Lawn alternatives

There are plenty of alternatives to a lawn which are low maintenance and, many would say, equally attractive:


Gravel is available in all shapes, sizes and colours so you can find the perfect fit for your garden. There are many different types of stone which can be used as gravel, including:

  • Coarse-grade stone chippings (limestone or granite).
  • Slate chippings, which are available in greys, blues, greens and plum colours.
  • Pea shingle, which has rounded edges.
  • Washed shingle, which is sharper and therefore not great for areas children will be in.
  • Horticultural grit, although this can be washed into the soil if not separated by weed matting.

Gravel is a relatively cheap alternative to paving and can provide a low maintenance and attractive surface. You should remove all weeds, grass, or other plants from the area first and ensure it is level (if it isn’t then the gravel will gradually accumulate in the dips) and the surface is relatively smooth. Then lay a surface of weed proof woven membrane over the area, pegging the edges down at roughly 1 metre intervals (plastic pegs are a cheap way of doing this). It’s important to get good quality membrane so spend as much as you can afford – you’ll thank yourself later on when you don’t have weeds coming through! If possible, edge the area (for example with pressure treated wood) to reduce the amount of gravel that travels to other parts of the garden. Apply your gravel so it’s about 2.5cm thick. You’ll need approximately 50kg per metre squared.

You can also create shapes with your gravel. You need to partition off the different areas, for example with wooden strips or metal edging strips of the type used for edging lawns. Then use different coloured or sized gravel to create a pattern. An alternative is to use metal grids to give yourself lots of ‘pockets’ to fill with different colour gravels and create a mosaic effect. Here’s an example:
Gravel path at Chelsea Flower Show 2009

You can always cut planting holes in the membrane to have plants growing through the gravel.


Bark or wood chippings are relatively cheap and easy to lay. They’re available in a range of shades and sizes and provide a soft surface (particularly useful for children). For the most permanent results, lay over plastic woven weed matting to prevent any weeds appearing (although in time they will start to grow in the bark layer). It’s best to create an ‘edge’ to contain the bark otherwise it will travel to other parts of the garden. You’ll need approximately 50 litres of bark chippings per metre squared to give you about 5cm depth. It may require topping up annually as, even if edged in, it will leak out.

Cocoa shell is a similar material to bark chippings but has a neater appearance (and can be more expensive).

Recyled tyre mulches

These rubber crumb mulches are highly effective since they take many years to break down, plus they come in a wide range of colours. Being recycled, they get a ‘green’ stamp of approval, although the problem still exists of what to do with the mulch if you want to replace it.

There have been some concerns raised about health issues related to recycled tyres being used in this way. There doesn’t appear to be any tangible evidence to suggest it is unsafe, but if you have children (or pets) you may wish to purchase certified rubber mulch and teach them not to put it in their mouths (pets are unlikely to eat it as it isn’t organic).


Paving can look dull and monotonous in a garden, but this doesn’t have to be the case. There is a wide variety of paving materials available which give you a great looking and easy to care for surface. Using paving slabs or blocks in different sizes and mixing them with other hard landscaping materials (such as gravel) to avoid harsh edges will give a more natural effect. Point the paving with mortar to prevent weeds establishing in the gaps.

You can also mix and match materials to give the paved area more interest, however the general rule is not to use more than 3 different materials otherwise it will look cluttered. Why not ‘mix and match’ frost proof bricks, clay pavers, timber, railway sleepers, natural stone paving slabs (eg slate or limestone), concrete paving slabs (smooth or textured), cobbles or block paving? You could be even more adventurous and have ‘buried’ wine bottles where their bases provide a surface (careful, this can be slippery, particularly after you’ve drunk all that wine to get the bottles!), ceramic mosaic tiles or go retro with crazy paving.

Small ‘planting pockets’ can be left in the paving for plants which don’t mind being trodden on a bit, such as thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus or Thymus serpyllum), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, syn. Anthemis nobilis, particularly the cultivar ‘Treneague’) or clover. Surround the plant with cobbles, pebbles or gravel which matches or contrasts the paving as a mulch.


Pressure treated hardwood decking can be an attractive and long lasting feature of any garden. It’s available in a range of styles and stains to suit any type of garden and can appear softer than paving slabs. It will require an annual clean to remove grease and discolouration plus occassional brushing, but other than that it is a very durable lawn alternative.

Other plants

You could always consider planting a lawn which isn’t grass based. Plants such as thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus or Thymus serpyllum), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, syn. Anthemis nobilis, particularly the cultivar ‘Treneague’) or clover make ideal lawn alternatives, although they would not be appropriate if your lawn receives heavy use (eg if you have children or a dog). Thyme and chamomile are both aromatic when crushed (ie walked on), however they are both quite difficult to establish and the initial cost will be quite high. Clover will keep green for most of the year and will tolerate dry soils. It only needs to be mown twice a year, after the flowers have appeared. Clover seeds can be ordered from manufacturers of wild or agricultural seeds.

Sedum acre (stonecrop) is also sold as a lawn alternative to grass, but this can quickly spread to other parts of the garden, so is best avoided.

There is one major problem with using plants other than grasses. The selective weedkillers we use on lawns seek out and kill broadleaved (or dicotyledonous) plants only, which is why they don’t kill grasses. They can’t be used on broad-leaved thyme, chamomile or clover, so you will need to weed them by hand.

Artificial grass

As artificial lawns improve in quality and realism they are becoming more and more popular as a way of achieving the look and feel of a lawn without the maintenance. Although expensive to install, they will last for years (for example, some have a 20 year guarantee). If you’re determined to have a lawn but simply don’t have the time to maintain it (for example if you’re a busy parent who wants somewhere for their kids to play) then this might be a good option for you.

‘Natural’ lawn

If you like having grass, but don’t have the time to manage it, then you might want to consider allowing yourself to have a ‘natural’ lawn. That is, a lawn allowed to grow long and where flowers we’d otherwise call weeds are allowed to flourish. We’re not talking about a wildflower meadow here, they can take a lot of work to establish and look after well, just a lawn that is allowed to do what it wants. You should mow it to keep it to a reasonable height, but use a high setting on the mower. You could always mow a pathway through it so that you have a usable lawn area between the more natural sections.

If you are keeping your lawn

There are plenty of ways you can make it less time consuming to maintain. Simplify the overall shape of the lawn so you don’t have lots of fiddly curves and corners to mow. Make sure that you have a ‘mowing’ edge of brick or paving set into the edges of the lawn, so you can mow over them and don’t need to cut and annually renew the lawn edges. Avoid having island beds, statues, sundials,etc in the lawn, this just makes it more time consuming to mow around them.

Do remember that to keep a lawn in good condition you need to mow regularly, feed it, deal with weeds, scarify, aerate, remove autumn leaves…and so on. Make sure you take this into account when deciding whether to have a lawn.