Times have changed since the days when the suburban lawn was king. Water is not as plentiful, our knowledge about the ecology has matured, our priorities and goals have shifted and it is not uncommon to question the purpose of a lawn. Although lawns can be low maintenance, the model for the modern American lawn is one that requires many inputs. Water, fertilizer, insecticides, and herbicides are all required in abundance in order for a typical lawn to survive and it is not surprising to see people exploring other options. Lawn alternatives can range from ground covering plants to landscaping installations to decks, pools, and vegetable gardens.
Non-traditional Grasses - One of the easiest ways to reduce inputs and maintain an actual lawn surface is to use a grass species that requires less inputs for survival. Many different species of fescue are drought tolerant and typically require less than half the fertilizer than a typical Kentucky bluegrass lawn. Improved fescue cultivars are also slow growing and can go several weeks without mowing. Buffalograss is a slow growing, sun loving, drought tolerant species that is seeing use as a lawn grass but it needs to be mowed at heights exceeding 5 inches. Even Little bluestem, a hardy grass usually thought of as an ornamental grass can be planted en masse and mowed high for a lawn-like look but without the maintenance.
Grass Alternatives - There are many species of plants that can make suitable lawn alternatives depending on location, yard size and function. Everything from thyme to moss could be used as a ground cover instead of grass, given the right conditions. Dutch white clover and clover blends are making a return to North American lawns. We think of clover as a weed but prior to the chemical era of lawn care, clover was often found in grass seed blends and a mixed clover lawn was common. Clover is a legume, fixing it's own nitrogen, and enriching the soil. It is easily mowed or left to grow and it's flowers attract pollinators which are an essential part of the local ecosystem.
Birdsfoot trefoil is commonly used as a forage crop but is gaining popularity as a grass replacement due to it's low maintenance requirements, slow growth habit and attractive yellow flowers. It only requires mowing twice a year and like clover, it's also a legume capable of fixing it's own nitrogen.
Xeriscaping - Water is a resource in short supply in many areas and sometimes maintaining a lawn in an arid location just does not make sense. Planting native species and plants with low water requirements saves water and can be an imaginative and beautiful alternative to a lawn. Plants suitable for xeriscaping are adapted to survive with no supplemental water other than rainfall.
If the myriad of lawn alternatives do not quite offer an adequate solution consider downsizing the lawn. Keep only the amount of grass desired and landscape the rest. Trees, shrubs, or wildflowers could surround a grassy area left for play, walking or relaxing. While not eliminating the inputs, they would be greatly reduced and easier to manage.
Many choose to opt out of caring for a yard at all and create their own "freedom lawn". Whatever grows, grows. Some choose to mow it, others not. Either way, it is nearly maintenance free and requires no inputs. The worst part of a freedom lawn just might be the wrath of the neighbors.