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Dreaming of getting rid of your lawn?

I often have clients approach me that are hoping cut back on their lawn area. Usually it is for a combination of reasons; they want to cut back on their water bill, reducing maintenance, and move towards something more environmentally sustainable. There are several different methods I'll discuss here, and many of them don't even involve a design! However, the decisions regarding of how much of your lawn to convert (and to what!) can be a complicated one, and I'm always here to help. Below I'll talk about how to prioritize an area of lawn to keep and make the most sustainable. Then I'll go into what you can do with the rest!

Backyard landscape plan showing a dashed line labeled as an old bed line with new colored in areas for planters and reduced turf
Backyard landscape plan showing the old turf area outline with new bed areas and a reduced turf area

Traditional turfgrass lawns do still have a function for many homeowners. They are superior sports play fields, offer organic fall protection around play areas, give dogs a place to roll, reduce the ambient air temperature compared to hardscape, and are often integral for a home's resale value. However, there are ways to incorporate lawns into your yard purposefully.

Typically, it makes the most sense to prioritize a lawn for the backyard area, unless you happen to live in a quiet cul de sac or rural area where a lawn can still be a great recreation area while adding to curb appeal. Sloped lawn areas are more difficult to maintain and irrigate, so you should choose a more level area. You should also consider the size of your lawn. If you only play tag football with family once a year, then maybe you should consider relocating that event to a nearby park. On the opposite end of the spectrum, lawn areas need to be at least eight feet in any direction and without acute angles to be efficiently irrigated. When designing a lawn area, I also try to buffer it from adjacent hardscape to avoid wasting any overspray. Finally, lawns need to be at least 5' from foundations.

Expansive lawn area in a park with trees and people lounging
Not everyone needs a park in their backyard!

In addition to the correct size and location of a lawn, you will also need to consider what variety of grass you plant. If you need an immediate lawn, you are limited to the varieties local sod farms carry. However, there has been breeding for several much more drought and heat tolerant varieties of Kentucky Bluegrass, as well as deep rooted tall fescue. If you can leave your lawn untouched for a minimum of six weeks while seed gets established, you should consider going with the drought tolerant native blends. Pawnee Buttes Seed Inc. (PBSI) is a local supplier (small batches can be purchased from Jax) that offers many different special seed blends adapted for Colorado. I most often recommend the Low Grow Mix or the Low Grow Native Blend, depending on how heavily the lawn will be used. When grown by themselves, these lawns can look great even if they are only watered once a week and can often go as long as three weeks between mowing.

Reducing the size and strategically locating your lawn is the first approach for eliminating turf.. If you have an existing lawn you are working with, you can improve its drought tolerance without ripping it all out. If you let your grass grow taller, (provided your municipality/HOA let you) your turf will form deeper roots that access water in a greater portion of the soil profile. This will et you go longer between waterings, reducing the amount of water you use. You can also incorporate more drought tolerant varieties by aerating and overseeding with the low water PBSI blends. They feature varieties like Canada Bluegrass and Arizona Fescue that blend well with existing Kentucky Bluegrass and overtime they will outcompete the Kentucky Bluegrass as you cut back watering. This approach is the most cost effective but takes the longest amount of time as you will need to reseed multiple times throughout the course of the season and continuing seeding over multiple seasons to get the new varieties established. Something else to consider when converting your existing lawn, is that our idea of a homogenous green lawn is a relatively new concept. Prior to the 50's, when fertilizer and selective herbicides became widely available for residential use, it was common to see other plants growing in a lawn. Clover was often added for nitrogen, and volunteers like yarrow or other weeds were allowed to persist as long as they were green. I think eventually we will migrate back towards that blend of biodiversity as society moves more towards sustainability, but your HOA might take a while to catchup.

