Question: I have decided that we spend too much time and money on our lawn and solving its problems. Could you give some suggestions on developing a lawn-free landscape?
Answer: There are some situations where a lawn is a vital part of the landscape. However, in most situations, a partial or complete elimination of lawns would greatly reduce landscape maintenance time and expense. I have completely eliminated lawn in my front yard and have reduced the lawn in back to a small area for my dog.
You will thank yourself for many years if you add bark dust, compost or some other form of organic matter before planting. Apply a 2- to 4-inch layer and till it into the soil. This will greatly improve the quality of any soil. It opens up clay soils and helps them to drain better. It adds water holding capacity to sandy soils.
Then create a design for the landscape. Perhaps a curving walkway. Maybe some boulders, an arbor, trellis, birdbath or other features. I put a dry stream bed through my front yard. Put your plan on paper so you can refer to it if you can’t afford to do the whole plan at once.
Where would trees fit into your plan? Perhaps a large tree to shade the house. Maybe a flowering tree or even a dwarf fruit tree.
Where would shrubs be appropriate? Would you like to screen part of the area from the street or neighbors? Decide how tall and wide you want shrubs in specific areas. Make beds for shrubs a little wider than their mature width so they won’t later grow over walks or other areas. Then make sure you take that information with you when you purchase your shrubs so you can avoid later pruning to keep them the right size.
Ground covers can be used as a lawn substitute. The entire lawn could be replaced with one or more varieties of ground covers. There are dozens of ground cover varieties. Lamium produces flowers all spring and summer. Kinnikinnick is a native ground cover that is very well adapted.
Bulbs can be planted under ground cover. They will grow right through the ground cover. Fall planted bulbs like daffodils and tulips will bloom early in the spring before anything else.
Would you like an area where you can plant annual flowers for color each year? If you want to avoid planting each year, consider perennial flowers like Coreopsis Moonbeam that blooms all summer long.
Take your plan to a full-service nursery or garden store. They have people who can help you select plants that fit size and sun/shade requirements. They may be able to suggest changes that would improve your plan. As an alternative, you may want to consider hiring a landscape architect or designer to design your remodeled landscape.