Gardens - Small Gardens

Minimize your lawn and maximize your garden

By
Lorraine Flanigan
Photography by
Nancy Goldman

Why replacing your lawn with a garden can make perfect sense

Not so long ago, turfing out the lawn to make room for a garden filled with flowers, native plants or groundcovers would have raised eyebrows in the neighbourhood. Now, it’s much more common, especially among small-space gardeners who are weighing the benefits of enjoying a colourful, functional and interesting, but modest, garden against the maintenance demands of grass that requires a constant regimen of watering, fertilizing and mowing.

Also, lawns often become patchy under the shade of trees, brown out during droughts and get trampled underfoot with heavy traffic, making them unattractive even at the height of the season when many flowering plants are looking their best. And, on many urban lots, access to a backyard lawn may be limited by a side laneway too narrow for the mower – or worse, there could be no entry except through the house – and sheds for storing the mower, lawn sprinkler and bulky bags of fertilizer take up precious room.

Even on the smallest properties, reclaiming the space taken up by a lawn can create exciting new possibilities. Here are a few ideas for turning turf into garden:

  • Transform a sunny patch of lawn into an ornamental kitchen garden filled with vegetables, herbs and fruits
  • Build a patio large enough for a bistro set and plenty of containers filled with colourful annuals
  • Place an ornamental fountain in the middle of a shallow pool edged in stone and surrounded by a groundcover of periwinkle or lamium
  • Make a backyard paradise with potted palms and tropical plants grown in planter boxes
  • Create a Zen-like gravel garden rimmed with lush ferns and hostas
  • Train flowering vines up a pergola-covered deck or patio
  • Design a Mediterranean courtyard with a colourful tiled floor, brightly painted trellises, pots of rosemary, sage and thyme and beds of lavender and succulents
  • Plant a natural garden of natives or wildflowers
  • Create a fun play area by resurfacing the lawn with colourful, resilient, recycled tire chips
  • Plant a low-maintenance, fragrant chamomile or thyme lawn


Getting rid of lawn isn’t as daunting as it might appear. Grass smothers easily, and new beds and hardscape areas can be created with some simple preparation. The sand and screenings required to lay a good foundation for patios and stone walkways is usually sufficient to kill any grass growing beneath it. But, under pathways made of pea gravel or wood chips, first, cover the turf with landscape cloth to prevent stray clumps of grass from growing through the mulch. For a quick, no-dig method for building flower beds over grass, see Easy new flower beds. This step-by-step method can be done in the fall or early spring, and beds can be ready for planting within 60 days.

But, converting grass to garden doesn’t have to mean banishing the lawn entirely. Covet a tiny scrap or two by making it into a grassy footstool; create a checkerboard patio by alternating pavers with patches of turf; or, just keep your lawn in a cupboard drawer, like the bright-coloured one at top.

SmallTalk offers big ideas to help you make the most of your garden, from balconies and townhouses to rooftops and modest backyards. Lorraine Flanigan is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for gardening. You can read her personal gardening journal at City Gardening.

Read more in Gardens and Small Gardens

  • Page 1: Turf your yard

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