Landscape Design

How to Successfully Design a Lawnless Landscape


It’s true that you can have a won­der­ful, lawn-free land­scape BUT it also requires care­ful design in order to ensure you don’t end up with a clut­tered, hot mess! Why is design­ing a lawn­less land­scape so chal­leng­ing? Well, to under­stand that we must first under­stand why lawns are so appeal­ing in the first place– beyond the obvi­ous recre­ational reasons.

Water­wise Land­scape designed and installed in 2008

In the above space which I designed for a client a few years back, the dry river bed serves as the key visual ele­ment in the design.  While I gen­er­ally like a lit­tle more plant cov­er­age and would like to ‘shrub up’ the edges of the river bed, I still think it looks pretty good thanks to the care­ful care and atten­tion of the homeowners.

Whether we real­ize it or not, lawns ful­fill a key ele­ment in any design– the neg­a­tive space.  In mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers they call it the ‘white space’.   The biggest design error I’ve seen in water­wise land­scapes if fail­ure to rec­og­nize and plan for ‘white space’ in a design.  Tra­di­tion­ally, lawn fills that need.  It is a con­sis­tent green color with a uni­form tex­ture that rests the eye in between more inter­est­ing plant­i­ngs.  Of course, if the land­scape is noth­ing but lawn, the rest­ing con­tin­ues as the monot­o­nous look will put any­one to sleep! 

Lawns are also an orga­niz­ing ele­ment.  They cre­ate edges where they inter­face with beds, hard­scapes and houses.  And we LIKE edges– it’s one of the key Lynch Ele­ments that explain how humans under­stand and nav­i­gate space (Cog­ni­tive Map­ping).  It’s cer­tainly pos­si­ble to use other orga­niz­ing ele­ments or a lawn alter­na­tive to the same end– but there must be orga­niz­ing ele­ments, not just a hodge podge of hap­haz­ardly placed plants.

If we are going to elim­i­nate lawn and it’s VISUAL func­tion, we have to replace it with some­thing else that fills a sim­i­lar need.  This can be accom­plished by plant­ing ‘alter­na­tive lawns’ such as Creep­ing Thyme or Creep­ing Juniper.  It can also be accom­plished by cre­at­ing empty space– on pur­pose!  A great exam­ple of this was pub­lished in Sun­set Mag­a­zine and is fea­tured on their website. 

Notice how the gravel forms open space with dense plant­i­ngs around the edges?  That’s the kind of bal­ance of positive/negative space you need if you are going to elim­i­nate green lawn but retain a feel­ing of lush­ness in the yard.  Now, hav­ing DENSE plant­i­ngs around the edges is also key.  The neg­a­tive space needs pos­i­tive space to play off– it’s the CONTRAST that is so appeal­ing to us.

Hill­side slope with water­wise plants

One needn’t get rid of all the grass to have a water­wise yard– just reduc­ing the total area and keep­ing it to a con­tigu­ous, log­i­cal area will work.  Look for lit­tle strips of lawn to elim­i­nate.  Anchor those “Utah Islands” to edges or change the side yard from a half-dead lawn pass through to a water­wise cot­tage gar­den expe­ri­ence.  A lit­tle at a time– we can do it!

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  • Reply
    Ann Wixom
    June 28, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Thanks for these ideas. This is what I am work­ing towards as we install our landscaping.

  • Reply
    July 13, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    How can I find out more info on hir­ing you to give me some ideas on what to do with my yard? You do great work!

    • Reply
      July 14, 2011 at 9:43 am


      I can give you ideas for free if you can come and visit me at the Gar­den I now work for. I will e-mail you.

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