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Artificial grass alternatives: low-maintenance, plastic-free lawn ideas that don’t cost the earth

Evening Standard Homes & Property logo Evening Standard Homes & Property 31/03/2023 George Hudson

Artificial grass has no environmental benefits. Worse, produced from chemicals, prone to overheating and sealing off soil from wildlife and plant growth, it can harm the environment, birds and even household pets.

Yet plastic grass has proliferated in London gardens as people seek out low-maintenance alternatives to gappy, water-hungry lawns. Don’t be fooled, though — as well as bad eco credentials, artificial grass is not even that low-maintenance. It needs regular vacuuming and watering to cool down in a heatwave, as well as cleaning products for smells and stains.

For a truly hassle-free lawn alternative that will have a positive environmental impact, why not try one of these five options?

They might not look perfect all the time but your garden is a part of nature. We shouldn’t resist it, or brush it under the green plastic rug.

A dirty lawn

Assuming that you’re not using your garden as a professional sports ground, rather than pursuing perfectly mown striped grass, allow your lawn to get infiltrated by selfsowing plants and the occasional weed.

This biodiversity will be more durable and will stay greener for longer in the summer, with the help of everything from daisies and dandelions to buttercups and the common plantain (not a banana relative).

Look up “lawn weeds” for a longer list — just ignore the instructions on how to kill them. Naturescape sells a range of plants and seeds that will fit the bill.

Biodiversity rating: 5/5

Woodchip and bark aren’t expensive to top up when the mulch eventually degrades; make sure you have a layer at least 10cm thick (Shutterstock / fotoknips) © Provided by Evening Standard Homes & Property Woodchip and bark aren’t expensive to top up when the mulch eventually degrades; make sure you have a layer at least 10cm thick (Shutterstock / fotoknips)

Woodchip, bark, nut husks

Woodchip and bark have a bad reputation because they are often installed on top of plastic, which often appears as the mulch degrades.

The degradation is inevitable in a natural material but it does not cost a lot to top up — and will work out cheaper than the cost of installing and maintaining artificial grass.

And on the plus side, woodchip will nourish the soil underneath it and can be planted into, so you won’t be staring at a garden full of bare mulch. Make sure you have a good layer at least 10cm thick.

Biodiversity rating: 4/5


Think back to a woodland walk and the spring in your step as you walk over hundreds of years’ worth of fallen leaves. London has a lot of trees, and each autumn a lot of leaves layered on top of each other begin to break down, much like other mulches from plant material.

This is a good solution for shady gardens, where you could plant a range of forest floor species to grow through the leaf mulch bedding. This will work best when the use of a weed-suppressing membrane is resisted.

Biodiversity rating: 4/5

Stone or gravel

A thick layer of gravel will also provide a permeable garden surface that can be planted through and is relatively clean to stand on. Depth is critical, it needs to be at least 15cm thick. On the downside, gravel can make gardening harder if you choose to remove it and it will not nourish soil like organic materials do.

Biodiversity rating: 1/5 (unless you plant a range of plants through the gravel)

A pair of garden shoes

If your main reason for considering installing artificial grass is to avoid having garden dirt trampled through your house, a cheaper and more environmentally friendly solution is to leave a pair of garden shoes by the back door, to slip on when you pop out to water or enjoy your outside space.

These can be an old pair of cast-offs or you could invest in an attractive new pair such as “super-birki” garden clogs (£55 from Birkenstock).

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