Best Trees for Tennessee

Are you considering adding a tree or trees to your lawn or landscape in the volunteer state? This list of the best trees for Tennessee will help you add a vertical dimension to your vegetation. The best tree for your landscaping needs will depend on your soil conditions and where you are in the state.

Yellow Poplar

an ant climbs out of a tulip poplar flower
Tulip poplar is highly valued for wildlife and timber values

Also called Tulip tree or tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera is the Tennessee State Tree, and it is easy to see why! It grows almost everywhere in the state. And while it is not a true poplar, it is one of the fastest growing trees for Tennessee. This is one of the tallest native hardwoods in the U.S. and is a fast growing tree. It performs best on sites that have deep, moist soil and full sun, but it is highly adaptable.

Eastern Red Cedar

eastern red cedar is one of the most common trees in Tennessee

Eastern Red Cedar is one of the most common trees found in Tennessee and across the Eastern U.S. It grows best in highly alkaline soils found in the Nashville Basin and on the Cumberland Plateau. It is an early successional species, so it is great for turning old fields into wildlife habitat. While it is not a true cedar, Juniperus virginiana is one of the best wildlife species in the Eastern U.S. This evergreen tree gets a bad reputation for showing up in unmowed lots and along fencerows, but this is due to its highly adaptable nature. This tree will grow almost anywhere, so it’s perfect for those without a green thumb who want to support wildlife habitat.

Black Willow

While weeping willow is valued for its unique aesthetic and dramatic foliage, black willow is a native willow species that doesn’t get enough credit. Unlike its short-lived Chinese cousin, the native black willow can survive for over 100 years. This tree requires very wet soil and prefers full sun, but can survive in shade. The black willow is a larval host to several species of butterfly, including viceroy and tiger swallowtail, making it ideal for rain gardens. Black willow trees have orange and red fall colors. Flowers grow only on the female trees.

White Oak

white oak is one of the best tennessee trees
Photo by K. Keel Blackman. Source:

White oak can refer to the species Quercus alba, or to a group of oaks that share some characteristics which are not found in the red oak group. While both red and white oaks are good choices to provide shade and support wildlife, white oaks tend to be preferred. When choosing trees from the oak genus Quercus, you are unlikely to find fast growing trees. What you will find is brilliant fall colors, drought tolerant trees with a heavy straight trunk. Oaks are some of the best trees in Tennessee for multiple land uses. And while they may take a few extra years to grow into their classic stately look, they pay it back with gorgeous yellow fall foliage and superb wildlife value. Other species in the white oak group include

  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata)
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana – formerly Quercus prinus)
  • Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

Southern Magnolia

southern magnolia is an interesting tree that grows well across the entire south, especially in Tennessee
The Spruce has a great growing guide for Southern Magnolia

One of the most prized native trees in the volunteer state and across the South, Magnolia grandiflora is part of the rare class of broadleaf evergreen trees (most evergreens have needles). Southern magnolia will survive as far north as Maryland, but only in areas that have relatively mild winters. It may need to be protected from frost, especially as a seedling. Magnolia grows best in lowlands and wet areas, and is happy in partial shade. It grows tall quickly and casts very deep shade. The bright white flowers give way to unique soft cones with large red seeds.

Red Maple

The most common maple species in the southeastern U.S., Acer rubrum provides some of the best fall color in the South. Red maple prefers full sun, but grows well as an understory or mid-story tree around other trees with an established canopy. They are relatively fast growing trees and are fairly disease resistant. The largest red maple in the country lives in Tennessee – in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. In addition to fall color, the red maple provides springtime interest with its bright red buds in early spring, as well as red flowers on male trees and red fruits, called samaras, on the females in April and May. Red maple is tolerant of moist or dry soils.

Best Trees Tennessee Considerations

If you’re planting trees in Tennessee, your choices will depend on where you are located. In the Mississippi gulf coastal plain and Nashville Basin, wetland species like bald cypress and river birch may be better suited. Alternately, on the Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau with steep slopes and shallower soils, the best trees may be sweet gum and red mulberry. The secret is to put the right tree in the right spot. For more localized recommendations, get in touch with an unlawning expert.

How to kill grass naturally

Looking for a natural way to remove turf from part of your property? Establishing a pollinator habitat or a garden bed means getting rid of the existing lawn. So, how can you kill grass permanently without using nasty chemicals?

