How do you landscape an area that won’t grow grass?

Having an area in your yard that struggles to grow grass can be frustrating. A bare patch of dirt is not very aesthetic, and it can be difficult to know how to turn it into an attractive part of your landscape. However, there are several potential solutions for areas with poor grass growth. With some planning and effort, you can transform these problem spots into beautiful additions to your outdoor space.

Why won’t grass grow in some areas?

There are a few common reasons why certain sections of your yard may not support healthy grass growth:

  • Poor soil quality – Compacted, rocky, or nutrient-deficient soil will inhibit grass roots from establishing and thriving.
  • Too much shade – Grass needs 4-6 hours of direct sunlight per day, so heavily shaded areas often cannot support it.
  • Excessive drainage – Sandy or gravelly areas that drain too quickly for grass roots to absorb sufficient moisture.
  • Heavy foot traffic – High amounts of activity compress the soil and damage grass plants before they mature.
  • Repeated pet urine – Urine acts as a high-nitrogen fertilizer, burning grass roots and leaving dead patches.

Before attempting to re-landscape stubborn areas, it’s a good idea to figure out the underlying cause. This will allow you to select alternative plants and materials with a better chance of survival.

Test your soil before making changes

One of the first steps is to test your soil’s pH and nutrient levels. Soil testing kits are available at most garden centers. Follow the kit instructions carefully to get accurate results. Optimal pH for most lawns is around 6.5-7.0. If the reading is too high or low, you can add amendments like sulfur or lime to adjust it.

The test results will also tell you if anything major is lacking in the soil, like nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium. Based on the results, you can add the right fertilizer blends or organic compost to replenish nutrients and improve soil structure. Addressing these fundamental soil issues first gives any new landscaping a better opportunity to flourish.

Consider switching to a grass-alternative groundcover

In many problem areas, replacing grass with a more suitable groundcover is the best solution. There are many attractive options that require less maintenance than grass and are adapted to a variety of challenging conditions.

Groundcovers for shade

Good shade-tolerant groundcover options include:

  • Sweet woodruff
  • English ivy
  • Dead nettle
  • Japanese pachysandra
  • Lamium
  • False lilyturf

Groundcovers for dry soil

Groundcovers adapted to dry conditions:

  • Sedum
  • Ice plant
  • Creeping phlox
  • Snow-in-summer
  • Thyme

Groundcovers for foot traffic

Sturdy groundcovers for high-traffic areas:

  • Mondo grass
  • Lilyturf
  • Creeping Jenny
  • Blue Star creeper
  • Pratia
  • Brass buttons

Check with your local nursery to find specific varieties suited to your climate. The right groundcover should thrive where grass struggles.

Mulch or gravel as an alternative

For small areas where grass refuses to grow, consider covering the spot with mulch or gravel instead of planting. This eliminates the need to upkeep finicky plants while giving the area a finished, polished look.

Hardwood mulch comes in natural shades like brown and black which can complement surrounding greenery. Pine straw or bark mulch are other good options. Be sure to lay down landscape fabric or weed barrier first to prevent unwanted growth.

For a tidy, crisp appearance, pea gravel or crushed granite chips come in subtle colors like buff, gray, and tan. Decomposed gravel packs down smoothly and is soft enough for play areas. For a contemporary vibe, opt for pebbles or stones in bold colors and textures. Surround the rocks with edging to keep them in place.

Dry creek beds and rain gardens

Low, chronically wet areas that resist planting are perfect spots for rain gardens or dry creek beds. These creative solutions remove excess moisture while adding aesthetic appeal.

Rain gardens

Rain gardens are shallow depressions filled with water-loving native plants. The decorative garden soak up runoff from downspouts or soggy sections in your landscape. Add a berm or gentle swale to help divert water into the rain garden. Choose plants like:

  • Iris
  • Milkweed
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Bee balm
  • Cardinal flower
  • Blue flag iris

Dry creek beds

Dry creek beds try to mimic the look of a natural dried up streambed. They work well for channeling large amounts of runoff from heavy rains. Dig a winding trench across the problem area and fill with rocks ranging from small pebbles to large boulders. Encourage drainage by making one end of the “creek” slightly lower than the other. Plant drought-resistant grasses and shrubs around the rock bed.

