The Low Maintenance Lawn

article image
Photo courtesy RICK WETHERBEE
Replace resource-hungry alien grasses with low-maintenance varieties to reduce the the amount of work you do in your yard.

For many people, lawn maintenance is a laborious chore. Every weekend finds us trudging to the garage and fighting to start our reluctant, gas-powered rotary mower. Then we push the snarling little demon over wet, slippery grass, never minding the half-inch thick cutter blade whirling at 2500 rpm just inches from our tender toes.

Why do we do it? And how can we stop doing it? A low-maintenance lawn is easier to achieve than you think.

Principles of the Carefree Lawn

There are five guiding principles for lawnkeeping in contemporary landscaping that we should all strive to attain.

  1. Reduce the amount of land covered by sod grass to the minimum that you genuinely need or that is required by local norms, neighborhood expectations or ordinances.
  2. Supplant or replace resource-hungry alien grasses, other ornamental species and even food-garden cultivars with low-maintenance varieties. Choose those that are native or otherwise suited to your own land, water availability and climate.
  3. Restrict alien plants to independent plots that can be supplied selectively with soil, extra water or other special requirements as needed.
  4. Plan your landscape so that it is self-tending or can be managed with the smallest possible electric or hand-powered tools.
  5. Adopt resource-conserving land-management practices.

Minimizing turf area is not easy to do if your place is in a town or a suburban area of expansive lawns. Some municipalities have ordinances requiring lawns around homes, and status-conscious, lawn-valuing neighbors can exert pressure against nonconformists. Also, a strong, self-regenerating blanket of low-maintenance grass suitable to the climate is the best surface for children and pets to romp on.

The Lawn of Compromise

When we left our remote farm and moved to a small college town in central New England, the oil crisis of the 70’s was well under way, promising to raise prices to $5 a gallon. This greatly reduced our forays into town, and certainly made me think twice before pouring precious fuel into the mower’s gas tank.

We took our lawn-keeping cues from Mrs. White, a retired teacher who lived down the way in a small Colonial home with a large maple tree out front. Her side yards were thick with flowering hedges — natural fences — including self-tending lilacs, honeysuckle and spirea. These hedges were partitioned by narrow pathways of flat stone laid in deep sand. The strip of grass between street curb and sidewalk (known in some parts of the country as a “parkway” or “boulevard”) plus her postage stamp-size front yard was all the sod Mrs. White had. She mowed it diligently every Sunday after church wearing a long house dress and sensible shoes.

From this neighbor, we also learned to appreciate some of nature’s bounty we’d previously ignored. Each spring, Mrs. White would pull up new dandelion greens as soon as they appeared, well before they matured into bitterness. She dug the dandelion knife as deep as it would go to extract the roots and sweet, flower bud-filled stems. She brushed them free of dirt, then steamed them until tender and served the greens with butter and vinegar. From the shade under her maple tree, Mrs. White gathered violet leaves and new blossoms for spring salads.

We lived on an unpaved cul-de-sac that lacked curbs, so our front yard maple served as a sun-shading car park. The soil under it churned to mud each spring until I had a truckload of crushed rock spread there. Renewed periodically, it hosted an abundance of violets after I transplanted them from surrounding stands. To keep encroaching lawngrass sod at bay, I sprinkled rock salt sparingly around the borders. For the sake of appearances, we retained a patch of turf right in front of the house, but also planted a sour cherry tree in the circle of sod, which was covered by water-permeable black landscaping fabric. Half of the fabric was disguised by a blanket of chipped-bark mulch. On the other side was a border of dwarf filberts and Hansen’s bush cherry.

The inner half of the side yard was left with the existing fescue/perennial-rye sod, but also hosted a bathtub-shaped sand pit, a basketball goal and other play stuff that evolved as our children grew older. I tried to mow the remaining lawn with a cordless electric push-mower, but electrics, with both battery and motor, are heavy — and this land sloped upward. I compromised by using a small mulching mower with a tunnel-topped deck that minced clippings small so they’d rot down and not contribute to a thick thatch. Today, I’d compromise even less and purchase a low-horsepower, gas-powered string-trimmer/mower. On the down side, these universal mowers use petroleum and their thick, monofiliament cutter can inflict a nice gash. Still, they’re much lighter to push and dimensionally safer than a steel mower blade. A house-powered electric model with a long extension cord might be better for flat yards.