Natural ways to kill grass

These three methods are sure to eliminate grass with no harsh chemicals. Which one is right depends on your situation, including how much grass you need to kill, how fast you want it to happen, and how much labor you’re willing to do.

1. Solarizing

Solarizing takes advantage of the sun’s energy to essentially cook your grass to death. In most of North America, this process takes about two weeks. In hot, sunny locations less time is needed.

How solarizing kills grass

Solarizing takes advantage of the sun’s energy, usually by covering the ground with a transparent tarp. The sun heats up the soil to extreme temperatures. This can kill turf roots, and can also be damaging to bacteria and fungi. In fact, solarizing can even destroy weed seeds and insects, leaving the area almost totally free of life for a clean-slate.

Solarizing produces steam in the soil, which can quickly reach high temperatures and damage most forms of life, killing your turf. Sandy soil can be difficult to solarize because the steam escapes more easily.

How to solarize your grass

solarizing to kill grass and nematodes in a test-plot

The first step of solarizing is to remove as much of the grass as you can. Mowing it very low is ok, but for the best results you should till and pull all the clumps you can get.

Next, water the soil deeply. Then apply the tarp or plastic. Clear painters’ plastic is the best option. Remember, you want sunlight to get in as much as possible!

The tarp should be buried along the edges to trap in heat and steam. This should also be done during the hottest part of the summer for the best effects.

Solarizing can take four weeks or longer, so be patient before removing the plastic. You may need to add water throughout the process if your area is in a dry spell.

This process will kill ALL seeds in the area. So, don’t count on an ecosystem springing to life when you pull away the plastic. You may need to add compost to replenish the biota in the soil.

2. Sheet composting

This approach takes the most labor of the three, but is also the fastest and most effective way to unturf. With this approach, your grass is smothered instead of being cooked.

How sheet composting kills grass

Sheet composting is sometimes called lasagna composting, because it is done in layers. Frequently, yard debris or tilled grass is considered the bottom layer of the lasagna, while topsoil or composted soil is added as a top layer. A barrier, such as a sheet of cardboard, is the lasagna noodle.

sheet composting used to kill grass for a landscaping project
Sheet composting a grass area.

To kill grass, sheet composting relies on the concept of smothering. Your grass should be covered by something that it cannot grow through or around. If it can’t get to sunlight, it will die. People sometimes attempt to smother grass with an opaque tarp on the soil surface, similar to solarizing. This is not effective and will not unturf your lawn.

To smother grass effectively, the barrier needs to be left in the soil. But leaving your tarp underground is probably not a great plan. Cardboard and newspaper make a decent biodegradable barrier. And that barrier will last long enough to establish new plants above it – especially with the addition of topsoil and compost.

It is also a good idea to till or disturb the grass before beginning. And you can add more soil in the second and third years.

How to sheet compost your grass

This process is fairly simple, with only three steps. For an in-depth explanation (with a video), check out How to Sheet Mulch Your Lawn.

3. Natural grass killer (liquid grass killer)

If you need a precise touch to kill grass showing up where it shouldn’t, this approach is best. Instead of using harsh chemicals to kill the unruly grass (or other weeds), use a mixture of natural products that damage the grass.

How natural chemicals work and how to use them

Different chemicals work in different ways, and some may be more potent than you expect. So, be careful and do some research before mixing anything too noxious in your lab (or kitchen).

Some common natural approaches to weed-control that you can consider include:

  • corn gluten
  • acidic natural compounds (like vinegar or citrus)
  • salt or dissolved minerals
  • extreme heat (boiling water or torches)

Organic science can get very complicated when it comes to chemical alternatives. Find something that works for you and your conditions. It can be very helpful to find local organic groups.

The best way to kill grass

Each of these three methods has its place in getting grass out of our landscape. Combine these three approaches to ensure success with any grass-removal project. The best way to kill grass is to replace it with a native ecosystem! Over time, grass will not survive where it is not competitive. So, create the conditions for native plants and they will thrive.

Shade rewilding plants

Rewilding a shady piece of land requires a planned approach. Once you remove grass from a shady area, it’s harder to get it back. You’ll want to consider plant choices and locations to ensure the best outcome. But don’t worry, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know for shade rewilding.

Why is rewilding in the shade a challenge?

