4 Eco-Friendly Alternatives To A Lawn For Canadian Gardens

Pot of blueberries. (Photo: Bushel and Berry)

A tidy lawn with no weeds in sight is almost becoming antiquated. Health Canada’s ban and management of cosmetic herbicides and pesticides helped with this shift a few years ago. And eco-minded homeowners, realizing what a waste it is to water grass when you could devote your time to nurturing a garden that attracts beneficial insects and wildlife, have advanced the idea of ​​getting rid of grass altogether. Gardens have started to overtake the space once reserved only for lawns. More and more gardeners are filling their front yards with a riot of blooms, a few vegetable plants, or even a rain garden (more on that in a moment).

That’s not to say that having grass is bad—it’s way better than concrete, trapping dust, reducing carbon dioxide, and producing oxygen. But it’s okay to have a few dandelions or patches of clover. And you definitely don’t need to water grass when it goes dormant during hot, dry spells. There are eco-friendlier alternatives of grass seed blends you can sow if you’d still like to feel that soft, cool carpet under your feet on a hot summer day.

Be sure to consult with a landscaping professional before undertaking any major work on your property, especially if you are looking to change the slope or grade in any way. And even if you’re just changing up a small area, or digging in a big tree, it’s a good idea to consult your municipality’s “call before you dig” program to flag any underground pipes (like gas) or cables. You don’t want to encounter them yourself.

Want to switch up your lawn? Here are some ideas to keep things interesting in the front yard.

An image of a live-edge raised gardening bed

(Photo: Donna Griffith)

Use your front yard to grow vegetables

Dreaming of growing your own fresh produce? If you have a shady backyard, a full-sun front yard might present the perfect growing conditions. (For the most part, you need six to eight hours of sun a day for crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.) Some savvy green thumbs will build tidy rows of raised beds in lieu of a lawn. If you’re not quite ready to commit to a full-fledged urban farm, you can sneak plants into an established perennial garden. Tuck in a tomato with an obelisk overtop, and it will blend right in as an ornamental specimen.

A tomato obelisk

A tomato with obelisk. (Photo: Donna Griffith)

“In front yard spaces, opt for decorative and delicious edibles, like Peppermint Swiss chard, dinosaur kale, or purple beans,” suggests Niki Jabbour, author of Veggie Garden Remix. “Curly parsley or Greek basil are super compact and can be added to flower pots for visual interest and summer-long harvesting,” she adds.

And with all the compact varieties of tomatoes, peas, melons, etc., there’s no excuse for not being able to grow in a small space.

Use your front yard to grow annual and perennial flowers

Front yards can present some harsh conditions—dry soil devoid of nutrients, salt left over from winter shovelling, clay. But it is possible to amend that soil over time (the not-so-secret secret is compost), while choosing hardy plants that don’t mind the current state of affairs in your yard. Even roses have gotten a makeover in recent years, with new hardy varieties down to zone 3 or 4, (that is, many parts of Canada) and greater pest and disease resistance.

If there are certain challenges you face on the property—salt, deer, drought, a black walnut tree—there are plants that can survive being planted in those areas. Ask for recommendations at your local garden centre.

A monarch butterfly on a zinnia flower

(Photo: Tara Nolan)

Use your front yard to attract pollinators and wildlife

Planting flowers, of course, attracts a variety of pollinators, from bees to birds to butterflies. And with pollinator populations in peril (apologies for all the alliteration), using your yard, however small, as a haven and food source, can help immensely. Pollinator favorites include liatris, black-eyed Susans, cosmos and echinacea. One helpful tip is to look for plants that are native to your region.

You can provide shelters, like a pollinator palace for beneficial insects. “Just like us, bees need food and water,” adds Stephanie Rose, author of Garden Alchemy. “Setting a bee bath in the garden helps keep them hydrated so they can keep up the busy job of pollinating your garden while you sip a cool drink and enjoy the show.” Rose explains that a bee bath is simple to make by placing a plant saucer or ceramic dish on an overturned plant pot, adding some water, and then setting river stones so the tops come just above the waterline, as a perch for bees to safely drink without falling in.

Doug Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard believes “private properties are an opportunity for long-term conservation if we design them to meet the needs of the life around us.” Now that doesn’t mean you have to roll out the welcome mat for urban raccoons. But giving up some or all of your grass to plant native species will help to nourish and shelter smaller creatures, like birds, toads, snakes, beneficial insects, etc. CanPlant is a helpful resource with a database to identify ecologically appropriate native plant species.

Special programs, like the one offered by the Canadian Wildlife Federation, has a checklist for gardeners wanting to certify their garden as a wildlife-friendly habitat.

A water-filtering rain garden

A rain garden. (Photo: Elizabeth Wren)

Use your front yard to filter and divert rainwater

Summer brings hot sunny days—and the odd deluge. Each year, we inevitably see news reports showing the destruction one heavy rainfall can bring. Overburdened sewer systems can sometimes spell bad news for basements as the excess water has nowhere else to go, and aging infrastructure fails. Homeowners concerned about flooding or who have experienced wet spots in their basement may want to consider having a rain garden—a design that works with your property’s conditions to capture water in the front yard. A dry river rock bed, for example, will divert water off the property, filtering some along the way, so not as much ends up in the sewer system.

Mike Prong, owner of Fern Ridge Eco Landscaping in Milton, Ont., says rain gardens are a great low-maintenance option that allow you to see where the water is moving. Prong recommends consulting a professional to assess the property and making sure a plan is made where the water is being conveyed the way it needs to.

Tara Nolan is the author of Gardening Your Front Yard and a co-owner of SavvyGardening.com.

This piece was originally published in 2020 and updated in 2022.

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