Mowing the lawn is either a joyful task or nuisance, depending on who you talk to. While some homeowners are glad to spend their weekend on lawn maintenance, not everyone feels the same as Groundskeeper Willie does.
Even if you do enjoy being outside and caring for your lawn, no-mow lawns are excellent alternatives to traditional grass for a number of reasons besides being low-maintenance.
They're more environmentally-friendly, using less water, fertilizer, and other chemicals that typical lawns need to stay green and lush. They also offer more variety and interesting ways to have a lawn.
Even if you're Forrest Gump and could cut your lawn all day long, there are many reasons to consider these no-mow lawn alternatives.
Native grasses originated from North America and therefore naturally thrive and co-exist with other flora and fauna in their natural habitat, making them excellent choices to add to your landscape.
Some will be cool-season or warm-season grasses with various drought and heat tolerances, heights, shapes, and growth patterns depending on region.
There are many native grasses you can plant for low-maintenance or no-mow lawnscapes. From short to tall, planting them means less need to fertilize or water as much as traditional turfgrass lawns. They also offer a variety of ways to have a grass lawn other than the typical low-growing turf style.
Native grasses can be planted individually for a uniform look, or among other grass species and perennials to add variety and texture to a landscape. They can be grouped together and cut semi-regularly, or let to go "wild" if you have a lot of ground to cover.
Their root systems extend at least five-feet deep, which breaks up compacted soils, prevents erosion, and retains rainfall. They out-compete unwanted weeds and invasive species, and promote biodiversity while feeding pollinators.
Non-native grasses like most of the popular commercially-sold fescue grass seed mixes have much shallower root systems that only extend a few inches, needing supplemental water, fertilizing, and herbicides to thrive.
Types of Native Grasses
Height varies among native grasses, but you have your pick of either low-growing, mounding, or taller grasses. Some boast beautiful plumes and all-season interest you can mix and match as you see fit.
Prairie dropseed grass forms in compact mounds and achieves a height of about two-feet in full sun. Featuring long, wispy blades that feather out from a center point, it's often planted along borders and edges and offers a softness to lawns. Hairgrass is another mounding native grass that performs well in shadier spots.
Little bluestem and switchgrass are taller, upright grasses that reach three and five feet tall, respectively. Both are happy in full sun, but switchgrass can handle part shade. These look great planted behind shorter, mounding grasses or at the back of lawns for interesting all-season color and variation.
Buffalo Grass is a low-growing, drought-tolerant native species that quickly forms a beautiful, greenish-blue carpet through rhizomes. It's blades are thin and soft so even if it grows to its full height of 10-12 inches, they end up falling over like wispy hairs.
You can mow it regularly or not at all, save for a clean-up in the fall. Best planted in full sun, but otherwise, it needs very little tending to in regards to water or fertilizer.
Fescue grasses are non-native, mostly originating from Europe, but many sub-species have been naturalized in North America. Creeping red fescue is considered native by some as it's a naturalized sub-species, and does well in many parts of the US as a no-mow lawn, or when added to a blend of seed mixes.
Kentucky blue is the most popular fescue that you find in commercial grass seeds and lawns. It also originated in Europe, but was brought over hundreds of years ago and is now considered naturalized.
Unlike the other varieties, it needs constant mowing and maintenance that most people are used to like regular watering, fertilizing, and weed control, which is the opposite of a no-mow lawn.
No-Mow Seed Mixes
"No-mow" lawn seed mixes are growing in popularity as they have been selected specifically to act and thrive like native grasses, while looking more like traditional lawns.
This is a good option to plant a no-mow lawn with non-native grass, but look for independent or local companies with a reputation for sustainability, as they will likely sell seed mixes that will do well in your specific climate.
A few to choose from are Prairie Nursery’s "No-Mow Lawn Seed Mix", "Eco-Lawn" from Wildflower Farms, and "Let It Grow" seed mix from PT Lawn Seed. All of these companies have good quality seed mixes that contain five fescue blends that perform similarly to native plants and grasses.
