America’s love for lawns is alive and well, but more of us are letting other features into the yard. In a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey, almost a third of homeowners who made changes to their lawn in the last year reduced its size in some way, for example, replacing grass with patio space, ground cover, flower beds, or even artificial turf.
We spoke with lawn and garden pros from around the country, plus major retailers and manufacturers, to learn exactly how residential landscapes are being reimagined.
Cut the size of your lawn
Grass needs a lot of water and fertilizer to stay thick and verdant. Plus there’s all that mowing. So reducing your lawn’s size saves work, time, and money, especially with rising water costs and rebates that some municipalities offer homeowners who trade their lawns for a low-water alternative. In Glendale, Ariz., for example, residents can earn $150 to $750, depending on how much grass they remove.
Shrinking your lawn can also solve problems. To manage cut-through foot traffic on a corner lot in Springfield, Ill., and improve curb appeal, Adam Woodruff, a landscape designer, replaced part of a lawn with a border of low-maintenance perennials, shrubs, and ornamental grasses (shown).
Bring in native plants
Plants that are used to the local climate and soil conditions can survive without lots of water and fertilizer. “Nurseries are getting on board with this trend by making native species more readily available,” says Lorayne Black, a landscape architect in Groton, Mass.
You can also contact your local cooperative extension service to get ideas about climate-appropriate species. Or go to the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense website for a state-by-state plant selector. Those sources might lead you to hardy ornamental grasses that change with the season; shade-loving ground cover, such as hostas or autumn fern; or species that withstand foot traffic, such as ornamental thyme.
Plant an edible garden
Growing your own vegetables is cost-effective and easier than ever. Home centers now carry large assortments of packaged seeds and starter plants of herbs and vegetables. “Our customers see edible gardening as an enjoyable hobby,” says Freddy Lange, Home Depot’s lawn and garden merchant. “But it’s also driven by the local-food movement and the desire to know where their food is coming from.”
It’s a good idea to have your soil tested before cultivating vegetables at home, especially if you live in an urban area where lead may be a concern. Container gardening, in pots or raised planters, allows you to control the soil if testing turns up a problem. Vertical gardening, wall-mounted planters in which you grow beans, strawberries, tomatoes, and more, is another option.
Create an outdoor room
Linda Oyama Bryan
Outdoor “rooms” are growing in popularity, with the lawn playing an integral role, according to Jule Eller, Lowe’s director of trend strategy and communication. Consumers are looking beyond the usual folding chairs and grill, equipping their open-air gathering spaces with weather-resistant furnishings, fire pits, and even televisions and other media. Retailers are making such projects easier by selling modular kits for fire pits, benches, and more.
Backyard water elements—a simple fountain, for example, or a man-made brook or pond—are also hot. “In stressed-out economic times, it’s relaxing to listen to the sound of water flowing while you’re cooking on the grill,” says Shayne Newman, a member of the Professional Landcare Network, who is based in New Milford, Conn. Locally sourced stone is popular for patios, and better-looking composites are coming on strong for decks.
Follow sustainable practices
You can fertilize less by mulching more when mowing your lawn. Photo:
About half of the homeowners in our survey mulched when mowing, depositing clippings on the lawn instead of bagging them. That deposits nutrients back into the soil, reducing fertilizing needs by as much as 30 percent. When buying fertilizer, almost 40 percent considered the environmental friendliness of the ingredients, though ease of application and price were more important to most.
When changing their lawn, our survey respondents favored seed over sod by more than 4 to 1. Seeding is cheaper, and it lets you tailor the mix to your yard conditions and choose from a wide variety of species, including less-thirsty ones, such as tall fescue.
Garden pros suggest more alternate practices. Jennifer Horn, a landscape architect and garden coach in Washington, D.C., persuades clients to fight lace bugs with horticultural oils rather than chemicals. And in Chicago, Ed Furner of the Professional Landcare Network releases lady beetles into aphid-plagued gardens.
Drip irrigation systems, which put water directly onto root systems, are also catching on. So are weather-based sprinkler controls, which use climate sensors, Wi-Fi communication, and other technologies to monitor local conditions and irrigate more efficiently by, for example, turning off when rain is due. “Items that used to be special-order have gone mainstream,” says Lang at Home Depot. That includes rain barrels and compost bins.
Use less water
Switching from an all-lawn yard to one that’s 40 percent lawn and 60 percent trees, shrubs, ground cover, and hardscape will cut your water needs by 20 to 50 percent by , according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In a typical yard, that leaves 2,500 square feet of lawn, which is plenty of space for kids to play.
5 essential garden tools
Gloves: Look for durable yet pliable materials, like nylon or leather, that protect hands while still letting you maneuver. Silicon dots or fingertips enhance grip. Water-resistance is a plus.
Loppers: Look for sharp blades and longer handles, which provide more leverage when cutting branches that are too thick for a pruner.
Pruner: Look for sharp bypass blades with a scissorlike action for clean cuts when removing small or thin branches from shrubs and trees.
Shovel: Look for a round head with a pointed tip, which is good for scooping earth and cutting through thick roots.
Trowel: Look for a sharp blade for digging, weeding, and dividing plants, and a fully welded, not spot-welded, joint between the handle and blade. Stainless steel resists rust.
Sticking to tradition
Before: The backyard of this 1920s Colonial Revival house in Chelmsford, Mass., was a mostly forgotten space made worse by excavation work done during a kitchen addition. “It had a large, sloping lawn, which was not a lot of fun to mow,” says landscape architect Lorayne Black, who was hired to bring beauty and functionality to the landscape in a style that matched the home’s traditional architecture.
After: Black replaced much of the lawn with an outdoor gathering space that has separate zones for eating and relaxing. A fieldstone retaining wall forms the border of the patio, which is made of a beige-toned bayside quartz that coordinates with the home’s palette. The border plantings include hydrangeas, low roses, and beauty berries. There is also an easy-to-tend, waist-high vegetable garden above a section of the retaining wall.
Before: A receding lawn and a creaky, freestanding grill hardly made for relaxing backyard barbecues at this home in New Milford, Conn. The sloping landscape of the property created challenges, especially in terms of growing and mowing grass.
After Photo: Denise Cregier
After: Rather than fight the sloping property, Shayne Newman, an industry-certified landscape professional and president of YardApes, used it to create a picturesque waterfall that flows into a koi pond. A stone-veneer retaining wall provides two sides of the pond and is the base for a built-in grill. A masonry fire pit anchors an all-season seating area, which looks out over a patch of lawn and resilient mix of border plants, including spirea shrubs, endless summer hydrangea, and ornamental grasses.
Before: This mid-century modern residence in Bethesda, Md., had lost some of its original character, including a raised skirt along its siding that gave the home a floating effect. Landscape architect Jennifer Horn was brought in to restore the floating effect while also creating a safer, more welcoming approach.
After: Horn replaced the flagstone walk with one made of 2x2-foot bluestone pavers with a gravel border. By raising the pavers and lowering the gravel, she was able to completely reveal the skirt and with it the illusion of a floating foundation. The geometric pattern of the new walkway better reflects the cubist lines of the house. Landscape lighting, designed by lighting designer Wayne Hinson, artfully illuminates the house. “We went with LED, which is energy-efficient and has gotten so much better in terms of its warm glow,” Horn says. Spare foundation plantings, including ferns, blueberry bushes, and a serviceberry tree, soften the facade without overtaking it.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine with the headline "Shifting Landscapes."