Shade rewilding can be difficult because only certain species are considered shade happy plants. Any many of these are nonnative plants with limited ecological benefit.

Plants only need a few things to grow – sunlight, air, water, and nutrients (soil). The reason trees invest so many resources into a tall, thick trunk and branches is to take up as much sunlight as possible. Under the forest canopy, shade happy plants slowly spread out in a natural setting.

This slow spreading can create an additional problem when selecting shade happy plants for rewilding. Exposed soil is vulnerable to erosion, which is your worst enemy when working with land. You need something to grow quickly enough to “stabilize” the soil.

Types of shade

Before we dive into native shade happy plants, let’s look at the types of shade. Gardeners will be familiar with the distinction between “partial shade” and “full shade.” This is a subjective measure of sunlight levels in a particular spot, but it can be misleading.

Tree shade

Trees produce the shade in forests, which is the natural setting for most shade happy native plants. But the leaves creating most of the shade in the forest are translucent. Light can pass through them. So, underneath the canopy light is still reaching the ground.

worms eyeview of green trees
Full shade doesn’t mean zero sunlight. Photo by Felix Mittermeier on

The canopy will also occasionally lose a branch or a whole tree. Levels around the opening skyrocket until it can be filled by neighboring trees. Similarly, wind can cause trees to sway, giving the forest floor short, intermittent bursts of stronger sunlight. Some trees also drop their leaves for part of the year, and some shade happy plants take advantage of this by waiting to go dormant or keeping their leaves altogether.

Rewilding in the shade of a tree is going to closely resemble the natural conditions that most shade happy native plants prefer. You’ll have more options for placement and species selection in this type of shade.

Structure shade

Houses and buildings produce plenty of shade, too. And you may want to rewild the shady side of your house. This can be an extra challenge as most structures are fully opaque and permanent. The north side of your structure is similar to the north face of a steep hill in nature. In places, the only sunlight that reaches a plant has to be reflected off another surface, like the clouds or a neighbor’s house. There are plants that are happy in this insane amount of shade, too. But the list of them is short in most climates.

Structure shade has its benefits, though. Once your plants are established in an extremely shady spot, they should need virtually zero maintenance. And because your structure has a clear outline that does not sway, you can easily predict how much sunlight your plants will get, depending on the time of year. No guesswork needed.

Important characteristics of shade for rewilding

Shade affects your water levels

Some plants are both shade happy and “mesic.” Meaning they don’t mind standing water on their roots for part of the year. This can be important, because shady spots are going to hold water in the soil much longer than sunny places. If your plants are susceptible to drowning or root rot, a shady place that tends to get muddy will invite diseases.

rewilding created shade here. The only plants growing in this field are both shade and water loving.
Shade and moisture on a dirt road can cause major mud problems

Why does shade affect water?

The energy from sunlight makes water evaporate quickly. Without that energy, water will either flow over the soil, flow through the soil, or pool on top. If you have land that doesn’t naturally allow water to flow over the soil, adding drainage used to be the norm. But drainage is environmentally damaging and has a negative impact on stormwater control and flooding.

So, what makes the difference between water flowing through the soil rather than sitting on top of it where it creates a muddy mess? It’s plants.

Plants create a flow of water through the soil through photosynthesis. They need 6 water molecules to go with their 6 carbon dioxide molecules to make sugar. Where do they get these water molecules? They pull it up from the soil through their roots. Which also happens to bring along nutrients that are dissolved in the water.

Mitigating wet shade

So, in tree shade you are more likely to find dry sites, while structure shade is more likely to be wet. This is extremely general, and “dry” or “wet” depends on many factors. But there are things you can do to dry out your wet spots in the shade. Increase your soil’s ability to hold and move water by adding organic matter like mulch or plants that self-mulch. If you are working with a grass lawn in clay, you could aerate the soil (when it’s dry). Taller plants will allow water to flow more quickly, and plants with deep roots will allow better infiltration into the soil.

Besides plant selection and soil amendments, your other option is to change the shape of the land. You should NOT add drainage unless the water is threatening a structure or road. If you feel that you must change the shape of the wet area, do so by adding a rain garden or a swale. These structures will contain the excess water, similar to the purpose of a retention pond. But they have the added benefit of being potentially excellent plant and wildlife habitat. Adding native habitat has lots of other benefits as well.