The benefit of these mixes is that you get a lower height of grass that can be either mowed or left alone to achieve the look you want, when you like. They are much hardier than commercial grass seed mixes, need less water, fertilizer, herbicide, and pest control, as well.
These no-mow lawns only need to be cut once or twice a year in the spring and fall, and are cost-effective. A five-pound bag sells for around $50 and covers approximately 1,000 square feet.
Most companies will list their blends - look for sheep fescue, chewings fescue, creeping red fescue, and various hard fescues in the mixes.
Cons of "No Mow" Seed Mixes
Not all no-mow seed mixes are the same, but most won't tolerate extreme heat or drought. This is typical of most kinds of grasses, however, so choose mixes that are specific to your region.
Fescues aren't known to do well in clay soils, either, which is where native grasses would be better planted as they can help break up soil naturally. Work on soil quality before throwing down no-mow seed mixes.
Since these types of lawns are left to grow slightly longer than traditional lawns, they're prone to developing thatch, which is dead or dried-out grass that ends up creating bald patches within the lawn.
This usually happens when there isn't sufficient water, or when the seed mix doesn't match the climate, so again, choosing variety can keep this problem at bay. Regular, gentle raking can help with thatch maintenance.
Lastly, they won't look exactly like a typical grass lawn which can be a pro or a con, depending on your preference. Kids and dogs can still run around freely, and these blends may even be softer than typical lawns.
The amount of foot traffic and damage incurred will depend on the blend you choose, but most of them are hardy and can withstand a lot of activity.
Zoyia grasses are not native to the US, but were introduced from Asia over a hundred years ago. Subspecies zoysia tenuifolia is a warm-season, low-growing turf-like ground cover that doesn't need regular mowing.
It's drought-tolerant while keeping a vibrant, bright green color during the growing season, needing less overall maintenance than regular turf.
It can be left un-mowed for most of the season, usually needing a clean-up once during the spring and fall season. It's best planted in southern states where weather stays warm, and for yards that want a similar look and even softer feel to regular grass.
Zoysia grasses will need to be fertilized in the spring and fall, and are best planted in sod form since they are slow to establish. They need good quality, well-draining soil, but can handle foot traffic, partial shade, and are relatively pest-resistant.
Other types of groundcovers than grass can be used in lawns that don't require the same characteristics as typical lawns. Succulents, evergreens, perennial flowers, and herbs all have species that are low-growing and low-maintenance depending on your region.
While some can handle a bit of foot traffic, generally these aren't the best options for yards with children or pets, though some have been specifically bred to handle this issue.
Ground covers are otherwise very versatile and can be planted around rocks, stepping stones, on hills and slopes, or other difficult spots where grass doesn't naturally thrive.
They can often be mixed and matched according to light and water needs, and once established need very little maintenance, if any moving forward. Many are also excellent choices for xeriscape gardens or where the lawn is mostly made of rocks and stones.
Clover is considered one of the best alternative lawn choices as it naturally restores poor soil through nitrogen-fixing, and is quick and easy to establish. Clover can be planted within existing lawns, or on its own, with varieties that do well in many kinds of conditions.
Dutch white clover is a great choice for planting in lawns and overseeding into patchy or struggling grass. As a natural fertilizer, any kind of clover will help repair and fill in lawns. Both white and red clover boast tiny flowers that are both good for pollinators and livestock as forage crops.
Microclover is an even better choice for residential lawns as it grows lower to the ground, can handle more foot traffic, and doesn't flower as often (a common complaint for parents who are worried about bee-stings amongst bare feet).
While micro clover is slightly more expensive because of its selective breeding, clover is a cheap way to get a low-growing, fast-spreading no-mow lawn alternative into your yard quickly.
It only requires a few clean-up mowings every year if you want to keep it looking tidy, and possibly re-seeding every 2-3 years. No fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticides are needed to get this easy ground cover to flourish.
Creeping thyme is a lovely herb that spreads quickly among garden beds and lawns while boasting tiny, pink flowers in the growing season. It loves full sun and needs little water, preferring to be on the dry side.