Terraces and retaining walls

Steep slopes or areas with substantial erosion issues can be transformed with terraces or retaining walls. While expensive, they create useful flat spaces for planting and prevent further soil erosion.


Terraces are a series of flat platforms created by digging into the slope or building up containment walls. Stairs can connect the different levels. Use terraces to convert sloped sections into cascading garden beds or additional yard space.

Retaining walls

Retaining walls reinforce steep grades and prevent soil collapse. Short walls up to 4 feet high can be built with stacked landscape timbers or bricks. Taller walls require poured concrete secured with rebar. An experienced contractor is recommended for installation. Once the retaining wall is in place, you can safely plant flowers, grasses, shrubs or trees on the flat ground above.

Embrace the rocks and go with a rock garden

In locations with extremely rocky, inhospitable soil, consider leveraging the stones and boulders by creating a rock garden. This avoids the impossible task of attempting to remove all the rocks and cultivate plants in the remaining poor soil.

Collect interesting rocks and place them creatively throughout the space. Use large stones as focal points, low walls, or stepping stones, and scatter smaller pebbles and gravel surrounding them. Tuck acid-loving, drought-resistant alpine plants into pockets between the rocks where they’ll thrive in the well-drained soil. Adaptive plants like:

  • Sedum
  • Sempervivum
  • Creeping phlox
  • Thyme
  • Dianthus
  • Lewisia

For visual continuity, leave some patches of exposed stone between the groupings of plants. This style embraces the natural features of the site and creates a beautiful, low-maintenance garden.

Go with artificial turf or grass

In small yard areas where you’ve exhausted all other options, installing fake grass or turf may be the way to go. Advanced artificial grasses mimic real grass very convincingly in terms of appearance and texture. Benefits include:

  • No need to mow, water or fertilize
  • Withstands all weather conditions
  • Looks perfectly green and lush year-round
  • Can stand up to heavy foot traffic
  • Good for pet urine resistance
  • No risk of dead spots

The main downside is the high initial cost, but it may be worthwhile for tricky spots that refuse to support living plants. Just make sure to follow manufacturer instructions carefully for site prep and artificial turf base installation.

Hardscaping options like patios, decks and walkways

For larger stubborn areas, a paved patio, deck, or stone path may be the best solution. This allows you to extend living areas into the landscape and avoid planting altogether.


Patios create useful flat spaces for outdoor living and entertaining. Choose concrete, brick, flagstone, or interlocking pavers based on desired appearance, durability, and budget. Incorporate design features like built-in benches, tile insets, or ornamental borders.


Decks add height and strong architectural shapes. Treat the underside to create an attractive ceiling for the space below. Use lighting and planters to soften the edges of elevated decks. Choose durable, weather-resistant deck boards that can stand up to your climate.


Winding pathways made of brick, gravel, stone, or timber look great traversing stubborn areas and connect different garden attention to width – make wide enough for two people to pass comfortably or a wheelbarrow if needed. Use edging to keep gravel paths contained.

Hardscaping is a major project best left to experienced contractors, but the end result can completely transform challenging spaces into appealing additions.

Other creative solutions

For smaller areas, think creatively to come up with unexpected solutions, like:

  • Build a firepit with surrounding benches
  • Set up a bocce ball or horseshoe court
  • Install a stylish pondless waterfall
  • Add artistic sculpture pieces or decorative boulders
  • Build a playhouse if space allows

Identify activities your family enjoys and use landscapes to enhance them. With an open mind, you can invent all kinds of clever ways to convert stubborn spots into useful spaces.


Dealing with landscape areas where grass refuses to grow can be frustrating, but many great alternatives exist. The key steps include:

  1. Analyze the underlying cause and test the soil
  2. Pick the best groundcover, hardscape, or decorative feature based on the conditions
  3. Prep the area thoroughly before planting or construction
  4. Choose materials suited to the amount of foot traffic, sunlight, and moisture
  5. Accept that grass may not make sense in some spots, and embrace creative solutions

With the right approach, you can successfully transform even the most challenging patches of dirt into beautiful and functional additions to your landscape.

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