Lawn-free garden ideas - Grand Designs Magazine
Soto Gardens can help you choose the right plants to zone your garden

Lawn-free garden ideas

Going grassless has it perks. So, ditch the mower and look at these lawn-free garden ideas to bring sustainability, biodiversity and creativity to your outdoor space.

By Sara D'Souza |

A lush square of regularly mown grass was once the marker of a well-kept garden, but times have changed and with movements like no-mow May set up by Plantlife, lawn-free gardens are seeing an uptick in popularity. Without a lawn, there’s greater scope for creating diverse habitats for important pollinators. Diverse planting can also help improve soil structure and health, especially if you’re opting for a no-dig garden.

There is also carbon sequestration (the storage of carbon dioxide in vegetation) to consider. Deeper-rooted plants and trees have higher levels of carbon sequestration than grass, and the higher the level, the lower the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere.

Although, if you did let your lawn grow into a wild grassland, that can act as a carbon sink. On the water conservation front, lawns can take a lot to keep green. If you plant a more drought-tolerant/resistant garden (known as xeriscaping), you can save a lot of water. If anything else, grass takes a lot of maintenance and a lawn-free garden, can save you time and effort, leaving more opportunity to get outside and just enjoy it.

Bring in colour with wildflowers

For garden aficionados, perennial pollinators is a term you’ll be hearing a lot of. Pollinators including bees (honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees), butterflies, moths, hoverflies and beetles are integral to our natural habitat, but are sadly in rapid decline. Perennials (plants that live for more than two years and return from the same roots), are great for pollinators, as there’s a breadth of different perennials to support them. Perennials typically have a longer flowering period and, given that they come back year after year, are a reliable source of nectar and pollen for bees.

Plus, wildflowers look spectacular and provide a pleasing riot of colour and texture. There’s been a real sway in leaving gardens to be natural and more sustainable, ditching any chemical fertilisers and wildflowers can bring untamed beauty to your alfresco spaces. There’s plenty of drought-tolerant species of perennial, which means they need less watering and maintenance. RHS has compiled and extensive list of perennial pollinators from red campion and dog rose to common foxgloves and wild basil.

Agriframes have a rapid roll out of wildflowers to bring colour to a lawn-free garden

Image credit: Agriframes

Lay low maintenance shingle

A permeable paver (a material that water is able to easily pass through) like shingle, is a great grass alternative. Shingle allows rainwater to seep through and permeate the soil, improving drainage and reducing surface runoff. Rainwater infiltrating the soil helps with the ground temperature regulation and allows water to reach plant roots. Shingle creates a dense barrier over the soil and is good at suppressing weeds (soil also remains undisturbed under shingle). It can also be used to make a design statement in a garden.

A brilliant example of this is the late Derek Jarman’s seminal garden at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, East Sussex. The unique topography of Dungeness has been designated as a National Nature Reserve (NNR), is home to over 600 species of plants and has one of the largest shingle landscapes in the world. Derek harnessed this with the knowledge that coastal plants thrive in shingle. Describing Derek’s garden, Kendra Wilson says, “Cotton lavender, Californian poppy and salvia would be inclined to flop in a well-tended border, but in shingle they’re stronger and tighter.”

Many gardens in the local area, like Camber Holiday Cottages’ Chandler’s Cabin on the outskirts of Rye (pictured), utilise shingle in their gardens to great effect. When it comes to planting, perennials like sea kale and sea holly which tolerates salty, windy conditions works well, as does aromatic lavender (which is a great pollinator) and drought-tolerant sedum and euphorbia.

Beth Chatto’s gravel garden in Essex is another excellent source of inspiration of the beauty and diversity that can be developed with drought-tolerant plants in a shingle garden. The garden is famed for never being watered.

An example of shingle gardening on the East Sussex coastline

Image credit: Chandler’s Cabin / Camber Holiday Cottages

Consider a rain garden

While drought-tolerant planting falls on one end of the spectrum, parts of the country are also experiencing excess rainfall.  You might even face the challenge between too much or too little rainfall. That’s where a rain garden can really help. Essentially, a rain garden collects, absorbs and filters rainwater and stormwater (mainly from impervious surfaces), so it can be slowly released back into the ground, helping control soil erosion.

Of course, not all rain gardens will be quite as spectacular as landscape designer Tom Massey and architect Je Ahn’s Water Aid garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show (pictured), which they won gold for. Although, it is a great port of call for inspiration. The incredible sculptural structure is made from lightweight rusted spiral cladding and mimics water going down a drain. The rain garden’s roof is covered in beautiful and drought- resilient plants, as plants slow down rainwater.

