Monday, September 22, 2014  |  0 Comment(s)  |   Email   Print

Low-maintenance lawn alternatives for urban vacant lots

by Sandra Albro

Vacant land managers are forever searching for no-maintenance lawn and plant solutions for vacant lots. Here’s what a no-maintenance lawn looks like:

Not pictured: a bunch of trash, some old tires, and construction debris.
Photo credit Brittney Lohmiller


Sadly, attractive + no-maintenance options are a myth. But there are plant treatments that can reduce your maintenance requirements.

Low-maintenance lawns

Low-maintenance lawns are often called “low-mow” or “no-mow” lawns. They generally include different fescues, yarrow, clovers, and/or short flowering plants. Prairies are another type of low-maintenance lawn (of sorts) and have many of the same attributes. More creative lawn substitutes like sedum, herbs, and low-growing vines have different planting and maintenance requirements, so for the purposes of this article I won’t consider them here. 

Low-maintenance lawns are characterized by grasses and/or forbs that have deep roots and slow-growing shoots. Aside from needing to be mown less often, their deep roots allow them to forage for water and nutrients better than traditional, short-rooted turf grasses. That means they’re pretty drought tolerant and need less fertilizer (or none at all). All of these qualities make them attractive for use on vacant lots. How would you like a nice-looking lot that only needs to be mown once per year? 

The benefit of saving time and money on mowing doesn’t come without costs, however. I believe these costs are more than paid for by the benefits, but let’s take an honest look at those costs first so you can draw your own conclusions. An important point is that these costs are not avoidable. Seriously—over and over again, turf alternatives fail because someone wanted to cut corners. On a vacant lot, the worst that will happen is that you’ll end up with a pretty normal, weedy vacant lot, but that will be after a not-insignificant investment of time and money.

Two vacant lots in Cleveland's Slavic Village neighborhood planted in turf grass alternatives. Left, a low-mow test plot (left) is contrasted against a vacant lot planted in a standard grass mix (right). Right, a prairie planting that is part of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress' Re-Imagining Cleveland project. 


Unavoidable costs of low-maintenance lawns

Seed in the fall

The slow-growing nature of low-maintenance lawns makes them less able to outcompete weeds and other turf grasses. For this reason, it’s essential to plant low-maintenance lawns in the fall to give them a head start on weeds, which often germinate in the spring. Many low-maintenance lawn mixes will also claim that spring planting is possible; however, in the challenging environment of urban vacant land, I’ve found that the success of spring plantings is much more variable. In short, spring planting requires more maintenance to control weeds, and that makes it less compatible with the realities of managing vacant lots over the long term. 

The obvious problem with requiring a fall planting date is that demolition takes place pretty much year-round—how does only seeding in the fall interface with the realities of demolition? An option that I’ve considered to tide over lots that are demolished at other times of year is to use a fast-growing, temporary groundcover (a cover crop) to reduce erosion and compete against weeds until the lawn can be seeded in fall. Something like annual rye or even an agricultural crop like millet. This sounds like a promising idea, but I haven’t been able to test it out yet, and cover crops can be a bit of a complex topic in their own right. This doesn’t avoid the problem of having to revisit the lot in the fall, though, which can be logistically challenging. The only comfort I can offer is that this extra visit will pay for itself quickly once the low-maintenance lawn is established.

Allot extra money for seed 
A close-up of a low-mow lawn mix containing yarrow, microclover, and dwarf perennial rye grass.

The cost of seed is frequently $200–$400 per acre for low-maintenance lawn, or roughly $27–$50 per lot. Native prairie plants that require hand-collection of seed can cost even more. Cover crops have their own associated cost. Compared to regular lawn seed, which can be cents or a couple of dollars per lot, low-maintenance lawns are significantly more expensive.

Consider what you’ll pay per visit to mow one vacant lot, though, and you’ll see that it’s possible to recoup costs pretty quickly. (I’m currently paying my mower $40–$80 per lot per visit.) Alternatively, unmown vacant lots have associated negative impacts on neighboring property values [PDF]—so while not mowing will save you some money, the cost of an unkempt lot will be borne by the community.

Commit to a regular maintenance schedule for the first 1–2 growing seasons

Low-maintenance lawns require regular mowing during the establishment phase so weeds and woody plants don’t get a solid footing. Most low-maintenance lawns have been selected for good weed suppression when mature. But most of them won’t outcompete weeds when they’re getting started.

Optimal mowing schedules vary with the type of lawn. I’ve had really good success in Cleveland with Pro Time Lawn Seed's Green Lawn 1000—a mix of yarrow, microclover, and dwarf perennial rye—which I mow about once per month during the establishment phase. After the first 2 growing seasons, I will drop that mowing schedule down to once per year in June (before many common urban weeds go to seed) for ongoing weed management.

For native prairie establishment, USDA recommends mowing every 2 weeks during establishment and seasonally thereafter. Native tallgrass prairie plants have evolved in fire-prone ecosystems. Burning is not practical in urban settings, so mowing is used to mimic fire, which reduces weed competition. There is a lot of research around the optimal seasonal timing of prairie burning/mowing; just know that different timing favors different assemblages of plants in your prairie. 

An important note about mowing is that mowing height is much taller for low-maintenance plants than for traditional lawns—generally 3–4 inches for turf-type low-mows and 8+ inches for prairies. Cutting lawns too close will kill plants, so make sure you emphasize this point to your management crew.

Commit to small amounts of regular maintenance for the long haul

Weed management is an ongoing concern for any type of lawn. In urban settings, the real concerns are harboring noxious weeds and losing low-mow benefits by allowing your lot to revert to fast-growing, tall weeds.

Visible or noxious weeds that persist in spite of a yearly mowing schedule can be hand-pulled or spot-treated with herbicide. Additionally, many lawns will need to be overseeded at some point to maintain density of optimal plants. Turf-type low-maintenance lawns can be overseeded once during the spring or fall after establishment to hit any bare areas that remain after the original seeding. You will also want to overseed any areas that are created by spot-treating weeds. Prairies may need to be reseeded after 4–5 years to maintain diversity of plants. Even perennial plants have a life span; rather than relying on your prairie to reseed itself, a little help from overseeding will ensure that you keep a diverse array of flowering plants and grasses.


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