Shade affects temperature

The sun’s energy that evaporates water also raises the temperature of the air. Without it, shady spots stay cool after the sun rises. On hot days, this represents shelter from searing temperatures. On colder days, it can mean death by freezing. Plants from a hardier zone might do well in your shady spots. This effect is compounded if you have wet shade. The moisture in the soil evaporates on hot days, cooling the ground like sweat. It also retains cold during freezes better than dry soil, which can kill roots.

Shade affects animal behavior

Shade is closely associated with “cover” in biology. Cover refers to basically anything that is over top of the thing being covered. Cover can be from predators, sunlight, rain, or a number of other things. Shade is one aspect of cover that is used by certain species.

Animals use shade for sleeping during the day, but also for sneaking up on prey. Shade is also useful for hiding a nest or offspring, but physical cover is more important for those things. Food like nuts and berries grow in the shade, and some leaves and shoots are edible. Generally, there is less to eat in the shade than in the sun because there is less sunlight energy to convert into sugar. Shade makes gardening difficult for this reason.

pink flower field
You can still attract pollinators in the shade. Photo by Pixabay on

Shade affects aesthetics

The design of a landscape has to match the nature of the things that are in it. Shade may make up most of your property now or in the future as trees grow. What effect will that have on how your landscape represents you and your home?

For animals, the shade is a place for nesting and resting, and sometimes stalking and sneaking. That sounds like a recipe for great bird photographs to me. For other people, it might make you look reclusive or lazy, or even hostile. We definitely want to avoid upsetting the neighbors.

The tried and semi-true method of appeasing the neighborhood is to add a tasteful level of garden kitsch. Some neighbors will be even more appalled at your landscaping choice, though, if you add glass orbs and gnomes.

The more recently thought-of gesture of neighborliness that is gaining traction these days is official signage. Obtaining a wildlife habitat certification for your yard is pretty easy.

Working with shade for good aesthetics

It all comes down to what message you want to send to your neighbors about this place and who lives there. So, if your place is naturally shady, make sure it is also inviting. That could mean signs, paths, or flower beds. Shady places are naturally quiet. Things move slowly in the shade. Make your shade an opportunity to slow down and take refuge from the busy day. If you slow down, you will start to see incredible things. With the help of shade happy native plants, you will discover a new world of insects, birds, and other wildlife.

Take advantage of spots of brightness for contrast. And combat overgrowth if it starts to detract from the ecological value. For example, vines may completely cover a tree, preventing all sunlight from reaching the ground and damaging or killing the tree. Or a shrub may produce fewer berries over time and need pruning.

Shade happy rewilding plants

With ALL that information in mind, let’s talk about plants. In our plant selection we need to account for

  • Light level
  • Hardiness Zone (temperatures)
  • Water level
  • Drainage
  • Soil pH
  • Nutrients in the soil
  • Aesthetics
  • Plant maintenance & rate of spread
  • Cost

That’s quite a few variables! Luckily, if you start by restricting your search to only shade happy plants that are native to your region or close to it, you can produce a fairly short list. Check it against these variables to find a plant match for your shady spot. There are lots of native plant databases online. But sadly, none of them are set up for this kind of research. However, nurseries like Prairie Nursery in Westfield, WI have excellent regional information that is well organized.

Example of shade rewilding

Let’s do an example – the north side of my house. It happens to be a short, steep hill and it used to just have some grass growing on it.

  • Light level – extremely low. The north side of a hill and a structure.
  • Hardiness Zone – 7a
  • Water level – fairly low (for the area) due to quick drainage and the house uphill diverting most rainfall around this area.
  • Drainage – the steep slope lets water from short storms run off quickly. But frequent rain will soak the clay soil which takes a long time to dry in the shade
  • Soil pH – slightly alkaline
  • Nutrients in the soil – poor
  • aesthetics – the area is hidden almost completely from view from the street and our house. It is right next to the main entrance to the neighbors’ house.
  • plant maintenance and rate of spread – Erosion must be prevented, but I would prefer not to have to work on the steep hillside every year
  • cost – we aren’t going to invest in a big project here, where we won’t easily be able to see it. But we also don’t want something ugly where our neighbors have to look at it.

We left the grass on the hill. With limited sunlight and water, it grows very slowly. I mow part in the summer to keep it from getting onto the neighbor’s driveway. We planted coral bells, which are native to most of the eastern U.S., in the grass in groups. A few of them died of sunburns in the summer near the edges of the shade. We replaced these with columbines.

