Even though they have no nutritional, industrial, or ecological value, grass lawns are America's largest irrigated crop, by some estimates using three times as much land as corn. So why keep spending all that money — and water — when these alternatives exist?
Not only are most traditional species of lawn grass quite thirsty, they can also be pretty finicky to maintain. While these ground cover crops won't erase all the pains of yard work, almost all of them will cause fewer headaches than those rolls of sod.
You might know clover as that annoying weed with white flowers that bring all the bees to your yard, but if so, you may want to reconsider. It actually makes for a great lawn, either alone or in combination with traditional grass, as pictured above. As a legume, it fixes nitrogen in the soil, effectively acting as a fertilizer for any grass in the same area.
Clover is also much more tolerant to drought than grasses, isn't picky about what kind of soil it lives in, and resists urine well (for those of you with either dogs or drunken revelers in the neighborhood). Need more convincing? It's one of the cheapest options available, costing only about $35 to cover an acre.
In fact, clover is such a successful plant that you may want to warn your neighbors if you'll be seeding it, since it might start creeping in on their territory as well. Aside from that, your only concerns will be getting the plant established and possibly needing to re-seed annually.
As for the bees? A new variety called microclover confers all the benefits of the regular plant, but grows quite low to the ground and rarely flowers.
Image by Kristian Peters
For those who aren't feeling too experimental, a hearty species like fescue is a great option. While maintaining a look and feel barely distinguishable from typical grass (partly because they technically are a grass), fescues handle poor soil with ease, and they can pop back to life during a good storm after a long dry spell.
This lawn cover doesn't handle heavy traffic too well, unfortunately, even though its leaves can be quite thick and tough. Like clover, it may need to be re-seeded in the fall or spring.
Fescue will still require a little fertilizing and occasional mowing, so it makes a great choice for the environmentally minded who still enjoy the occasional stroll through their lawns.
Image by Alex Schröder
While clover and fescue can pass for a "normal" lawn, moss is for those who prefer a ground-hugging, pillowy carpet in their backyards. If your climate has enough shade and humidity, and your soil enough acidity, moss can be easy to look after, as well.
Unlike the grasses and grasslike plants, moss requires absolutely nothing in the way of mowing or fertilizing, outcompetes most weeds, and tempts few grazing animals. Since it takes all its moisture from the air, so long as it can get established, no watering will be necessary at all. In fact, while it does need some moisture, moss can handle drought surprisingly well.
Photo by Kiran Foster
Stifle that laughter! Fake grass has come an awfully long way since the invention of AstroTurf a half-century ago. Modern brands of artificial lawns can look nearly indistinguishable from the real stuff, which is a real boon for people living in especially hot and arid climates. (It bears noting that xeriscaping is another valuable tool in the desert homeowner's kit.)
Additionally, since this grass is created, not grown, it can be tailored to each individual's taste. Writing for Sunset.com, Maile Meloy says the following:
You can get synthetic lawn that's late-summer long, or putting-green short, or somewhere in between. You can get dark green or light green, depending on the kind of grass that grows near you. You can even choose the color of the springy underlayer. Ours has variegated strands ― some dark, some light ― and looks especially real.
The best part? No pouring clean water into the grass. No burning gasoline to mow it. No fertilizer running into the sea.
The entire article is worth reading if you're even remotely interested in plastic grass.
Image by Lori L. Stalteri
If the idea of carpeting your backyard with artificial grass leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you could always run in the entirely opposite direction and use that outdoor space for some genuine utility. You can grow a surprising amount of food on a small plot of land.
While clover, fescue, moss, and artificial turf share similar goals of minimizing the resources and maintenance asked of you, a backyard farm does neither of these. Although even the most basic vegetable garden will require a fair bit of time, attention, and yes, water, you'll find that it ultimately saves you money, reduces your ecological footprint, and encourages you to eat more healthfully. If you can handle the commitment, this may be the best choice you can make.
If you've had great success or colossal failure with any of these, please share your experience!
Top photo by Rob