Low Input, High Impact Landscapes

Lawn alternatives for water management, eco-benefit, and beauty.

By Jeff Lorenz
From the June 2024 Issue


As a landscape design-build entering its tenth season, we (like you) are adept at spotting trends. In the beginning, the majority of prospective clients were not driven by an interest in native plants or our company’s mission to restore functional, resilient, and beautiful habitat to neighborhoods. Whether they were attracted by our naturalistic design aesthetic or referred by a neighbor, few were approaching us with concerns about climate change or declining pollinators.

By summer 2020, the world had slowed down with both public and private green spaces feeling optimistically therapeutic in a time of great uncertainty. People everywhere found restorative solace in nature or by gardening in ways that welcomed home Nature, and her reassuring cycles of renewal. With many homeowners no longer commuting to static indoor spaces, we instead walked and gathered in green spaces that felt newly alive, dynamic, and a source of connection. Perspectives shifted and clients’ tastes pivoted toward landscapes that were vibrant, immersive, and ecologically driven.

Low Input, High Impact Landscapes

Four years later, 75% of new clients now pitch to us the very mission we started with back in 2015: less static lawn, more wildlife, and more biodiverse native plants.

landscape design-build, lawn alternatives
AFTER. This lakefront Asbury Park, NJ transformation replaced the steeply sloping rear lawn with a drought tolerant coastal habitat garden that complements the cottage’s minimalist exterior with lush airy texture, color, and form. (Photos: Kayla Fell/Refugia Design-Build)

Low Input, High Impact

Our approach as ecological designers is focused on high impact, low input landscapes that showcase function, beauty, and resilience without neglecting aesthetics or style. And while our service area is not experiencing the same water crisis as other regions, water — and its management — is still a prevalent part of this design approach. In fact, chemical runoff is the biggest problem affecting watersheds in our New Jersey service areas.

Capturing such runoff, filtering it, and sending it back into aquifers is a key component of any functionally designed landscape today. A 2023 New York Times study reported that 45% of some 80,000 groundwater wells surveyed nationwide showed a statistically significant decline in water levels since 1940. Four in ten of the wells have hit record-low levels in the past decade. This is no longer an issue isolated to agriculture-heavy areas.

So how do we accomplish this? My first question on a sales visit is often, “How much lawn do you need?” Reducing traditional turfgrass is the single most impactful decision a homeowner can make. Lawns use an eye popping nine billion gallons of water nationwide per day. When we reduce or replace lawn, we also drastically reduce runoff from fertilizers and pesticides. By shifting from a monoculture lawn to a meadow-inspired habitat incorporating densely layered perennials, we put plants to work.

landscape design-build, lawn alternatives
These art collector homeowners struggled to find a design-build company that was equally thoughtful about function and aesthetics. By limiting the native plant palette, the foundation planting now offers subtle variations in form and texture befitting this contemporary home’s minimalist design. (Photo: Kayla Fell/Refugia Design-Build)


This approach naturally influences our seasonal tasks. We no longer push extensive Fall clean-ups for example; instead we talk to the homeowner about the garden’s role in providing nesting habitat, shelter, and forage through Winter. We leave the duff layer in the beds while seedheads and grasses are left standing until Spring.

As a traditional landscaper in the late 90’s, I spent most of my time expending energy and resources (planting and swapping out seasonal annuals, routine fertilizing and chemical applications, removing evidence of nature’s processes). Now our approach is to plant wisely and do way less, so that the garden can do more.

By increasing vegetative cover in garden beds for example, we reduce open mulch and allow native plantings to shade out and out-compete undesirable weeds and invasives. This less combative relationship collaborating with (rather than against) Nature is ultimately more rewarding both for my team and the homeowner.

Transformation Tips

Irrigate less! Sedge more! As mentioned, lawns use billions of gallons of water nationwide per day. Replacing traditional lawn with drought tolerant native sedges, for example, makes irrigation redundant; this is key in areas often under “drought watch” in Summer. We utilize carexes like Carex pensylvanica & leavenworthii that we will preferably plug in the Fall. During recent trials at Delaware’s Mt. Cuba Center, wood’s sedge (Carex woodii) was the best performing sedge lawn alternative for the Mid-Atlantic; it tolerates moderate foot traffic and is great for families with kids.

Aside from occasional hand weeding and supplemental Summer watering during its first season, these carex are extremely low maintenance with just an annual Fall haircut to encourage growth. These are a great option for homeowners who want the open feel of a lawn without the upkeep.

landscape design-build, lawn alternatives
This is my home, so-called the ‘Narberth Living Landscape’ and often used as a show garden for Refugia. In place of lawn, we layered deep-rooted perennials and grasses to create successive interest and a feeling of woodland density while integrating a permeable driveway to manage stormwater and frequent flooding. (Photo: Kayla Fell/Refugia Design-Build)


Turn “run-off” into run-on. Managing stormwater runoff is one of the more common issues presented by homeowners. Frequently, a neighbor’s construction, during which woodland is clearcut and replaced with turfgrass, means the adjacent homeowner becomes a sitting duck for all stormwater. This can create unsightly gulleys, areas of standing water, or even previously unheard of flooding in the home.

