Turf Grass Reduction

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What is Turf Grass?

Turf grass refers to a form of grass used when growing a lawn and typically includes species such as bluegrass, rye, and fescue.[1] These species, referred to as conventional turf grass, grow evenly and to a uniform height when maintained. Conventional turf grass requires high levels of maintenance, irrigation, and fertilization to achieve a consistently green and manicured look. Turf grass had become common in the United States after post-World War II when it became a mainstream middle-class status symbol. At that time many types of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers were becoming commercially available.[2]

Alternatives to conventional turf grass lawns include replacing the lawn with native grasses or groundcover and reducing the size of the lawn by incorporating other types of natural landscaping or garden beds (see Native and Adapted Plants).). There are many varieties of groundcovers, including those that are edible or flowering. Groundcover refers to plants that, once established, form a uniform layer over the ground and require little to no maintenance. Native grasses are species of grass that are native to a particular area and climate. These grasses require less maintenance and are less susceptible to pests.

Figure 1 – An example of non-lawn outdoor space (Source: Ithaca College).

Figure 1 – An example of non-lawn outdoor space (Source: Ithaca College).

Reasons to consider reducing the use of turf grass include:

High Maintenance Requirements

Lawns require frequent and sometimes costly maintenance. Lawn maintenance often involves hiring lawn care employees, purchasing fertilizers, and maintaining lawn care equipment. Lawns may require mowing multiple times a week during the peak growing season. During a drought, lawns require irrigation. Landscapes consume 9 billion gallons of water each day in the United States, mostly to irrigate lawns.[3]

High Pollution Outputs that Create Public Health Risks

Lawn care chemicals can pose a threat to people, pets and the environment. Studies have found numerous adverse health consequences associated with the synthetic chemicals found in traditional lawn care products, especially for children due to their size, physiological development and proximity to the ground.

Lawns can also contribute to water pollution as chemicals used to treat lawns combine with stormwater runoff and flow into freshwater supplies, adversely affecting plants and animal life. Many commercial lawns require frequent fertilization to maintain quality turf grass. Excessive fertilizer use can also lead to fertilizers entering sources of drinking water.[4]

Note that while conventional turf grass does help remove carbon dioxide from the air, the amount sequestered does not cancel out the greenhouse gas emissions produced from fertilizer production, mowing, leaf blowing and other lawn management practices.[5]

Lack of Biodiversity

Conventional turf grass lawns lack biodiversity, an essential component of healthy ecosystems, and do not support a wide variety of birds, beneficial insects, small amphibians, and small land mammals.[6]

How to Reduce Turf Grass

Turf grass accounts for 30-40 million acres of land in the United States.[7] Many fiscally and environmentally responsible alternatives to lawns exist such as minimizing turfgrass areas, using more eco-friendly grass species for remaining turf areas, and planting a wide variety of low-maintenance trees, shrubs, and perennials to create garden spaces, rain gardens, and native habitats (see Rain Gardens). When designing an alternative lawn, select eco-friendly grass and grass-like species such as native sedges and meadow mixes and limit turf areas for defining garden edges, active recreation areas, pathways between planting beds and other structural and functional purposes. [8] Native grasses and sedges can provide a low maintenance alternative with high ecological value.[9]

Use Groundcover

Groundcovers refer to low-growing plants including native grasses and sedges but also include taller trees and shrubs that grow together to form dense vegetation. Choose groundcovers that require little maintenance and support wildlife.[10]  Increasing the size of shrub beds and adding groundcovers can facilitate the reduction of erosion and water runoff.[11] Select non-invasive groundcovers that do not threaten plant biodiversity or affect wildlife that depends on native species as a food source.

  • To select an appropriate groundcover, talk with the local cooperative extension agent and refer to the NJ Native Plant Society’s listing of native and invasive species and the Native Plant Finder. Native species often vary across regions, even within New Jersey. Note that the USDA identifies New Jersey as being in Hardiness Zones 5 through 7.
  • To contain groundcovers, install an edge barrier such as a row of low bricks or wood frame. Extend edging a few inches into the soil to contain roots.
  • Weed and mulch groundcover regularly, especially in the first year of planting.
  • County Extension Offices trains volunteer in each county through its Master Gardeners Program to provide guidance on lawn alternatives.

