Creative Low Maintenance Alternatives to Paving or Astroturfing your Lawn
With our our increasingly busy lives and long commutes, many people have come to dread the idea of spending precious family and leisure time mowing their lawns every week in high summer and look for alternative solutions. So much so that sales of block paving, pea shingle and even artificial plastic astro-turf are soaring. But what is the best option for our health and the environment? Is there a solution that is both low maintenance and eco-friendly as well as being aesthetically pleasing?
Concerns with block paving as an alternative to grass turf
Traditionally, those suffering lawn mower fatigue looked to block paving and over the years many a front urban garden vanished in favour of parking driveways, but in recent years flooding has become a real issue, particularly in urban areas due the sheer amount of lost drainage due to block paving in of gardens. According to a report by the Committee on Climate change, in the 5 years to 2013, around 55 million square meters of block paving was installed in England, 92% of which was non-permeable. As climate change started to take its toll and our British weather became more volatile the issue became increasingly important. So much so that in a bid to halt the trend, official planning permission is now required to install non permeable paving with no drainage.
Interestingly hard landscaping may not be just be bad for the eco-system and wildlife but also, it's been discovered in research studies, for our human psychological and physical well being. Numerous studies have found positive correlations between green spaces and our mental health and negative links with concrete jungle urban environments. So wildlife aside, installing hard landscaping may also not be the most healthy way to get the most out of our precious outdoor space for our own psychological wellbeing. The good news is that there are some beautiful, natural, wildlife-friendly alternatives out there, that are far more attractive than block or shingle hard landscape replacements and yet are vastly easier and less effort to maintain than a traditional turf lawn.
Issues with artificial lawns as an alternative to grass turf
Recently a new kid arrived on the lawn replacement block. Artifical turf. Superficially an attractive option. Cheaper, also maintenance free, permeable and, being green plastic kind of natural looking from a distance. Sales sky rocketed. Sometimes made of recycled rubber and recycling's good right? Well... no, not exactly. Plastic is never the good guy and buying and laying plastic imitation lawns in your garden can still create lots of environmental problems.
Experts say artificial lawns are a real threat to wildlife, and on closer inspection don't have eco-friendly credentials. They consume fossil fuels to manufacture and many are shipped long distance so have a large carbon footprint and of course, being essentially plastic, don't biodegrade and eventually pollute the environment. The issue of habitat loss for burrowing bees, worms and other insects that birds rely on for food is a major and growing problem in an increasingly intensively built urban environment. More worryingly some potential health concerns have been raised about the safety of some materials used, there have been claims of materials being used in them potentially causing cancer or other serious health risks (see “further reading” section below for links). So, on closer inspection the plastic turf alternative doesnt seem to tick the human health box either.
Low mow flower lawns as an alternative to grass turf
Paving and artifical grass aside, varity is the spice of life in the ecosystem and, while better than man made coverings, a standard turf or grass lawn is a monoculture habitat that offers relatively poor biodiversity. Aside from the odd snail or earthworm for blackbirds or crows to forage it has little ecological benefit to wildlife.
Aesthetically, aside from being green rather than synthetic, lawns are also pretty bland don't offer a great deal of visual stimulation for the human eye either. As awareness grows of flooding and ecosystem impact and potential health issues around artificial surfaces, people are starting to look into greener, healthier alternatives that avoid resorting to higher maintenance traditional turf lawns. At the same time wildlife gardening is increasing in popularity as we become more conservation minded.
With a little imagination a dull lawn could be transformed from a mowing and weeding nightmare into a low maintenance artistic and aromatic patchwork quilt of low growing wildflowers rich in biodiversity that will shelter and feed bees, insects and butterflies. And require far less summer mowing maintenance to boot. Many of the plants suggested are native or long naturalised so will cope with our long dry summer weather, or shade far better than garden centre grass mixes will do. And if you need to install a driveway there are many hexagon shaped green-driveway options to use with the low mow flower ideas below.
Low Mow Flowering Lawn Ideas
Probably the star performer for an alternative to turf lawn is white clover, perhaps with a sprinkling of purple-blue selfheal and speedwell dropped in, but there are a whole host of options including the lovely idea of fragrant and herbal flower lawns grown with chamomile, thyme or mint, an innovation first dreamed up by the Elizabethans.
Depending on what flower lawn mix you sow, you may still need just one or two mows on a high setting in spring, but from then on you can leave the sward completely alone through the main summer period, sit back and enjoy the flowers before mowing again once or twice in autumn.
Below is a list some of the best known low growing flower-lawn options to go for sorted by colours, but many other wild flowers will adapt to low growing and flowering height with an early mowing regime. You could even plant in some spring bulbs for extra colour.
Blue / White / Pink Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns
White clover (trifolium repens, native, flowers: white, Jun-Oct)- a star lawn alternative, tough and resilient and simply wonderful for garden bees. It is a caterpillar host plant for 14 moth species, in particular burnet, heath, mother shipton and silver y moths. It has a prolonged flowering season and the leaves of this legume stay green during the height of summer unlike most lawns. Note that its relative red clover grows much taller than the white.
