-resistant plants, is yet another smart option.

Many of these ground covers require little encouragement to spread rapidly, crowding out weeds and greening up otherwise parched landscapes in the process. Succulents, including cactus, are becoming popular easy-care choices in the US west and southwest.

“My garden now is at its spring peak,” said Debra Lee Baldwin, from Escondido, Calif., author of Designing With Succulents.

“I still have about 40 rose bushes and everything is blooming. The rest of the year, though, the succulents are the most interesting and everything is cut back. Succulents add interest to your garden nine months of the year.”

Allowing your yard to go natural, with wild plants and flowers, is another way to bring beauty and diversity into your home landscape without breaking the bank.

Be liberal when spreading wildflower seeds over what used to be turf. Poppies, asters, lupine, black-eyed Susans and coneflowers are relatively easy-to-grow wildflower species.

Scores of them self-sow so you’ll be able to enjoy many happy returns as well as provide food and cover for watchable wildlife.

Ponds and pondless water gardens (the latter have a fast-moving stream that circulates via a hidden underground pump) add value to sloping yards, replacing large sections of hard-to-mow turf in the process. Add flowering herbs, aquatic plants and alpine flowers to the arrangement.

backyard habitat

Whether you have a small yard in the suburbs or an acre in the country, your private green space serves as habitat for wildlife-from a variety of native and non-native plants to insects, birds and other animals.

With habitat loss and degradation taking their toll on biological diversity in Canada and around the world, habitats on private lands can play an important role in providing food, shelter, water and the other necessities to a wide range of species. Here are some tips on how you can help preserve and create valuable wildlife habitat in your own backyard:

  • Restore native plant communities. The wildlife in your area co-evolved with these species, and depends on them for food and shelter.

  • Plant a variety of trees – from fruit and nut-bearing species to evergreens and deciduous trees. Trees provide critical food and shelter for birds and animals.

  • If you have a forested area on your property, leave a few dead or dying trees standing. These “snags” provide homes for cavity dwellers, such as chickadees, woodpeckers, and squirrels.

  • Piles of rocks and logs serve as homes for small animals, such as chipmunks and snakes.

  • Eliminate the use of pesticides and other chemicals in your yard.

  • Put up bat houses and birdhouses as shelters, and help control insect pests naturally.

  • If you have a large property whose natural features have been preserved, consider donating the land – or a partial interest in the land, such as a conservation easement – to a qualified recipient through the federal Ecological Gifts Program. In addition to knowing that their cherished piece of land will be protected in its natural state forever, donors receive significant tax breaks. For more information, visit the Ecological Gifts Program website at call (800) 668-6767.