10 Gardens Prettier (And More Water-Efficient) Than a Lawn

Take inspiration from homeowners creating beauty and diverse ecosystems.

A sign advocating for gardens not lawns

Ramon Gonzalez

For better or worse, lawns are an intrinsic part of American suburban culture and lives. They're one of the first surfaces outside of our homes that we come into contact with as children. The majority of our outdoor play activity—both as kids and adults—occurs on lawns. There's no denying that lawns serve a purpose, but like everything else in life, lawns are better in moderation.

The desire to remove or reduce one's lawn may be rooted in political, environmental, or financial reasons—or maybe you just want to be spared all that annoying mowing and maintenance. But regardless of your motive, knowing where to start and how far you should go can seem daunting.

What follows are examples of ten inspirational homeowners who have transformed their lawns into gorgeous water-saving gardens.

1
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Parkway Garden in Chicago

parkway garden in Chicago

MrBrownThumb

Parkways (the portion of public street between a curb and sidewalk, or in the center of a boulevard) offer an opportunity for landless water conservationists to participate in lawn removal. In Chicago, most of the parkways are covered in sod. Even though these strips are city-owned property, the watering and maintenance of these strips are the responsibility of homeowners.

This parkway is planted with native and drought-tolerant plants that divert rainwater from the sewer system, provide food and forage for pollinators, and brighten up the neighborhood. If you want something more productive, you can plant vegetables and herbs in a parkway like fashion designer Ron Finley did in Los Angeles, and create a place where your neighbors can feed themselves and mingle. Keep in mind, these are often shady areas that do better with shade-resistant plants.

2
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From Lawn to Outdoor Oasis in Seattle

backyard garden oasis

Angela Davis

Looking above at the oasis that homeowner Angela Davis created in her backyard just outside of Seattle, you can’t tell that it used to be an ugly, uneven lawn. Today the area has been converted to accommodate outdoor dining and seating. There are perennials and annuals planted in the ground and containers. You can’t see her raised beds or the homemade greenhouse that we featured in a previous post, but they’re just off camera. She still has a lawn of sorts in the front yard which consists of sod, eco-lawn, clover, and thyme that she trims with a push mower.

3
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Perennial Flower Bed in Ontario

flower garden in Ontario

Jill Bishop

You really have to dislike the uniformity of lawns when, as a renter, you take a chance and remove it, strip by strip, to plant a perennial flower bed —like Jill did in Peterborough, Ontario. She began tinkering with the combinations of plants to ensure blooms throughout the season until she had it just right.

In a blog post for Urban Tomato, she documented the parade of blooms, which may, unfortunately, have been seeing their last season. “As a rental tenant I have no rights to protect my garden,” Jill wrote at the time. “I have been told I might have to dig up my garden to be replaced by 'uniform landscaping.’ This could the last year of its splendor. Sad!”

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Backyard Food Forest in Chicago

backyard food forest

MrBrownThumb

I came across this garden on a walk a couple of years ago. The homeowner removed most of the lawn in the backyard and planted a mixture of flowers, vegetables, and herbs that produced organic food for the family throughout the growing season. You can still see some of the lawn that was left behind so the gardener’s toddler had somewhere to play.

It was a great use of the only sunny spot on the property, and an excellent example of what can be achieved even on a postage-sized urban lot where the sunniest spot in the yard was being wasted on grass.

5
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California Backyard Food Forest

lawn conversion to garden

Katie Swanberg

This is the former garden of my friend Katie Swanberg after she converted 60% of the lawn space into an edible garden in the middle of a drought. The lawn to backyard food forest resulted in a significant drop in water usage. She wrote:

“At the time I lived in an area that received less than 20" of annual rainfall. It made sense to use water wisely, and watering grass that I couldn't eat just seemed awfully wasteful. I let half of my back lawn die, planted bare-root fruit trees, and sheet mulched it. Over time I added more edible plants, all in the idea of creating my own food forest. And once the trees started producing fruit, I wasn't buying it anymore which saved money.”

You can do the same and kill large swaths of lawn like Katie did without resorting to spraying herbicides.

