Lawn Alternatives

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension


Pamlico County

As the owner of a densely wooded or overgrown lot, or one only partially cleared, you may be considering alternatives to bush hogging, taking out trees, shredding stumps, grading, improving the soil, and planting grass. Perhaps you’re wondering if there is an alternative to the time and expense of maintaining a formal lawn, without appearing too lazy to do something about that jungle!

You’re in the right place. Pamlico County is one of North Carolina’s most favorable environments for an alternative to the traditional lawn. The first thing you need to do is take stock of botanical treasures you may already possess.

North Carolina’s Cooperative Extension Service makes available several publications that list trees, shrubs and other plants you’re likely to encounter on an acre or less of uncleared land in Pamlico County. These publications direct you to State University websites such as and other sources that provide enormous quantities of detailed and colorful information. Two Extension Service publications that will get you thinking and exploring are Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants and Managing Backyards and Other Urban Habitats for Birds, both published by N.C. State University in 2002. You may be fortunate to already have a “natural garden” you would like to expand or enhance. It would be difficult to find a better starting place than The Natural Gardens of North Carolina (B.W. Wells, University of North Carolina Press, revised edition, 2002). Wells, a pioneer in the field of ecology, was professor and chair of the Department of Botany at N.C. State College from 1919 to 1949. This revised edition of his classic text includes 64 line drawings and 40 color prints, identifying many plants you’re likely to encounter in Pamlico County. Another readily available and beautifully illustrated reference is Gardening with Native Plants of the South (Sally Wasowski, Taylor Trade Publishing, paperback edition, 2010).

What might you find already growing on that lot of yours? Pine trees for sure. Sweetgum, almost guaranteed. You’re likely to encounter varieties of oak, maple, holly and lots of Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana). If you’re lucky, there’s a Live Oak or two (Quercus virginiana) hidden on the premises. If you own an uncleared lot that hasn’t been timbered for several decades, especially one near water, there may be a Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum). Larger shrubs almost certainly will include Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera), Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) and Redbay (Persea borbonia). The possibilities include dozens of native plants with desirable qualities.

The typical quandary is what to keep, and what and how to clear. Keep in mind that once you’ve created your alternative to a formal lawn, it will need to be mowed and trimmed. You will not need to water or fertilize. You can go away for a month or more in summer, or ignore it entirely in winter; your yard will thrive. Don’t worry about the open spaces created when clearing. Native grasses will come creeping and typically provide a nice green cover within several seasons.

Creating an alternative to a formal lawn, especially when starting with an uncleared lot, is an iterative process. It’s best to be conservative: if in doubt about removing a particular plant or tree, let it stay. You can always take it out later. Creating your open woodland, your natural garden, your bird haven, is like sculpting with naturally-occurring materials, likely always to be a work in progress. There are seasonal variations you’ll want to experience, evolving relationships to consider, the increasing footprints of maturing plants, needs for privacy and wind screens and lines of sight from key locations, including your favorite window.

When you’ve tentatively decided what trees and plants to keep, ground clearing is best accomplished with homeowner equipment such as a DR Brushmower, or by various commercial machines known as bush hogs. If you hire a vendor, work closely with them to be sure only the paths and areas you specify are cleared. Anticipate doing yourself or supervising much of the detail work, such as clearing the last few feet around desirable plants. Most of this final clearing will be done with hand shears and pruners, to avoid damaging the plant.

Next, you’ll want to create what professional landscapers call “high shade.” This requires delimbing your deciduous trees to a height of 12-15 feet. There is an immediate visual reward for this effort. Be sure to make the final smooth cut outside the collar of each limb and be careful on that ladder! This process will create piles of limbs and other discarded plant material best disposed of by chipping. Do-it-yourself chippers may be rented. Some vendors have smaller chippers that are appropriately sized for the work. Chips quickly return nutrients to the soil and provide a nice mulch to fill depressions and stump holes.

With delimbing of deciduous trees complete, you will have created a canopy layer that is taller than most of your native shrubs, with the look and feel of an open woodland. Birds will love the flyways you’ve opened up; the understory will flourish with additional sunlight.

Next, tackle the junipers. Some landscapers consider it bad form to trim their feet, preferring they look like wannabe Christmas trees. However, taking off limbs that touch the ground eliminates a pathway for spiders and insects, makes it easier to eliminate the sneaky cat brier and other vines that inevitably attempt to commandeer Redcedars, and eliminates a potential hiding place for predators. Minimal delimbing gives ground-feeding birds clearer lines of sight and makes for a cleaner look all around. Mature junipers, those with a trunk circumference of 12 inches or so, may be delimbed to a height of 6-7 feet to give your property the look of an established estate.

Sculpting native shrubs and smaller trees is more a matter of taste, as much art as craft. At a minimum, you’ll find it best to trim back or take off entirely lower limbs that touch the ground. This makes it easier to keep the plant’s footprint clear of undesired vegetation and makes for a neater-looking yard.

With most of the work done, it’s time to sit back and enjoy your natural surroundings 12 months of the year. Pamlico County is as evergreen as any location in the state. There’s always something green, soothing to the eye and calming to the psyche! If you like to watch birds, provide a bit of seed and you’ll have a yard full year round, including a great variety of spring and fall migrants. If you’re curious about qualities of native shrubs and small trees, here’s information about one of the most common you can share with visitors and admirers of your natural garden:

Wax Myrtle: “Multiple, twisted trunks with smooth, light grey bark, aromatic, olive green leaves, and clusters of grey-blue berries…attractive to wildlife” are some of the reasons listed by the U.S. Forest Service for Myrica cerifera’s popularity as a landscape plant. It makes a great evergreen hedge or windbreak in Pamlico County, quickly growing 20 feet or more in height, flourishing in areas where the water table is only a couple feet below the surface. It tolerates salty air and soil and requires almost no care. Prune it periodically for stronger trunks. It’s an easy-care houseplant when small and may be even greener and more aromatic indoors than out. According to the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs (Steven Foster and James Duke, Houghton Mifflin, 2000), the root bark was formerly used in tea as an astringent and emetic. Leaf tea was used for fevers and externally as a wash for itching. Powered root bark was an ingredient in “composition powder,” a widely used home remedy for colds and chills. One of Wax Myrtle’s components, myricitrin, has “anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic, diuretic, and antibacterial activity.”


Submitted by Charles Fetzer

Extension Master Gardener