Je Ahn said of the garden that “all the plants were chosen to cope with varying amounts of water. They included water violet (hottonia palustris), which can indicate whether a water source is clean or polluted, and alder tree (alnus glutinosa), which has nodules on its roots that can absorb nitrogen and toxic heavy metals from the ground, improving soil health and fertility.”

The Water Aid Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2024

Image credit: Alistair Thorpe

Create walkways with tiling

If you’re planning a lawn-free garden full of interesting planting, you’re still going to need a way to enjoy it. Walkways lined with full borders are a way of being able to stroll your garden and enjoy the flowers. And you can make your pathways as modern or as rustic as you like.

Wiltshire based Artisans of Devizes specialises in natural stone flooring and luxurious tiles, and offer a range of options that would fit any property. From the Osterly Porcelain in black or white brick, the Windsor sandstone cobble or the reformed stone in sapphire blue or aqua. Zig-zagging your paths through your planting can soften the edges of the pavers and let nature and man-made mix. Another more eco-friendly option is to leave spaces between pavers for more of a stepping stone look, to let the plants grow up through.

Create walkways through your garden with planting either side

Image credit: Artisans of Devizes

Build decking to create levels

When it comes to gardening, there’s hard landscaping (any built elements) and soft landscaping (all your planting etc.). Decking is a versatile choice for hard landscaping and is a low-maintenance option for a lawn-free garden. Decks can level out sloped areas and turn your outdoor areas into a useable room.

There are two main types of decking to choose from, timber, which you’ll need to check is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified or composite. Good quality composite decking is made of recycled wood and plastic and tends to be more durable and low-maintenance.

Consider using levels in your decking as way of zoning your garden and creating different areas. Decking can work especially well with borders of soft grasses around a hot tub, swimming pool or pond and create the ideal space to sit out on in the evenings.

Use different levels of decking in your garden to add visual interest

Widen your borders

If you opt for a lawn-free garden, widening your borders will allow you to bring a lot more greenery and texture through planting. Wide borders work especially well with informal gardens that can be left wild and free. Soto Gardens does a range of full borders that you can order as a whole border (pictured), so you’ll know all the plants you’re getting work well together. Its wide options are around 1.5 metres (from front to back), and you can pick from sunny and wide, shady and wide in evergreens, whites, pet-friendly and classic.

If you’re putting your own border together, think about what soil type you have, what amount of sun or shade it gets throughout the day, and how exposed it is to the elements. Do you live in a walled garden, or do you have open expanses? Think about how wide you would like it, will it be a deep curved border running the length of the garden for example? RHS says “whatever the size, you will need to calculate its area. Use a long tape measure on a reel or pace out the measurements to find out the length and width of your border and then work out the area.”

“Knowing how many square metres (or square feet) your border contains will allow you to calculate the number of plants you need to fill it. As a general guide, aim for five herbaceous perennials, or three small shrubs, or one large shrub per square metre (11 sq ft).”

Extend your borders so they are wide and bring in greenery

Image credit: Soto Gardens

Use water as a focal point

If you’re eschewing the lawn completely, there’s plenty of space for creativity. Our want and need for our gardens to be become relaxing escapes and places for us to unwind and connect with nature more deeply are increasing, and bringing a water feature to your garden, in whatever form, can bring many positives.

Dependent on the size of your garden and how you use it, you could build a swimming pool or natural swimming pond, a pond or a water feature. Starting with a pond, which is an asset in any garden, and can act as a habitat for a variety of wildlife. Modern ponds can look more like reflection pools and add a contemporary feel to your garden. Water features are the easiest option, like Solus’ water bowls, which will bubble gently.

Use your lawn-free space to bring in a pond or swimming pool

Image credit: Ceramiche Refin

Mix your pots for planting

Ideal for smaller gardens, patios and balconies, planting in pots or containers can bring flora and fauna to your garden without the need for lawns or borders. Pots can bring colour, texture and if you’re going for a potted herb garden, a source of nourishment. Think about what type of garden you want. For example, a cottage garden or a Mediterranean look and plant accordingly.

Potted herbs look great on rustic shelves, or in huge wooden sawn-off barrel tubs. Try bright red pelargoniums in terracotta pots to be reminiscent of a cobbled Italian street, or for a cottage garden feel try sprawling verbena or fragrant sweet peas. When it comes to potting variety works best, consider everything from galvanised planters to oversized terracotta urns.

Bring in all your planting in pots for a low maintenance lawn-free garden

Image credit: Dobbies