Example outcome

Grass isn’t suited to this spot, so it’s slowly dying off. But it’s holding the soil in place and mulching the ground while the coral bells and columbines spread their seeds across the hillside. Under the taller grass, mosses are growing since we stopped mowing.

Aesthetically, both of the added native plants produce beautiful blooms that attract pollinators. They leave tufts of stalks in the winter where insect larvae hide from predators. The hillside wasn’t useful as a lawn before. It just looked barren against the brick of the house. Now, it fills up with butterflies and bees, especially on hot days.

How to find shade happy native plants for your yard

The easiest way to find plants for your shade rewilding project is to visit a native plant nursery website like Direct Native Plants. Then all you need to do is create conditions for your native plants to thrive and spread. You may find that a species just doesn’t like your yard. That’s OK, try different native plant species until you have a healthy and stable mix of perennials. Don’t forget that you can always add understory trees and shrubs to shady spots, too.

How to create an eco friendly lawn

Creating an eco friendly lawn is definitely easier said than done. And a lot of different options are out there. So how can you make your lawn environmentally friendly?

How can you have an eco friendly lawn?

There are three strategies for making a lawn environmentally friendly.

  1. Reduce the need to mow, use pesticides, and water
  2. Shrink the size of the lawn and replace it with something else
  3. Do both of these at once

Reducing lawn maintenance

Mowing your lawn is a requirement for keeping grass healthy. But many homeowners choose to mow much more than is necessary. This keeps their lawn looking nice and tidy, and makes mowing easier. Mowing less often without changing anything else could be a frustrating strategy.

To reduce the amount of maintenance your lawn needs, you need to change how your lawn grows. If you water less and don’t fertilize, you can probably mow less. But your grass might be brown in August.

high angle view of lying down on an eco friendly lawn
Photo by Pixabay on An eco friendly lawn might have some weeds

What about the extreme of mowing schedules? You could mow just once a year. If you time it correctly for your climate and the type of grass you have, it could work. You would have a meadow instead of a lawn. Maybe try this strategy on a small part of the lawn before you commit to the whole thing.

Another way to reduce your lawn’s need for maintenance is to change the ground cover. There are lawn replacement seed mixes available for homeowners who want to have a grassy lawn with a low maintenance need.

Shrinking the lawn

The ecological problem of lawns is really just that they take up a LOT of space. If every square foot of lawn needs maintenance, why not just get rid of some? Some people replace their lawn with hardscaping. Things like paths, walls, patios, and rocks. Or, you could add a waterfall, stream, or pond. But these are all fairly large design projects.

Increasing your lawn’s ecological benefits

If you want to have the biggest impact by shrinking your lawn, you should think about what will replace it. Reducing the amount of lawn you had to maintain is great, but replacing your lawn with native plants is even better. Creating habitat where you used to have lawn tips the scale back toward a healthy ecosystem. Part of your lawn could become habitat for pollinators, birds, and other local wildlife.

Monarch butterfly enjoys native pollinator habitat
This garden brings in plenty of pollinators, including monarchs. Milkweed is the most important plant to support monarch reproduction

How to add habitat to your lawn

Adding a pollinator habitat area to your lawn is an easy way to cut down on mowing. It’s simple, too. You just need a few good native pollinator plants like bee balm, milkweed, and wild blue indigo – the more variety the better. Then, mark out an area in your lawn, as small as a few square feet, to be your pollinator habitat. Plant your native pollinator plants right in among the grass, but pull the grass away from them 2 to 3 inches. Now, lay cardboard or newspaper over all the grass, leaving gaps for your pollinator plants. Lastly, add some mulch for aesthetics and water everything thoroughly.

Once you establish your pollinator garden this way, the mulch and cardboard will turn into soil. You can then add a native ground cover to fill in the gaps between your pollinator plants. Ground cover gives winter interest and makes the border between your lawn and your pollinator habitat look smooth and natural.

Creating a wildlife habitat for birds and mammals is easy too. The pollinators are a great source of food for birds, they just need some nearby native trees or shrubs. The denser it is, the more likely you’ll get nests. Wildlife need water, food, and shelter. So, add some water sources, dense native shrubs, and herbaceous plants like native forbs that will attract insects and can be eaten or produce fruit.