It has a lovely, fragrant smell like its culinary cousin, and easily fills in bare spots, seeking them out in pathways and around rocks. It's deer and pest-resistant and can withstand light foot traffic.
It can be mowed once established (usually after a year), or left alone to form dense mats of tiny strands that each extend around five to six inches tall. Mowing will disperse its fragrant scent!
Look for other hardy creeping thyme varieties like woolly thyme and elfin thyme, and note that while common thyme, lavender thyme, and lemon thyme are also wonderfully fragrant, they are upright and bushy.
Sedums refer to a large genus of plants also called stonecrops. Sedums are also succulents, though the term succulent is a characteristic (fleshy, drought-tolerant, xeriscape plants) and not a category: not all succulents are sedums, for example, but all sedums are succulents!
It's important to know the difference between the two when looking for a no-mow lawn alternative, as you want to find carpeting or groundcover sedums that will thrive in your region.
There are many fast-spreading, low-to-the-ground perennial sedum varieties that offer bursts of vivid colors and interesting shapes and textures. Most will damage under any foot traffic, but one variety called 'dwarf carpet of stars' can handle playing children and pets, while forming a dense mat of tiny, fast-spreading plants that looks like lawn from a distance.
Other varieties to look for are "coral carpet" which changes from dark-green to crimson in the winter; "John Creech" that spreads tiny, green "scallops" through lawns, and "hens and chicks" that boast rubbery rosettes that will quickly erupt and self-propagate within a year.
Succulent and sedum type groundcovers don't require any mowing, fertilizing, or supplemental watering when planted in full sun and dry soils and propagate quickly in these conditions.
Thyme-leaf speedwell is a native groundcover that does best in full sun, but will tolerate part-shade easily as long as the soil is well-draining. It's not fussy about other soil conditions, and will quickly establish, forming mats of clustered stems that send up white or blue flowers. It doesn't mind being stepped on, and is overall very durable.
Various mosses will also perform well in part-shade or full-shade, and although moss has been considered weed-like, it can be one of the best choices for soils that are naturally acidic and moist.
Native varieties like pincushion moss, carpet moss, star moss, and fern moss need zero mowing, fertilizer, herbicide, or supplemental water in naturally moist soils. Even if drought does occur, native moss will bounce back once it rains.
Ajuga is non-native groundcover that prefers the shade, and while it's not an invasive plant, it does spread aggressively, and should be planted with care. It won't outperform native plants, but will find its way into areas you don't want it.
Keep it in check with borders and regular maintenance. Otherwise, it's an excellent no-mow groundcover that requires little care and has pretty flowers in the early summer.
Creeping mazus is another non-native groundcover that isn't aggressive. It will tolerate part-shade, and is prized for its attractive grass-like appearance. It can handle medium foot traffic, and will fill in nicely around stepping stones and rocks.
Maximum height is only two-inches tall, meaning no mowing required and very little maintenance. Best planted in small areas as it's not a quick spreader, but will eventually form a thick mat with tiny white flowers.
Aggressive and Invasive Species
It can be tempting to plant certain popular invasive species like periwinkle (aka vinca or myrtle), goutweed, creeping Jenny, Lily-of-the-valley, or English ivy as these non-native plants are attractive, fast growers.
This does more harm than good, however, as invasive species out-compete native plants in your garden, and stress out other vegetation. They can also quickly spread to nearby forest areas where they wreak havoc on the natural ecosystem.
They can easily become weed-like, as they travel where they want to, and are difficult to eradicate without digging up stubborn underground root systems. Stick to native or non-aggressive groundcovers and grass seed mixes that will not get out of control.
The best way to plant a successful no-mow lawn is to choose species that are rated for your region, and suit your yard's specific needs.
There are more than enough choices to get something that either looks and acts like typical turfgrass, or has a unique aesthetic that will change up the landscape.
If you're looking for a break from lawn maintenance this summer, planting a no-mow lawn is a no-brainer, with a myriad of environmental benefits to boot.