Lawns are a matter of debate in America – maybe not as much as guns or deflated footballs, but still big.

Some people hate them, arguing that they are monoculture with no blossoms for pollinators, and that they require too much water, too many chemicals to keep the weeds down and too much time to mow. For others, nothing is more beautiful than the clean sweep of green grass, setting off the house and providing a place for sitting, walking and play.

Not to be wishy-washy, but I agree with both sides of that debate. I like our lawn, and I like it small, serving mostly as a wide path to our flower beds.

Before deciding to shrink your lawn, examine how you use it. If people are regularly playing Wiffle ball, badminton or croquet, you want a substantial patch of grass. But if more than half of the time you spend on the lawn goes to mowing, raking and other maintenance, it’s time to look for an alternative.

That alternative could be anything from pavement to petunias, depending on how involved you want to be.

If you have time, enjoy spending that time in the garden and want to replace lawn that is in a sunny location, plant vegetables. The reward is healthy, tasty fresh food that might (stress might) save you a little money. But it will take time to plant, tend and harvest. If it’s labor rather than love, vegetables may not be your best option. The weeds will get away from you, and you won’t get the peas and strawberries picked when they should be. (For a story on vegetable love rather than labor, see “When thumbs turn seriously green.”)

Assuming you’ve rejected the vegetable garden, the first question is where to eliminate the lawn. The answer will come from the lawn itself. Eliminate it where it isn’t growing well or it is difficult to mow.

If the lawn isn’t doing well, the problem is probably lack of sun. Many plants grow well in shade, ranging from shrubs such as rhododendrons and clethra to ground covers such as sweet woodruff and lily of the valley. Hosta and daylilies are great shade perennials. And if you would like a large sweep of green, similar to grass but taller, plant ferns.

The toughest place to grow anything is under trees. Not only do the leaves block the sun, but the tree roots often rise above the surface to prevent anything else from taking root.

One plant that does well is violets. They are wild, and some people consider them a weed, but they produce copious blue, white and sometimes yellow or pink flowers throughout the spring. At our house they are creeping into the lawn, and my wife and I don’t mind the look even later in the season when they have stopped blooming.

We also have some Canadian mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) growing under a red maple in our yard, and while it does not make a huge statement, it does thrive.

Another plant that works well under trees is ginger, and either the native or the European version will work. Sorry, these plants don’t produce the ginger root you can use in your kitchen.

Places with steep slopes where it is difficult to mow require plants with deep roots, partly to hold the soil in place. Many ornamental grasses work on slopes as will polemonium, or Jacob’s ladder, and prairie plants such as echinacea, rudbeckia and liatris.

If you’ve replaced the grass from all the places it doesn’t grow well and you still think you have too much lawn, plant pollinator plants. This is trendy now, but that’s no reason not to do it. Honeybees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators are in trouble. And not only can you feel good about yourself because you’re helping the environment, you get a beautiful garden, too. The reason these flowers attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds is because they are colorful and smell good. And you know, that’s what most gardeners like, too!

In the past few weeks I’ve received information on pollinator plants while shopping at Broadway Gardens and Skillins and in the mail from Burpee and Renee’s Garden Seeds; clearly, there’s no dearth of places to go for information about what to plant.

But I suggest you plant some Asclepias tuberosa, or butterfly milkweed, because it is what the monarch butterflies need. Plant rudbeckia, aka black-eyed Susan, because it’s beautiful, bees love it, and you can’t kill it. Plant asters, sunflowers, coreopsis, lupine, foxglove and more.

While I’ve provided many alternatives to lawn, you might ask: “What if I want to walk on the plants?”

We have some of those, too. Shai Levite of Sabra Property Care recently gave me a tour of the meditation garden at Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland. It includes taller plants at the edges and short plants elsewhere.

Two national companies – Stepables and Jeepers Creepers – specialize in walkable plants, and great examples include creeping thyme, some low-growing sedum, ajuga, catmint and barren strawberries. You can come up with your own walkable plants by transplanting violets, johnny-jump-ups, creeping veronica and other plants you might already have in your gardens.

You wouldn’t want walkable plants for croquet or badminton, but they will work nicely for the occasional stroll – and they aren’t much rougher on the feet than the browned-out grass on the greens where golf’s U.S. Open was held a couple of weeks ago. You know low-maintenance lawns are in when a national golf tournament takes place on brown grass.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]

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