Shrinking the lawn can backfire

The primary ecological benefits from your lawn are that it prevents erosion and is better than concrete. It allows water to penetrate soil, kinda. And it photosynthesizes, kinda. It also contributes less than concrete to urban heat islands.

So, when a lawn is removed, there should be a plan in place. Without a ground cover, the soil could erode. If the plants replacing the lawn can’t survive without constant watering, does nature benefit more than it pays?

Erosion is hard to control near streams, especially on trails

You want your lawn to be eco friendly, and you want to avoid unnecessary risks. Unlawning is a way to enhance your lawn’s ecological benefits without letting it go completely feral.

Doing both: the eco friendly lawn combo

Replacing your whole lawn with a no-mow seed mix or a xeriscape is NOT necessarily an effective way to boost your lawn’s natural benefits. Instead, you need to think about the defining characteristics of your lawn and what those mean in nature. Then, use those characteristics to tailor your maintenance and the size of your lawn.

Characteristics of your lawn

To understand your lawn and it’s effects on nature, you need to know a few things about it. Does it retain water and get muddy? Or is it fast draining and prone to droughts? Is it shady or sunny? What planting zone are you in? Are parts of it flat? Are certain parts of it perfect for the kids to play or for socializing with friends?

Decide which parts of your lawn are most useful to you. These are places that you could continue to water, mow, and even fertilize responsibly. Places that are annoying to mow, like steep hills or muddy spots, probably don’t need the same level of care. Especially since they also make poor play areas for kids and can’t be used for barbecuing or yard games.

These problem areas are perfect for creating habitat. If your lawn backs up to a stream or woodland, adding habitat to the edge of that natural area has huge ecological benefits. If not, native pollinator habitat is useful anywhere.

Manipulating your lawn’s characteristics for ecological gain

Those characteristics we talked about (water level, light level, and terrain shape) can be changed. Adding woody plants (trees and shrubs) will add shade, which means less mowing and watering. Our unlawning guide further explains how layers of vegetation work together.

Creating a depression to act as a rain garden can prevent muddy grass nearby. Mowing on a steep slope is dangerous and irritating. So, reduce mowing to once or twice a year to create a meadow. Don’t worry too much about seed mixes for this, as your soil is probably already chock-full of wildflower seeds just waiting on the right conditions to sprout. Still, it never hurts to add a handful of native group plantings.

a monarch butterfly emerges from its chrysalis near an eco friendly lawn
We swapped part of our lawn for eco friendly pollinator habitat. Within a year we got to watch a monarch leave its chrysalis.

Designing the eco friendly lawn

When taking the approach of combining reduced maintenance with a shrunken lawn, you don’t want to neglect aesthetics. The last thing you want is a sprawling thicket blocking the view of your house and offending your neighbors.

If you decide to shrink your lawn by replacing it with native habitat, your house will start to look different. You’ll have taller vegetation, more shade, and maybe some trees or shrubs that reduce the visibility onto your land. You’ll also have wildlife hiding in that reduced visibility, munching on leaves or insects. Some neighbors may view this as less beautiful, or even ugly.

While you can’t please everyone, you can at least make your new habitat look intentional and inviting. Signs, pathways into the habitat, and borders around it are good tactics to manage your neighborhood relationships.

a wildlife habitat certification in an eco friendly lawn
Adding wildlife habitat will help make your lawn eco friendly

How is this doing both? Won’t I still have to spend a lot of time and resources on yard work?

Sure, you could just replace your lawn with something eco friendly without changing its size. That would reduce the harm your lawn causes – great! And you could continue to manage it with just mowing. If you add habitat, you aren’t sure what kind of maintenance it will need, how much it will cost, or how it will look when complete.

Instead, start small. Pick a small area of your lawn to restore as habitat each year. If you focus on one project at a time, you can easily test new ideas, manage your budget, and get rid of things you don’t like before they become overwhelming. This approach lets you get to know your land and your plants gradually, while slowly inviting nature back into your space. By taking your time, you’ll notice more of the small things that happen, like seeing a new kind of bird or butterfly for the first time, or finding out that the fruit of one of your plants is edible (and tasty).