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Front Yard Veggie Garden in Pacific Northwest

front yard food garden

Denise Minge

The beginnings of Denise Minge's edible front yard seem like a metaphorical middle finger to the establishment in a time when city officials prosecute and destroy edible gardens. One winter she picked up a gardening book on planting edible front yards, bought seeds and created a plan. When spring arrived, she started digging up the sod right along the street that runs in front of her house and planted her garden.

Denise plans on taking advantage of the relatively mild climate in the Pacific Northwest to grow edibles throughout most the year. She's already added a blueberry bush and an apple tree, and has plans to grow dwarf cherries and more espaliered fruit trees.

"I could rattle on for a long time about my garden to anyone who makes the mistake of asking me about it," wrote Denise in an email about her garden. Considering she brazenly planted her garden where it can't be missed, I think she'll be bending a lot of ears. Hopefully she'll convert the neighbors to growing something other than lawns.

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Xeriscaped Garden in Missouri

xeriscape garden

Linda Bishop

As mature as Linda Bishop's native garden in the Missouri Ozarks looks, you would think it has been established for years, but the garden is only in its first year in this photo. It's particularly impressive when you consider how brutally hot and dry the first year was. The previous owner had attempted to grow a lawn over for 11 years with no success on account of the extremely porous soil structure.

"My native garden has done so spectacularly well in its first year that we plan to do something similar next spring with the remainder of the front yard," wrote Linda at the time. Today her garden attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and various beneficial insects and critters.

8
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Front Yard Tomatoes

front-yard tomatoes

Peggy Knapp

This row of tomatoes is the beginning of Peggy Knapp's lawn removal. She chose this spot because her yard is surrounded by mature trees and this strip is the only piece that gets enough hours of sunlight per day to grow tomatoes. She says of her decision to grow tomatoes on her front yard, "It makes a nice public statement. I get lots of positive comments on the garden from passersby."

9
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California Front Yard Food Forest

front yard food forest

Carri Stokes

In anticipation of having water meters installed, Carri Stokes started ripping out her front lawn several years ago, and planted an edible landscape. The choice between creating a landscape where she could grow food year-round, rather than a lawn that was brown for part of the year, was easy.

She laid out the garden according to where the sprinklers were installed and converted the sprinklers to drip lines for better water management. Because the original sprinklers didn't offer enough coverage, swaths of the lawn were brown and dead during the summer. The dead spots became patio spaces (the mulched pathways you see in the picture above) and a fun hopscotch course was created out of pavers for her daughter to use. Her garden has become a conversation piece in her neighborhood and she uses what she has created to educate people about what they can grow instead of lawns.

10
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Backyard Veggie Garden in Pacific Northwest

lawn transformed into gardn

Erica Mulherin

The choice to convert a lawn into a garden was easy for Erica Mulherin. After reading an article that said that lawns can keep as much water from penetrating the soil as asphalt, she chose to convert her lawn into a garden and mulch the lawn with straw. Living adjacent to a wetland and drawing water from a well made her consider the impact her lawn would have when she started her garden.

Resources

Here are some resources and inspiration to help you get started if the gardens pictured here have made you think about removing even a small portion of your lawn.

Xeriscaping

What is xeriscaping? It's a form of landscaping that uses minimal amounts of water. Shirley Fox's conversion of a "zeroscape" to xeriscape landscape in the home San Antonio, Texas, home she bought in the '90s shows that water conservation can have real curb appeal.

Lawn Alternatives

Check out this list of 11 natural lawn alternatives that will look as good as they are beneficial for the environment. Learn about the benefits of a clover lawn and why "lazy" lawn mowers are a boon for the bees. Reducing the Lawn: Meadows...and other Lawn Alternatives (PDF) by the National Audubon Society offers many tips, ideas, and a plant list to help you get started with your lawn reduction project. The Edible Lawn plant recommendation list is for those who don't want to part completely with their lawn, but can stand to compromise by letting some useful weeds grow in it.

More Gardening Slideshows

Summer Blooming Bulbs in the Garden is a slideshow I made featuring some of my favorite summer bloomers grown in my garden over the years. It features hard and tender bulbs, corms, and tubers. Another one, Spring Blooming Bulbs You Should Plant This Fall, shows my favorite spring blooms. When the garden is looking drab just after winter, these bulbs will provide a punch of color. Another resource, 10 Sustainable Garden Products for a More Earth-Friendly Garden, provides some cool garden products made either from recyclable materials or produced using sustainable practices.