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Low-Maintenance Alternatives to Conventional Lawns

Q: What are some good alternatives to regular grass for a lawn? We’re looking for something that can be walked and played on, and that requires little or no mowing.

A: One choice is a “no-mow” lawn. Made up of a variety of low-growing grasses, a no- or low-mow lawn grows only to a height of four to six inches. It’s not available as sod in this part of the country, so you have to grow it from seed, which makes for a hardier lawn anyway, says Maria Smithburg, who owns the landscape design firm Artemisia (132 E. Delaware Pl., 312-654-1708) and has worked successfully with no-mow. While not as thick as a conventional lawn, it is thick enough to retard weeds, and tolerates shade, drought, and moderate amounts of child’s play. No-mow grasses have a somewhat shaggy, natural appearance, not the manicured, formal look you get from regular grass. Two sources for no-mow grass seed are Prairie Nursery (Westfield, Wisconsin, 800-476-9453; prairienursery.com) and NoMow Grass (Lyle, Minnesota, 888-569-4769; nomowgrass.com).

Ground cover—low-growing plants that spread horizontally—is another way to go. In the past few years, growers have made an effort to develop ground covers that truly can be used in place of grass, with plants you can step on and even play on a little. For Chicago-area yards, Nancy Hannick, owner of NLH Landscape Architects, (2285 Linden Ave., Highland Park, 847-432-7183; nlhlarch.com) recommends Barren Strawberry (“excellent mat, tough plant, nice yellow flowers”); a variety of thymes; and sedum, a low-growing succulent. Fran Hopkins, president of Under a Foot Plant Co. (4742 Liberty Rd., Salem, Oregon, 503-581-8915; stepables.com), has a long list of ground covers appropriate for our climate zone. She particularly likes Elfin Thyme for sunny areas and Veronica Golden Creeping Speedwell for a shady yard.

Moss is another plant to consider. It tends to like shade and humidity and needs no watering once it’s established. Hopkins recommends Irish Moss, which is a lush medium green, and Scotch Moss, a bright chartreuse. They create a carpet of green that stands up well to foot traffic.

Dare you consider synthetic grass? Absolutely, says Smithburg. She used it on the rooftop of the Pets Are Worth Saving (PAWS) Adoption and Humane Center, where dogs gambol and eliminate. You can simply hose it down (you still have to pick up the solid waste, sorry). Synthetic grass comes in different grades and designs, some of which are made specifically for dogs, some for children’s play areas, and some for a thick, natural-looking lawn, complete with a little tan thatch thrown in for realism. You can even choose among a selection of bluegrass- and fescue-style varieties. Two synthetic lawn manufacturers with detailed Web sites and lots of information, including prices, are SYNLawn (866-796-5296; synlawn.com) and ForeverLawn (866-992-7876; foreverlawn.com).

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