Close up photo of clover with green heart shaped leaves
Clover, a member of the legume family, adds nitrogen from the air into the soil

Next on the list of affordability, would be to remove your existing lawn and convert to a groundcover that can tolerate foot traffic and doesn't require mowing. Examples of these are Dog Tuff Grass and creeping thyme. Dog Tuff Grass is promoted by Plant Select for it's drought tolerance and resistance to dog urine. It is planted via plugs since it only reproduces via runners, not seed, and will grow up to 4" tall if left unmowed. Some drawbacks to Dog Tuff Grass are that it is a warm season grass (green only about May through September), cannot tolerate shade, and can be damaged if snow sits on it too long in a north facing yard. It also comes apart almost like hay during the winter months, so if your dog rolls around in it, you'll need to brush them off before letting them come back inside. One of my other favorites for a groundcover alternative to turf is creeping thyme. Most years it is evergreen and provides a great bloom display in spring. Thyme will even tolerate part shade but it is not tolerant of dog urine and can only take light foot traffic. Both thyme and Dog Tuff Grass will work with your existing overhead spray irrigation while requiring much less water than Kentucky Bluegrass, though you will need to edge them to keep them maintained.

A long haired small blonde dog is sitting on a green lawn
Plant Select's Dog Tuff Grass

Thyme blooms next to the sidewalk neighbored by other xeriscape plants with mountains in the backdrop
'Pink Chintz' Thyme lawn from High Country Gardens

Now for the most expensive option to replace your turf that still involves living plants - a xeriscape conversion. Not to be confused with the colloquial "ZEROscape" that people often use to reference when they turn lawn into a rock desert. A xeriscape garden uses low water use plants and can have a wide range of aesthetics. We can create one that looks like a mountain landscape with wildflowers or go more extreme with the architectural plants from the southwestern deserts. The overall cost of these garden conversions will depend on the size of plants you install, the density of plant material, and additional hardscape features, such as dry creek beds and boulders. I always recommend converting to drip irrigation when doing a xeriscape conversion. It adds to the expense, but this way you will maximize your water savings as drip irrigation can be up to 90% efficient. You also reduce unwanted weeds because you aren't watering the space between your new plants. Drip irrigation can be challenging to new users because you have to feel around the root ball of the plant periodically to ensure the system hasn't clogged or broken, whereas it is fairly easy to see if your spray irrigation is functional. I don't recommend installing plant material without any irrigation system. Even though there are many native varieties that will not need irrigation upon establishment, irrigation is critical during the establishment period to make sure you don't lose your investment. Irrigation systems are also crucial to keeping your plants healthy and stable during extended dry spells. There is a big difference in surviving vs. thriving when it comes to native plants and supplemental water is typically the determining factor.

The last option that I have for people who are wanting to minimize their lawn area is to consider artificial turf. While this is typically a last resort, artificial turf does have a place in certain landscapes. There are many new products available now that include imitation thatch to give a much more realistic appearance. Artificial turf only needs irrigation to cool it down in the summer time or clean off any residue pet/animal west. It is great if you have a limited space/sunshine but really need an attractive, mess-free, pet relief or kid's play area. The major drawbacks for artificial turf are it is very expensive, has a limited lifespan, and there are hefty disposal fees when you need to replace it (artificial turf isn't recyclable). Some additional concerns that are important to keep in mind are viewing directions, melting/heat, odor, and maintenance. Artificial turf is typically designed to look the most natural when viewed from a maximum of two directions. You'll need to make sure it is installed and designed properly to capitalize on these views. I have also seen artificial turf melt when it is hit with the reflection from south facing windows and it has a similar heat profile to asphalt when in the sun. There are non-renewable products such as zeolite, a form of volcanic pumice, added to the fill of artificial turf to help with odor control from pet waste and you must treat the surface as well since artificial turf lacks the microbes of native soil for breaking down waste. Finally, in order to keep your artificial turf looking its best, you should consider an annual power brooming and sand fill to keep all of the fibers standing up appropriately.

Artificial lawn at night with border xeriscape plantings
Small backyard xeriscape conversion where artificial turf was used for a dog relief area and for kids to play

Now that we've talked about how to prioritize the right amount of lawn area for your yard and talked about your options to replace turf, your dreams can become a reality!


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