Nature's Path Blog

How to Plant a Water-Saving Yard [Alternatives to the Lawn]

Posted by Nan Fischer on June 21, 2016 under Home Gardens & Growing

How to Plant a Water-Saving Yard | Nature's Path

We've always loved the expanse of green for our yards - it's beautiful and lush, soft to play, lie, or walk on. Having a perfect lawn has become somewhat of a status symbol, even creating competition with the neighbors. However the process of making your lawn gorgeous has many environmental downsides.

Did you know...

  • Homeowners spread more pesticides per acre on their lawns than conventional agriculture spreads on food crops
  • Fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides are toxic to birds, dogs and children
  • Fertilizers seep into aquifers, and run off into the street, sewer systems and water sources
  • Approximately 30%-60% of a homeowner’s domestic water usage goes to watering the grass, depending on locale
  • Typical lawn mowers need fossil fuels to operate and they spew CO2 emissions (Not to mention they are noisy! They create air and noise pollution.)

Millions of acres of land are covered in toxic, water hogging lawn, and homeowners spend roughly $40 billion a year on lawn care products and services to maintain that piece of green. For what? To keep up with the Jones’? We need to rethink yard maintenance and beauty. 


It is possible to have a healthy, safe, organic lawn, but it will still need water and mowing. To make the planet a healthier place, switch to some of these water-saving alternatives that don't need chemicals and are low maintenance.

 How to Plant a Water-Saving Yard | Nature's Path


1. Plant a Productive Yard (Edibles)

Replace your lawn (and your entire landscape!) with edibles. If you are going to water and maintain a yard, make it give back. Sustenance is more practical than an expanse of grass. Growing your own food buffers against price increases, and you can be sure of what you are eating. Plan to put up enough for winter, too.

  • Plant fruit and nut trees in place of traditional shade trees
  • Make a hedge or fence line of raspberries
  • Create interesting shapes for beds of fruit, vegetables, and herbs
  • Grow vertically to add more space

(New to growing edibles? Read out post, Easy Plants for Beginner Gardeners!)

Use landscape design principles of color, texture, shape, and line for visual interest. Walkways, walls, and seating areas contrast with the plant material for variety.


How to Plant a Water-Saving Yard | Nature's Path


2. Choose Native Plants

The most effective way to conserve water and save on yard maintenance is to replace your lawn with plants native to your locale. Lawns are monocultures, which are breeding grounds for destructive diseases and insects, which is why so many pesticides need to be used on them. The diversity of native plants will attract pollinators and other wildlife for food and shelter.


 "Native plants are acclimated to your region, and will

survive and thrive with the ever-changing elements"


Native plants are acclimated to your region, and will survive and thrive with the ever-changing elements. They are the plants in the wild brought into your yard, and they know how to live there. Drip irrigation can’t hurt, though, to get new plantings established and for prolonged dry spells. But I rarely water my native gardens!

  • They do not need pesticides, fertilizers, or supplemental watering
  • Many are low growing and as soft as traditional grass
  • Plant a variety of them for diversity and visual interest
  • Mow an area for playing on, and let the rest go wild
  • Native grasses need very little maintenance and are water-saving

If you want a lawn instead of trees and shrubs, check with your County Extension agent or a reputable nursery for grasses native to your area.


How to Plant a Water-Saving Yard | Nature's Path


3. Integrate Groundcover Plants

Low-growing, spreading plants will cover a lawn area easily!

  • Put the hardiest plants where there is the most foot traffic
  • A variety will be visually interesting as well as diverse for wildlife
  • Choose native or adaptable plants for little or no maintenance

Creeping thyme is hardy for walkways, and it smells delicious when it gets crushed under foot! Choices for the rest of the yard are mints, sedums, moss, chamomile, speedwell, sweet woodruff, pachysandra, potentilla and creeping Junipers.


Clover is versatile, thriving in sun or shade, and in all types of soil. It adds nutrients to the soil, and pollinators love the flowers, which you can also harvest to eat. Some clover is a very low groundcover, and others have some height to them for added interest.


Hardscaping for your backyard that will save water


4. Use Hardscaping Selectively

I don’t really recommend this, but people do it. They remove their lawn, and cover their yard in gravel. The drawback is it becomes a heat sink under the sun, which will in turn heat up your house, calling for more cooling. Plants are cooling. Use them!


Hardscaping is an integral part of any landscape, though. Walkways, walls, fences, and patios break up the expanse of a yard, direct people from one place to another, provide an area for relaxing, or offer privacy. Plants complement hardscaping by contrasting with and softening it. You will not be chastised for decreasing the green area of your yard. Landscaping needs to be a win/win for the environment and the homeowner.


Replacing your lawn with plants can be an overwhelming task, but adding different kinds of hardscapining with various textures and colors can make it interesting:


As always, check your neighborhood covenants and town zoning restrictions before starting. Consult with a few landscapers and landscape architects for ideas and advice.


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Written by Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer is the founder of the Taos NM Seed Exchange, a free community service for home gardeners to trade seed. She has been working with plants for 40 years as farmer, landscaper, home gardener, and nursery owner. She holds a degree in Plant Science from the University of New Hampshire, and shares her knowledge by teaching others how to grow their own food. She is a home and garden writer who takes time out for reading, hiking, gardening, and experimenting in the kitchen.