During initial site visits I will often look for areas that have been carved out by runoff to tell me where the water wants to go. These same areas we look to replace with plantings by expanding existing beds or installing new ones around downspouts. Deep rooted grasses such as Panicum virgatum are favorites due to their unrivaled ability to slow, spread, and absorb runoff. The roots of switchgrass can be three times the size of the plant aboveground, making it a stormwater superstar for absorbing runoff.

Water-Wise Landscapes

5 steps to designing landscapes that work with natural flow to conserve water. Read more…

By contrast, the shallow root system of turfgrass has very little absorption quality. My own home with pre-existing lawn did such a poor job that we had an unofficial skating rink in the street out front for much of Winter. Great for the kids; not so much for everyone else! By replacing our lawn with densely planted perennials and grasses and integrating permeable hardscaping, we no longer have an issue with street flooding. Switchgrass is doubly impactful due to its ability to help filter petroleum-based pollutants. Pro tip: create a filter strip perimeter in a landscape to catch run-off from a driveway or street.

Replace tricky mowing areas with low mow. Many garden perimeters in our suburban neighborhood are grassy slopes that can be difficult to maintain for any lawn crew. For homeowners looking for a cost effective, low mow alternative, we’ve had great success with fine fescue mixes (creeping red fescue, chewing fescue, and hard fescue) that mature into a lovely cascading silhouette. One such corner property that replaced its entire lawn with a gorgeous drought tolerant fine fescue left other neighbors scratching their heads all Summer long: what was the homeowner’s secret and where was the sprinkler system? In truth, like the carexes, this combo requires just an annual haircut and otherwise offers a relaxed alternative to traditional turfgrass and its upkeep.

Extending outdoor living spaces. The renewed interest in entertaining and meeting with friends and family at home means homeowners want to explore more options for gathering and green spaces that feel more immersive. As a full-service design build, our firm already had experience creating immersive outdoor spaces for specialty projects, but increasingly nearly every new inquiry or design opportunity includes either a sitting area, patio, deck, pathways, or sanctuary space. To date, it is rare to work on a project that does not have an immersive element in the design that invites closer interaction with Nature as desired by the client.

Commercial messaging. Pitching a landscape that looks different from competitors can pay dividends to a retail or commercial business that wants to stand out. Small businesses are increasingly seeking to demonstrate sustainable best practices to concerned consumers and replacing lawn with vibrant all-season plant communities does just that.

landscape design-build, lawn alternatives
Situated on a busy commercial corridor, this productive plant community is already thriving one year post-install; offering a breath of fresh air to commuters and wildlife alike while at the same time providing all-season interest for this elegant Art Deco building. (Photo: Kayla Fell/Refugia Design-Build)


Our 2022 transformation of Boyds of Philadelphia is located on a busy commuter corridor awash with traditional commercial landscaping. The owners wanted to maximize the property’s square footage with an immersive, eye-catching design that was also environmentally responsible. Airy, structural grasses (Panicum virgatum, Schizachyrium scoparium, Andropogon ternarius, Bouteloua gracilis) alongside perennial form and color (Anaphalis margaritacea, Rudbeckia maxima, Vernonia glauca, Amsonia hubrichtii, Opuntia humifusa) has effortlessly transformed a static, unproductive roadside bed into a thriving, low maintenance refuge.

Pockets of habitat connectivity like this one offer essential ecological resources to declining wildlife in urban areas. The spaces between buildings can become more important than the buildings themselves. Utilized wisely, these spaces in between can offer us beauty, resilience, breath, and function. They can remind us of greater expanses of Nature in which we feel both grounded and spacious.

And by making these green spaces functional, biodiverse habitats with way more plants, our public, private, and commercial spaces demonstrate the importance of connectivity and hospitality for all living things, big and small.

Click through the gallery below to see more examples of Low Input, High Impact Landscapes.

Low Input, High Impact Landscapes, Jeff Lorenz, Founder, Refugia Design-BuildAs founder of Refugia Design-Build in Greater Philadelphia, Lorenz combines his decades of experience in landscape design with a desire for innovation. His sensibility is for immersive outdoor sanctuary spaces that seek to co-exist with, rather than control Nature. Lorenz is the creative thinker behind Refugia’s mission, methodology, and its Ecological Greenway Network and truly believes that ‘putting plants to work’ is the only way forward. Award-winning exhibitors at the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show and recipient of local, national, and international design awards from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, American Society of Landscape Architects, and the Perennial Plant Association; Refugia addresses climate change and loss of biodiversity through landscapes that are resilient, beneficial, and beautiful. 

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at cmenapace@groupc.com.


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