The sod that was in a wide strip around the house foundation was dug out and composted. Under more bark-covered landscaping cloth, the soil was augmented with compost and planted with old-fashioned beauty bush, althea, trumpet vine, honeysuckle and dwarf fruit trees. These ornamental plants were pruned to be espaliered on the house walls.

Along the back and side borders of the lot, sod was dug out and planted with self-reliant fence plants including mock orange, bird-attracting Russian olive, lilacs, wild plum and other hardy, tall-growing bushes. We interspersed the flowering bushes with a random selection of scrawny and misshapen white pine, spruce, balsam and hemlock seedlings dug from where they were fighting to find sunlight in the deep woods.

The rear third of the back yard hosted a chicken house and pen, an arbor of Concord grapes that made fine jelly, and a large, old apple tree with low branches. There was no grass sod — instead, we had low, native, shade-adapted ground covers including native ferns, mosses and bearberry or Kinnikinnick ceremonial tobacco that I dug from abundant wild stands in the woods. The apple tree was never sprayed, so crops were small and worm-eaten — we made the best of it into applesauce. But the open-spreading three-stem trunk made the tree a perfect host for swings, rope ladders and tree houses.

I tossed clippings and trimmings onto a mulch pile in back of the tree and, from an unknown seed source, the plot grew up into a thick stand of Jerusalem artichoke-producing sunflowers. After frost killed the plants, we harvested as many of the delectable tubers as we could dig from the soft, loamy soil by hand. Raw, the Jerusalem artichokes were like a crispy water chestnut substitute in salads and stir-fries. Peeled and cooked briefly, they served as a watery potato substitute.

There’s no reason to consider our lawn example as the standard for alternative lawns. It is submitted to show how many options there are beyond the classic, labor- and resource-intensive green carpet. If you want to try your hand at an ancient technique that has enjoyed a modern revival, try…


“Xeri” means “dry” in Ancient Greek. Pronounced “zeer-eh-scape,” this is a system of lawn and garden design, planting and water management that evolved in the semidesert areas, where growing populations threaten limited water supplies.

Folks living in arid regions around the world have been dry-land farming and gardening for eons. Xeriscape is the method by which Native Americans such as the ancient Anasazi gardened; their descendants the Pueblos still use this method, along with modern deep-well irrigation. But the concept was formalized, named and made popular by a group of state and private water-supply, academic and landscaping experts in Denver back in the 1980s. It has been adapted in nondesert areas as well (called “mesiscaping” in well-watered Massachussets).

There are seven basic principles of xeriscaping:

  1. Plan for water conservation and beauty from the start.
  2. Create practical turf areas of manageable sizes and shapes with appropriate grasses.
  3. Select plants that require little water, and group plants of similar water needs together. Then, experiment to determine how much and how often to water the plants.
  4. Use soil amendments like compost or manure as needed by the site and the type of plants used.
  5. Use mulches such as woodchips to reduce evaporation and to keep the soil cool.
  6. Irrigate efficiently with properly designed systems (including hose-end equipment) and by applying the right amount of water at the right time.
  7. Maintain the landscape by mowing, weeding, pruning and fertilizing properly.

Xeriscaping Ideas:

  1. Hawthorne
  2. Century plant
  3. Cistus
  4. Phomium Tenax
  5. Stones
  6. Pavers
  7. Pebble mulch
  8. Verbena
  9. Lavender
  10. Mexican sage
  11. Blue fescue
  12. Penstemon

We will add that in drought-plagued southern Florida, crushed native coral rock is laid out over black plastic landscaping fabric that excludes light and prevents plant growth but lets water through to retain normal soil moisture and reduce runoff. Trees and ornamentals are planted in beds with varieties that have similar soil and water requirements.

The books (listed in Sources below) further break down these measures into specifics applicable to different climate zones within their geographic area. They also contain lists of lawngrass species and ornamental plants to fit each zone, as well as names of nurseries that specialize in growing plants for xeriscaping.

Wetland and Shade

Towns long-established in areas of natural wetland or woodland have managed to deny nature’s intent by draining land, channeling water and cutting down all the native trees. Then, over time — and at great municipal and individual landowner cost — they install backyard ponds or swimming pools and plant exotic replacement shade-tree specimens or roadside treelines.

