Learning to live without grass



It’s been established several times here that—even though I love giving away trimmers and other equipment I'll never use—I have no
grass on my property except a few weeds that look like grass. But did you know
that I live in a nearly-grass-free neighborhood? Everyone on our street is affected—adversely—by a long double row of Norway maples (imposed by the city, and interspersed
by a few other types of tree). I was thinking about this the other day as I
walked down the street, and wondered if some of you might like to see  a nearly grassless block. At top you see an atypical example—front yard as daisy farm. This
property has sun, because their tree came down in a storm. Later in the season,
it becomes a rudbeckia farm, accented with ornamental grasses in the back.


And here we have the stone/gravel option, with some side
plantings and a big Japanese maple providing most of the interest.


There are many, many variations of the ground cover as lawn
idea (above), using vinca, pachysandra, viola (it’s a weed we embrace on my
street), asperula, hedera, and others, accented by shrubs and such shade
perennials as hosta, astilbe, hosta, columbine, bergenia, hosta, ferns, epimedium,
and—oh, right—hosta.



As you also see here,



And here,


And here. The point is that for small properties with shade,
grass is often the least attractive or practical option. And many of these
ground covers get as close to maintenance-free as it is possible to get. They
require a small amount of hand weeding, and very little water. The majority of
my neighbors are not obsessive gardeners, and we have all learned to deal with
our shady, root-filled front spaces as best we can. In fact, it's become sort of a fun challenge. 


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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Our first house was a 750 sq ft bungalow surrounded by four Norwegian maples, so shade gardening was an art I tried to master. It was a great learning experience as I had only grown up with vibrant, full sun gardens.

  2. I too have a grass free front and backyard… Also Maple trees a couple of hundred years old. I love not having to cut grass… and there is something wonderful about dappled sun playing on your almost totally canopied garden… not to mention the saving on your AC.

    Loved the post! See you on Twitter!

  3. Did you know that hosta planted in mass would be a fine groundcover replacement for lawn in those conditions? You could even create movement and interest using different hosta leaf types and still only plant hosta. Big hosta, little hosta, blue hosta, chartreuse hosta, striped hosta, solid hosta and streaked hosta. Plenty kind hosta.

  4. a multi-variety “hosta lawn” would look awesome no doubt (as long as the slugs were kind). My own favourites in this arena however were a massive area of just different types of thyme (I believe this was the work of Dan Pearson – I distinctly remember talk of the trimming back by strimmer being the most heavenly job) and various hell strips etc full of aloes and agave.

  5. My front yard is a mass of huge tree roots and shifting light conditions (mostly shade). I’m slowly replacing the st. augustine grass with perennials, woodland shrubs, and lots of groundcovers like creeping raspberry, asiatic jasmine, tiarella, and some smaller hosta. It is a fun challenge even if at times frustrating…

    In the back yard and transitioning to my side yard, where there’s more sun, I have prepared to do what tai haku mentioned above, using varying types of creeping thyme. Fortunately I have a rather small space to tend to.

  6. No front lawn here either…I kept making the beds bigger until one day the lawn disappeared. Someday that will happen in the back too!

  7. Some charming examples there Elizabeth. For small properties with shade, you’re right, ditch the lawn. But not necessarily the grass.

    For larger gardens with lots of sun, lawns still have a place, since maintenance can be as sustainable as you care to make it.

    Tai Haiku – the thyme lawn you mention is indeed the work of British designer Dan Pearson. It is documented beautifully in his superb book “The Garden: A Year at Home Farm”.

  8. Ah, definitely yards I like to see! So much interesting things to hold your attention, and always something new you didn’t notice before. There are a lot here in DC that are similar–with all those rowhouses and trees, there is a lot of shade on the lettered streets, although the numbers get some good sun, so even just walking down a block or two, you can see a great variety of gardens here in the District. Not so much grass–I think people don’t see a point to having to cut such small lawns.

  9. Great photos! I am all for less lawn and more flowers. I find looking at flowers a lot more interesting then big empty lawns.

    Just one question are your Maple trees a pest with their leaves?

    Here in the south the Live oaks can drive you crazy with there constant shedding its always a job to keep the leaves out of the flower beds.

  10. wonderful phtoos! That looks like a delightful neighborhood. I’d love it if we got rid of all our grass. I am also a fan of hosta and have about 12 different varieties in my yard (and only bought one of them ha!) Anyone who has friends can find free hosta; I was lucky to do some gardening for friends whose yard contains an abundance of them planted many years ago, in need of subdividing. Sum and Substance, Halcyon, Mouse Ears, June, Patriot, Blue Angel, Abiqua Drinking Gourd, Royal Standard, etc. etc.

  11. Peg, I once found myself ripping half a hosta out of the ground in the middle of our garden tour, with people lined up on either side. I don’t know what kind I have and people like them, so that’s the only way I can help them.

    Jo Ann, our maple leaves are horrible–they do NOT decay. They must be raked out of beds and shredded before you can compost them.

  12. Justin – is the book really good? Certain aspects of that show I thought were brilliant at other times Dan just sounded a little to wishywashy for me to enjoy (ie garden was very nice, found him difficult to enjoy on tv) so I never got the book.

  13. I love it; the pictures really show you what is possible. Well done!

    I wish I could find some pictures of a larger grassless yard in suburbia that I could model my own project on.

  14. I am all for lawn free living. I keep trying to convince my husband that turning the backyard into a wildflower and perennial garden would not only be prettier but would be easier to maintain (considering our lawn looks horrible). I will show him these pics to convince him! 🙂

  15. tai haku,

    I’ve never actually seen the TV programme so can’t make the comparison, but I had been following Dan Pearson’s work for years. Spotted the book in a bargain bin for $5 and snaffled it up.

    I think it’s everything a decent gardening book should be: Inspiring, detailed and beautifully illustrated. I’ve learnt as much from the photos as I have from the text. Highly recommended!

  16. Our street almost lawn free. We had one of 3 lawns on our street and we tore it out and planted it with drought-tolerant, low-maintenance natives and non-natives. So much more interesting and so much prettier. There are 5 different things blooming right now just a few months later. And we inspired our neighbor on one side to tear out his lawn. Just one to go, but he’s just laid new sod so that’s a no go.

  17. Got nearly half an acre lot and no grass. Vinca, hostas, sedum, cerastium tomentosa, lavender, more sedum, some veggies, over 300 shrubs, woodchp trails, flagstone. Upside: no lawn to mow, more birds every year, beauty at every turn, daily entertainment “as the garden turns”. Downside – weeds (esp. poison ivy – birds drop seeds), watering the baby plants.

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