You’ll find out that this approach to lawn maintenance, just getting to know your land, is meditative and restorative, rather than stressful. There is very little that needs to be done once your habitat is established. If you have problems with invasive plants, you can take two approaches. One; spend an afternoon or two every month cutting them back. Or two; spend a whole day or two every year pulling them out by the root.

lawn gardening tools in pot near gloves
Manage small things with small tools. Photo by Gary Barnes on

Many native plants can be found for fairly cheap from native plant nurseries. Or sometimes for free from native gardening groups. Plus, because they are well suited to grow here (since they’re from here), many will naturally seed the area and spread out quickly without any need to water or fertilize.

The key to an eco friendly lawn

There are a lot of ways to increase the ecological benefits of your lawn, but there’s only one key to all of them. You have to make space for nature in your life. The space your lawn takes up used to be wildlife habitat. Now that we are entering the Earth’s 6th mass extinction, wildlife need that space more than ever. Inviting nature to come into your lawn and your life a few square feet at a time is a way to personally coexist with nature and take part in healing the Earth. Every square foot counts, so start small and keep an open mind.

5 Eco-friendly high traffic lawn replacement options

As the unlawning movement grows, homeowners are looking for an alternative to grass that can handle some foot traffic. Finding an eco-friendly high traffic lawn replacement can be a challenge. And it takes some creativity to reinvent your lawn. We’ll walk you through 5 unlawning options that work for different conditions so you can find what’s right for your lawn.

Best eco-friendly lawn replacements for high traffic areas

These ground cover options are eco-friendly replacements for grass in lawns that experience high traffic. As you look through the list, keep in mind that you will want to choose one that works for your zone, conditions, and daily needs.

1. Clover


A clover lawn looks and behaves very similar to a grass lawn. But clover is more eco-friendly than grass. The blooms will attract pollinators, especially bees. And clover is edible for wildlife! Humans can also eat small amounts of clover and it is even considered medicinal. Clover can be mixed with a grass lawn to support high traffic. But a pure clover lawn can handle low and medium traffic. For lower traffic areas, mixing clover with wild strawberries will maximize the benefit to wildlife and pollinators.

2. Buffalo grass

buffalo grass is an eco-friendly grass lawn alternative

If you really love the look and feel of grass, consider switching to native Buffalo Grass. In a high traffic area, wildflowers and other “weeds” will struggle to compete with this native grass. And buffalo grass can withstand frequent trampling, like most grasses. Buffalo grass is eco-friendly in that it doesn’t require much water, fertilizer, or mowing (just a few times a year). And if you let it to grow tall, it will flower and attract native pollinators and caterpillars.

3. Moss

moss is an eco-friendly grass alternative
Photo by Nejc Košir on

For those shady areas where grass doesn’t thrive, moss may be the best option. Mosses come in many varieties which are suited to different parts of the county. But generally they like moisture and shade, though they can adapt sometimes to sunlight. Many mosses can handle moderate traffic once established. And moss is great for controlling erosion on shady hills and near streams. Plus, it never needs to be mowed and doesn’t require much maintenance, except watering during droughts. Moss can restore damaged soil, too.

4. Dichondra

Source: Christian Curtis via YouTube

If you live near the coast, eco-friendly dichondra lawns were probably popular in the 70’s and 80’s in your neighborhood. But they’ve fallen out of favor along with creativity in landscaping. Still, dichondra makes for a lush carpet requiring much less maintenance and water than grass. Dichondra can handle moderate traffic, especially when combined with other ground covers. Some dichondra species are native to the U.S. This makes them much better for local insects and pollinators than the Australian or Asian species.

5. Hard pathways

cute siblings walking on pathway in garden
Photo by Allan Mas on

If you’re going for an intentional and clean look somewhere that gets extremely high foot traffic, it may be worthwhile to harden up a pathway. Mulch, gravel, pavers, or stones make an attractive and sustainable surface for a designated walkway. If your lawn gets high traffic and you’re hoping for an eco-friendly alternative, the best strategy is to concentrate that traffic on a pathway. Then, plants can grow around it without being trampled. Your plants will have the biggest ecological impact if they can grow to their natural shape. You can have a truly eco-friendly high traffic lawn replacement by following our unlawning guide and incorporating pathways in your design.

Eco-friendly high traffic lawn replacements: a simple solution for a low maintenance lawn

For every-season appeal and a highly resilient landscape, combine these strategies. These lawn alternatives may thrive in different parts of your lawn or at different times of year. Diversity is key to a healthy ecosystem, and your lawn is part of ours!