Tips on Removing Lawn

  • Use a sod cutter to remove sections of existing lawn gradually.
  • Remove existing lawn but do not disturb the soil as turning the soil allows weeds to compete with the new native seedlings.

Tips for Caring for Existing Lawns

  • Keep mower at 2 1⁄2 inches, water in the early morning and de-thatch if thatch reaches more than 1⁄2 inch in thickness. Cutting lawns too short decreases root growth.
  • Leave clippings on the lawn as a natural source of nitrogen for the soil, recycle the clippings or start a compost pile.
  • Reduce water needs by mulching the garden beds around an existing lawn.



  • Decreases maintenance costs and reduces water bills. Once established, groundcovers appropriate to the site conditions require less upkeep than conventional turf grass.
  • Reduces costs spent on fertilizers and pesticides.


  • Increases biodiversity and support of wildlife such as birds, insects, small amphibians, and small land mammals.
  • Dense and short growing groundcover plants eliminate weeds, preserve moisture in the soil, and do not require mowing.
  • Reduces the need for lawn irrigation (see Water-Efficient Landscaping).
  • Groundcovers act as mulch, enhancing the soil.
  • Groundcovers and native grasses require less maintenance to prevent soil erosion compared to turfgrass.
  • Reduces toxic emissions released into the environment from lawnmowers.
  • Reduces use of fossil fuels required by lawn and irrigation equipment.

Personal Wellness

  • Saves time and labor.
  • Connects people to the natural landscape.
  • Creates a diverse and aesthetically pleasing outdoor environment.


The cost of lawn alternatives varies depending on the type and size of the landscape. For example, cost per square foot of alternative groundcovers depends upon the type of plants chosen and the size of the groundcover. The higher initial cost of selecting plants specific to the site pays for itself over time through reduced maintenance costs compared to less adaptive and higher-maintenance turf grass.


Replacing conventional turf grass with native plants and water-efficient landscaping promotes resiliency by decreasing water use and reducing the reliance and stress on municipal water infrastructure. Alternatives to turf grass can also increase groundwater infiltration, helping to slow stormwater runoff and reduce erosion during flooding events. Also, replacing turf grass with diverse native plants increases the biological diversity in a given area, which in turn, enhances the ability of the natural system to rebound after a disturbance.

[1] American-Lawns. “Mixtures and Blends.” http://www.american-lawns.com/grasses/grass.html (accessed March 22, 2018).

[2] University of Delaware College of Agriculture & Natural Resources. “Turf Grass Madness: Reasons to Reduce the Lawn in Your Landscape.”  http://ag.udel.edu/udbg/sl/vegetation/Turf_Grass_Madness.pdf (accessed March 22, 2018).

[3] U.S. EPA.  Outdoor Water Use in the United States.  https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/www3/watersense/pubs/outdoor.html (accessed March 22, 2018)

[4] US EPA, University of West Virginia. “Managing Turfgrass and Garden Fertilizer Application to Prevent Contamination of Drinking Water.” http://nesc.wvu.edu/smart/training/toolkit/page1/SWPPT_bulletins/turfgrass.pdf (accessed March 23, 2018).

[5] University of California, Irvine.  Turfgrass. https://news.uci.edu/2010/01/19/turfgrass/  (accessed March 23, 2018).

[6] NJ DEP. 2015. New Jersey Natural Heritage Program. https://www.nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/natural/heritage/ (accessed Sept 20, 2018).

[7] Earth Institute at Columbia University.  “The Problem of Lawns.” http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2010/06/04/the-problem-of-lawns/ (accessed March 23, 2018).

[8] Less Lawn. “Native Grass Lawns.” http://www.lesslawn.com/articles/article1010.html (accessed March 23, 2018).

[9] The Nature Conservancy. Habitat Network. Native Grasses for your Native Lawn. http://content.yardmap.org/learn/native-grasses-for-your-native-lawn/ (accessed November 11, 2018).

[10] University of Delaware College of Agriculture & Natural Resources. “Groundcover Alternatives to Turf Grass.”  http://ag.udel.edu/udbg/sl/vegetation/Groundcovers.pdf (accessed March 23, 2018).

[11] Ibid.