Selfheal (prunella vulgaris, native, flowers: blue/purple Jun-Oct ) – a good companion to clower, this semi-evergreen herb with beautiful violet flower spikes can flower well into October. As its name suggest, the herb has a long history of medicinal use for healing wounds.
Germander Speedwell (veronica chamaedrys, native, flowers: blue Apr-Jun) A host plant for the heath fritillary butterfly, this variety of speedwell displays bright blue flowers in spring and its name references its historic status as a good luck charm for travellers, to speed them well on their way. Other creeping speedwell varieties include Common Field Speedwell (v. persica) , Grey Field Speedwell (v. polita) Green Field Speedwell (v . agrestis)
Ground Ivy (glechoma hederacea, native, flowers: lilac, Mar-Jun) nothing to do with its larger relative it looks a little like bugle and is low growing spring flower oft seen with primroses.
Bugle (ajuga reptans, native, flowers: purple Apr-Jun) a member of the mint/dead nettle family with purple flowers on little stalks in spring
Yarrow (achillea millefolium, flowers: white to pink, Jun-Oct) a pretty feathery leaved plant in the daisy family with erect flower spikes that flower low with mowing. Great for butterflies and plume moths.
Sweet Violet (viola odorata, native, flowers: lilac to deep purple, Mar-May) low growing spring flowers. Sweet violet spreads via rhizomes. Its relative common dog violet flowers a little later.
Yellow / Orange / Red Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns
Bird’s foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus, native, flowers: yellow to orange, May-Sep) – Not everyone’s cup of tea with its vivid yellow “bacon and egss” but this is an excellent moth and butterfly caterpillar host plants used by Common Blue, Green Hairstreak, Dingy Skippers and Clouded Yellow butterflies.
Creeping Buttercup (ranunulus repens, native, flowers: yellow, May-Jul) one of Britains native buttercups. Leaves are comparatively large and it does have quite a vigorous creeping habit so be sure you want plenty of glossy yellow flowers before including it in a mix.
Daisy (bellis perennis, native, flowers: white-yellow, Apr-Oct) Every perfect flower lawn should have some. No British summer is complete without at least one daisy chain and a game of “she loves me, she loves me not”.
Scarlet Pimpernel (anagallis arvensis, native, flowers: red, May-Oct) Made famous by the French rebel, this is a delicate tiny little red flower that opens in the morning when the sun shines and will close up in less clement weather.
Dandelion (taraxacum officinale, native, flowers: yellow Apr-Oct), a marmite plant hated by many traditional gardeners for its habit of invading lawns, but a whole field full can be a sight to behold.
Cat’s Ear (hypochaeris radicata, native, flowers: yellow May-Oct), often confused with dandelions as it alsow grows as a rosette, but its more delicate and low growing with flowers on spikes and is very popular with meadow butterflies like skippers and meadow browns and gatekeepers.
Fragrant or Herbal Flowers for Alternative Low Level Lawns
Creeping Thyme (thymus serpyllum, naturalised, flowers:May-Aug ) – a fragrant creeping herb that originated in the mediterranean and was brought to Britain by the Romans.
Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, native, flowers: Jun-Aug) – another aromatic plant used for tea, this herb became the height of fashion in the Elizabethan era and it was the Elizabethans who first came up with the idea of planting it en masse as a feathery soft lawn fragrant underfoot. A non flowering cultivar is also available.
Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii, naturalised, flowers: purple Jul, Aug) – Introduced from Corsica, Sardinia a low growing mint family plant.
Green / Non Flowering Low Level Lawns For Shade
Moss (bryophyta)- overlooked and underrated, particularly good for shady areas, it is a gorgeous rich green and bouncy underfoot.
Traditional Wildflower Meadows
If you don’t need a low level lawn-like effect and the height of plants is no issue you could even consider a wildflower meadow patch. For the extra effort of an annual cut you could grow a traditional natural grass and wildflower meadow with endless choice of taller flowers. A summer wildflower meadow mix has a cutting regime timed as a hay cut in late summer. Or if you love to see birds in your garden you could consider a dense flower meadow mix for birds and bees. These are designed to be left overwinter for seeds and require a late winter cut around February after the birds have foraged the seedheads.
Abandon your both your lawn mower and the mortar!
So there are a whole host of options that can mean your mower is left to gather dust in the garage most of the year, leaving you free to enjoy your low flowering non turf lawn for its natural beauty and the wildlife species it brings into your garden. Not all lawn alternatives will tolerate heavy footfall, so a little thought research and tailoring is required to find the right option and perfect blend for your area.
But whatever you do – throw that block paving brochure into the recycling and start growing an exciting low maintenance beautiful space for wildlife!
Astroturf health and environmental concerns
Emorsgate Seeds offer a ready made flowering lawn mix (EL1) and have written a short article
Reading University research shows what can be done creatively
The Committe on Climate Change’s 2014 Paving Survey Report
Research into the effect of green spaces on mental health
Wildlife Meadow Matting for Birds and Bees