Anyone so fortunate as to build or buy where the high, dry, cleared area of the home place is surrounded by an existing or former natural woods or wetland can skip the “log-it/drain-it/bulldoze-it-flat” stage and restore or convert the surrounding area into a water or woodland garden.

The objective is a wetland or woods that is open, airy and attractive, similar to a climax forest where mature trees have shaded the ground for the 20 years or so needed to shade out and discourage the snarl of mixed undergrowth. This means that instead of mowing a patch of fake prairie each weekend for the rest of your life, you invest time at the outset to go out and cut brush and pile it to shelter rabbits as it molders down. Then plant, thin, dig and fill as needed to establish broad vistas, pleasant walking paths, sunny meadows, deep ponds and vibrant marshes as land elevation dictates. Despite the pictures in landscaping books, you don’t need a multiacre estate to do this.

A stormwater marsh can be dug in a snap and can protect the property from flood damage. Jo-pye weed, lobelia, cardinal flower and other wild plants attract birds and butterflies. Native trees and shrubs just might restore your faith in what a lawn is supposed to be.

Controlling Lawn Critters and Pests

Moles and Gophers

Conventional practice is to eliminate moles by poisoning or trapping them, and then to rely on insecticides to eradicate the grubs once kept under control by the moles. This is overkill, and there are friendlier ways to deal with the problem.

You can spray your lawn with BT (bacillus thuringensis), a bacterium that kills off caterpillars of all varieties but harms nothing else. With no grubs to hunt, moles will soon move on. You can also infect your soil with milky spore disease, which kills Japanese beetle grubs and some others. For this to work, however, you have to convince all your neighbors to do it too, otherwise the beetles will fly in from their yards to decimate your roses.

As is so often true, it’s best to let nature take its course: Let the moles work for you. They’ll happily feast on all the grubs you don’t want in your lawn, such as the sod web worms that girdle corn seedlings and create dry patches in your lawn by eating the grass’s tender stems. Moles will also rid your turf of the cutworms that snip off your laboriously raised tomato and broccoli seedlings, as well as the larvae of Japanese beetles and other pests that will attack your flowers and vegetable plants in their voracious adult stage.

The problem, of course, is the network of lumpy nests and tunnels moles leave in their wake. A healthy mole can burrow ten to 15 feet an hour, and in a solitary night a couple of moles can make a real mess of your lawn and garden. Moles seldom harm garden plants, but their rifling of the soil will expose grass and other plant roots to air, which will cause them to dry out and die. The solution: First thing in the morning, give the lawn a good soak and smooth it over with a lawn roller. The sod will reroot just fine.

A more aggressive measure is to acquire and train a mole hound — any digging breed of hunting dog will do. Dachshunds, bred to hunt ferrets, and beagles, trained to flush out rabbit warrens, are ideal. Our best mole hounds have been German shepherds. Though not great diggers by nature, shepherds trace along tunnels to where the moles are active and flip them out with a swipe of the paw.

There’s a variety of murderous mole traps you can set, and you can also fill the tunnels with water or vehicle exhaust. It is more humane, however, to repel rather than murder moles. The most benign repellent is sound. Wind-powered lawn ornaments send a clacking sound into the ground that is reputed to drive moles away. You can find the finished device or plans to make one yourself advertised in woodcraft and garden supply magazines and catalogs.

An old-fashioned, yet effective, anti-mole measure is to plant castor beans around the margins of your lawn. Especially if started indoors in late winter, a row of castor can grow into an effective screen hedge. The entire plant is mildly toxic and has been proven in both common practice and scientific tests to repel moles. However, after making sprays of vivid red, spikey flowers, the plant produces large, brown, lima-shaped beans that are highly toxic to small children, pets and livestock. The seed pulp contains castor oil, a purgative, plus a toxin called ricin that is so poisonous it has been used as an organic pest control and is suspected as an agent of biological warfare. It is best not to grow castor anywhere children or domestic animals can get to it. And, to prevent grief, never let the plants make seed; nip off the large flowering spikes as soon as they appear.

You can buy liquid mole repellent made from castor oil (which cannot mix with water-based ricin, so the repellent contains none of the poison) in hardware and garden supply outlets or on the Internet: elixir of castor bean in spray-on-the-lawn concentrate is available from Deer Busters.

