Projects & Improvements

9 Cheap Backyard Ideas That Don’t Use Grass

published Sep 25, 2023
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Los Angeles yard with drought resistant plants in bright colors
Credit: Marisa Vitale

You’ve heard the saying: The grass is always greener on the other side. That might be true, but that greener grass might not be the easiest to care for! The fact is that lawn maintenance takes time, energy, and expenses that you might not be all that interested in investing. Or perhaps you’ve budgeted and put effort into having a beautiful lawn, but your rocky soil and harsh climate have made your attempts unsuccessful. 

No matter your reasons for wanting to be grass-free, you don’t have to succumb to the United States way of maintaining your yard. For centuries, folks all over the globe have focused their efforts on alternative plantings, helpful vegetation, and creative hardscapes instead of simply planting classic turf. If you’re ready to live a lower-maintenance, grass-free life, here are nine cheap yard ideas that don’t include grass.

Credit: Greg Thomas Photography

Make a rock garden.

If you loved your pet rock as a child, have a grown-up version by curating an easy-maintenance rock garden. According to Andrew Connolly, owner of Little Flower Cottage, these stone-laden areas are perfect for yards with rocky terrain and poor-quality soil. If you’d like to add plants, gather stones in various shapes and sizes and pepper low-maintenance plants like sedums and alpines in between.

“Rock gardens are visually striking, require minimal watering, and can thrive in harsh conditions,” Connolly adds. This style of hardscape garden can have a beautiful impact on your yard and add visual interest with its various rock formations — with or without plants.

Credit: Erin Derby

Opt for a synthetic lawn.

Artificial turf is ideal for those who crave the look of grass without the hefty maintenance schedule. Fake grass has come a long way and can often pass as natural vegetation. “Transitioning to an artificial grass lawn significantly reduces the time and effort required to maintain the lawn and is also eco-friendly, eliminating the need for watering, fertilizers, and pesticides,” says Celine Ferreira, a marketing specialist with AGL Grass. Beyond lawns, synthetic grass is also an option for balconies and terraces for a softer feel.

Credit: beekeepx / Getty Images

Sow wildflowers.

Wildflowers are just that — wild — so they’re easy to maintain, self-seed, and bring happiness to anyone looking at them. Yards bursting with native flowers also attract pollinators and provide habitats for smaller creatures. This naturally earth-friendly grass substitute is also easy to plant — especially if you start in the fall.

Heather Evans, also known as The Avant Gardener, is currently trading her grass for a colorful burst of wild blooms. “I’m solarizing big sections of my yard to kill the grass and seed with wildflowers in later fall,” she says. After extinguishing the grass, sow your wildflower seeds and lightly mulch. The seeds will germinate and grow into a colorful, healthy landscape in the spring.

Credit: Catherine McQueen / Getty Images

Use ground cover plants.

Some plants naturally grow low to the ground, creating an ideal way to allow low-maintenance greenery to flourish. “Ground cover plants constitute a botanical tapestry that spans the ground, presenting an assortment of dimensions, configurations, and hues,” says Sarah Gill, a landscaper and garden expert at Hypedome.

Ideal plants for covering include creeping jenny, periwinkle, thyme, clover, and vinca minor. Allowing vegetation to spread does require patience, but one benefit is that it helps to curtail weeds and stabilize soil in your yard.

Place pavers and stones.

Some pavers wouldn’t be considered cheap, but Brock Ingham, owner of Bigger Garden, knows how to score them inexpensively. “I often see local listings for ‘free with removal’ pavers and stones,” he reveals. “This can be a goldmine of free landscaping material at your disposal.”

A truck and a willing spirit can add up to a secret score if you search Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. One plus is that pavers are durable. Additionally, you can create pathways with stones in between to maximize access to other parts of your yard.

Try xeriscaping.

Zahid Adnan of The Plant Bible suggests pairing drought-tolerant plants with hardscape elements, like gravel and rocks. Like a rock garden, xeriscapes focus more on the overall pairing look rather than striking rock formations. “These gardens are ideal for arid regions with limited water resources,” Andan says. Although there are limited color options and the initial setup can be pricey, the cost over time is less due to how low-maintenance and water-efficient xeriscaping is.

Create a succulent garden.

Another great pairing with hardscapes, such as pavers and stones, is a garden filled with succulents. “A low-maintenance idea to provide more curb appeal is to build a rock border just off the curb and then plant drought-tolerant and sculptural statement plants like agaves and yucca,” advises Amy Hovis, the owner of Eden Garden Design. Cacti and succulents thrive in sunny areas, so consider ornamental styles instead of grass. 

Consider mulch.

Although you may only want a portion of your yard full of mulch, adding pine bark or needles to certain areas is a natural alternative to grass. Vicky Popat, co-founder of, says mulch is best for placing around tree bases, planting beds, and stabilizing play areas. Creating these natural boundaries is also aesthetically pleasing. “Mulch retains soil moisture, suppresses weeds, can improve soil health, and offers a tidy appearance,” she adds. Plus, as the covering decays, it releases healthy nutrients to the soil underneath.

Plant an edible garden.

With all of the mowing, trimming, fertilizing, and aerating, having grass is a hefty time investment. Although planting a vegetable or herb garden is also a fair amount of work, the payoff is enormous when considering the harvest outside your door.

“Cultivating an herb garden with varieties like basil, rosemary, and mint offers not just a practical culinary addition, but also enhances your garden with delightful fragrances,” says master gardener Robert Silver. Veggies might not smell as good as herbs, but sowing rows of squash and tomatoes should keep you — and some of your neighbors — fed all summer.