Grass Isn’t Always Greener: The Un-Sustainable Truth about Lawns

By Ariana Nieves,
Sustainable Investment Group (SIG)

Image of a dead grass lawn. The first thing to come to mind regarding landscaping is grass. A heavily manicured pristine lawn in front of a house, at a park, etc. However, what if you knew the idea of perfectly trimmed grass was harming the planet in a big way? Traditional grass lawns are wreaking havoc on the environment and causing tremendous yearly damage.

Over the past few years, the upkeep of a standard grass lawn is proving to be entirely unsustainable. In the U.S. alone, yards use approximately nine billion gallons of water daily to maintain vibrancy. Additionally, an estimated 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled annually while refilling lawnmowers. Not to mention the around 78 million pounds of pesticides used on lawns yearly and the fertilizer runoff that enters our water systems. Beyond pollutants, common grass does not provide an adequate habitat or food source for many insects and small animals, reducing the number of pollinators on our planet necessary to maintain all life.

Traditional grass is unsustainable; however, that does not mean the end for great landscaping. There are a vast number of sustainable alternatives that can be used to create visually stunning landscapes that are low maintenance and eco-friendly. Investing in an alternative lawn can lead to many benefits, such as long-term savings, reduced waste and care costs, and saving time. Additionally, a sustainable yard is LEED friendly! You could earn tax benefits for a personal LEED certified lawn, and commercial buildings could gain LEED points to achieve a higher overall certification score with alternative landscaping; the alternative benefits are endless!

What to Focus on When Starting Out

The first thing to prioritize when starting is your landscaping budget. It can be costly to replace standard grass upfront, but those costs will show a return on investment over time. Additionally, you can use many budget-saving tricks to save money during the process, such as finding a way to harvest rainwater for irrigation and finding cost-effective plants that will work for your needs.

Another thing to focus on is the state of your soil. The health of your soil will help determine what grass alternatives will work best for your project. You will also want to stick to native plant options. To create a sustainable landscape, avoid invasive plant species that could harm existing plants in your area. Native plants protect your project and are better for the environment. Make sure to check what your area-specific native plants are before getting started.

Alternative Landscape Options

Here is a curated list of alternative plants you can use in your project to help get you started.

Moss is an excellent alternative because it does not require mowing; it only grows one inch tall. Additionally, moss is resistant to foot traffic, making it a great option for a garden or green space for commercial projects or residents with active children and animals. Moss is drought resilient but does not thrive in direct sunlight. This plant does best in a cool and shady area.

Ornamental Grass
Ornamental grass is also a great option because it is drought-resistant and low maintenance. It can survive in any soil. The plant is also naturally disease and pest resistant, so there is no need for chemical pesticides. Ornamental grass also grows into unique shapes, making it an excellent option for those that want to reduce mowing maintenance and retain space for other plants to create visual interest.

Flowers & Shrubs
Flowers and Shrubs are also great alternatives because they are resilient, versatile to any location, and add visual interest. The brilliant pops of color are eye-catching and will create a unique green space, perfect for commercial use and for residents that want a new change. A standout in this category is succulents. They are low maintenance and drought resistant. However, there are some things to consider; you will want to choose native perennials to keep maintenance low. Additionally, these plants will need proper drainage to protect their roots, increasing the maintenance slightly depending on which type of flower or shrub you choose.

Yes, this is a great tea, but the herb flower is a great landscape alternative too! It requires little to no mowing and can develop in stubborn areas. Chamomile is drought-resistant and thrives in direct or partial sun, so it’s excellent for dry regions. Additionally, it is a wonderful nitrogen source; it enriches the soil efficiently by providing constant fertilization that enhances plant resistance. One bonus is that it has a faint aroma similar to the sweet smell of apples. This feature could be a great addition to a green space creating freshly sweetened air that’s bound to please. However, one thing to be aware of is that some types of chamomiles can be toxic to animals, so make sure to choose a safe variety if this concerns you.

Clover can have a bad reputation as a weed to some, but this dense ground cover has many benefits! It is incredibly affordable, spreads quickly, and thrives in poor soil because, like Chamomile, it is a natural soil fertilizer. Clover is low maintenance; it will require little to no mowing or watering, making it perfect for large lawns or green spaces. There are two standouts in this category Dutch clover and micro clover.

Dutch Clover
Dutch clover is highly durable and can withstand heavy foot traffic, making it an excellent option for a commercial green space. It is resistant to water shortages, requires little to no mowing, and is naturally pest-resistant. Additionally, it can attract grazing animals such as deer, offering a chance to see some local wildlife. Perfect for free backyard entertainment while drinking your morning coffee. However, one thing to be mindful of is the Dutch clover’s high spreadability. It can potentially kill other plants around it if not contained and maintained. However, in the right conditions, it can thrive and is still a great alternative.

Micro Clover
Micro clover does not get dead patches like grass from foot traffic or pet urine, making it an excellent alternative for an open park space. It does not require fertilizer or irrigation, and it stays all year round, even in winter! Micro clover blends are even used in soccer fields to replace grass and turf. Another fun fact about this type of clover is SIG’s Head of Communications, Brian Bollinger, swapped grass for clover! He says it has worked great for their home and their family’s needs.

Many more alternatives still haven’t been mentioned, and many landscaping possibilities are to be had. However, if you are interested in adapting this for residential use, make sure that you check with your HOA before attempting to switch to a grass alternative.

LEED Insight

As mentioned earlier, switching to a sustainable alternative can help you earn tax benefits for a personal LEED certified lawn or help commercial building projects gain LEED points to achieve a higher overall certification score.

Many factors go into pursuing LEED, such as what level of LEED you are trying to achieve and the specific requirements necessary for each tier. To give you some insight, these are just a few things a LEED landscaping qualification will require.

  • You cannot have any invasive plants in your landscape design.
  • All compacted soil must be tilled to at least 6 inches.
  • You must install drought-tolerant plants or reduce the irrigation demand.
  • Soil stabilization and erosion control are factored into the scoring.
  • Maintenance and landscape design are also factored into scoring.

This is just a look into the requirements necessary to achieve LEED landscaping qualification. However, many of these alternatives already make it easier to accomplish this. The benefits you and the Earth will reap from switching to a lawn alternative are green and flowing with possibility. To learn more about LEED landscaping qualifications, click here.

Overall, grass is less green than you think, and it is time for a new plant to be front and center in backyards, parks, and green spaces. Not only will it be better for the Earth, but it also can help you save money, time, and effort. As spring begins, it brings new opportunities to become more sustainable and could be the start of your new landscaping journey!

Sources :

© 2023 Sustainable Investment Group (SIG). All rights reserved.