Or, you can make your own castor-oil concentrate by mixing six ounces of castor oil (from any drugstore) and two tablespoons of detergent with one gallon of water. Apply it to your lawn using a hose spray-mixer, combine at a rate of one cup castor oil concentrate to one gallon of water. Water lawn thoroughly so the mix gets down to mole level — about six inches below ground.

The only foolproof, nontoxic gopher repellents we know of are onions, garlic, dahlias and other bulbs, tubers and succulent-rooted plants. Grow them inside loosely closed cylinders rolled from 1-by-4-inch rectangles of 1/2-inch-grid galvanized fence-wire. This method makes harvesting easy; once top-growth has died down, just dig them up and shake soil from inside the cages, crop and all. You can hang the roots, still inside cages, from barn rafters to dry. Unhook and open cages to remove and clean roots for winter storage. Open cages will retain their curve and store stacked in threes and fours out of the way, hanging on hooks or big nails tapped into the barn wall.

Fire Ants

The red fire ant was accidentally imported to Alabama 70 years ago and has been spreading throughout the deep South ever since. Colonies build 12- to 18-inch-high mounds in lawns or gardens, or they’ll make nests in house or outbuilding walls. Aggressive if disturbed, fire ants advance in large numbers, grab an intruder with their jaws and inject a painful sting. Small children and adults allergic to insect venom may be in real danger.

If the problem is severe — if they’ve moved into your house or driven your children from the play area of your lawn — you may need professional help. An exterminator can apply some of the more virulent poisons without harming nontarget species.

Organic purists can reduce colony numbers by flushing an ant mound with liminoids — the bitter chemicals found in citrus fruit rinds. To do this, finely grind lemon and orange peels in a food processor, and heat up some orange or lemon juice. Quickly shove the small end of a large metal funnel into the mound, dump the pulp into the funnel and pour the hot juice through it several times. Renew the pulp periodically.

For do-it-yourself control of serious infestations in either house or yard, the natural insecticides pyrethrum and rotenone are available in injector-tipped applicators. Unfortunately, these are only mildly effective. We recommend that you consider nonpoisonous baits containing Hydramethylnon (Amdro) that gives the insects a fatal tummy ache. Or, try fenoxycarb (Award Brand of Logic) and avermectin (Ascend), which act as insect-growth regulators. Both take a while to work, but worker ants will take the baits down into the nest and eventually all the egg-laying queens will be killed. The effects are residual, and will even work against a new colony that tries to move into an old nest.


Chiggers are the microscopic larvae of the tiny red harvest mite, found in lawns and meadows over much of the continent. They lurk on tips of grasses to hitch a ride on any passing warm-blooded creature. They prefer rodents, dogs or deer, but will snag a passing human and migrate to anyplace clothing fits snugly — sock tops, waist bands, legs and the waist, where a baby’s diaper fits snugly. A chigger’s bite elicits an allergic reaction in many and will raise a large, red, itching welt that can last for days. Scratching just makes it worse. Your best offense is a strong defense.

Keep the baby in a playpen or on a blanket rather than out in the grass. An immediate warm bath will remove chiggers that haven’t yet dug in.

Keep grass short and dry to discourage female mites from laying eggs. They will seek out more favorable conditions elsewhere.

Apply repellents containing DEET to socks and other tight clothing spots.

Pyrethrum — applied liberally to a freshly mowed lawn in April or early May — will control populations in limited areas.

If, despite protective measures, you still get chewed upon by chiggers, an age-appropriate antihistamine medication taken internally or a topical ointment applied liberally can help to reduce the miserable itching.


Dry Land Lawns and Ornamentals

Xeriscape Plant Guide by Denver Water (Fulcrum Publishing, 1998). A reasonably priced (under $25), fullcolor guide to water-stingy plants that are good for any temperate climate. This highly recommendable guide contains no fluff or imported exotics, but makes the most of common shrubs such as spirea, native trees such as staghorn sumac, catalpa and maples, as well as little-known natives like Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, bearberry or Kinnikinnick-Indian ceremonial tobacco — a trailing, gloss-leafed, evergreen, shade-loving groundcover that thrives in poor soil and tree shade (we’ve transplanted it from the wild, but never seen it so much as mentioned in other landscaping books). Fulcrum also publishes a general xeriscaping handbook and a brand-new xeriscaping color guide.

 Green Mowers

Clean Air Gardening sells a variety of hand-powered mowers and other petroleum-free lawn tools.