More homeowners are cutting their lawns down to size

Flickr user Mahmood Al-Yousif's garden has a generous expanse of lawn, but it isn't all grass. Click the photo to see a gallery of garden photos in Yahoo! Homes' Flickr pool. (Flickr)

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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.

Native plants are used to the climate and soil already, so they don't need extra water and feeding. Flickr user
Native plants are used to the climate and soil already, so they don't need extra water and feeding. Flickr user

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.

Herbs and other edibles are an increasingly popular lawn alternative. This photo was shot in Italy (hence the spelling of
Herbs and other edibles are an increasingly popular lawn alternative. This photo was shot in Italy (hence the spelling of

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, the 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"

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. (Also on Yahoo! Homes: Click here to read Yahoo! Homes' story on creating an outdoor room.)

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, an industry-certified landscape professional in New Milford, Conn. Locally sourced stone is popular for patios, and better-looking composites are coming on strong for decks. (Also on Yahoo! Homes: Click here to read the Home Depot's advice on how to create an outdoor room with a pergola.)

Follow sustainable practices

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, industry-certified landscaper Ed Furner 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 the 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, 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.

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