Get Off The Grass

Say goodbye to weekly mowing duties with these eco-friendly grass alternatives.

By Linda Lehmusvirta


velvet grassImagine a Saturday that doesn’t start with a sigh: It’s time to mow the lawn. When other, more fulfilling garden projects beckon, it’s easy to begrudge the time spent on the tedious and noisy task of mowing—not to mention edging, feeding, and watering. Surely, there must be some alternative to grass.

Yet even those who object to lawns from a maintenance or environmental standpoint concede that lawns can contribute to the beauty of a landscape. “I understand what design purpose a lawn serves. It’s a cool, simple panel that allows your eye to rest. It doesn’t have the cacophony of a perennial border, and so I get what that does, but at what expense to the environment?” asks John Greenlee, author of The American Meadow Garden.

Perhaps it’s time to expand our definition of lawn to include other low-growing plants that carpet the ground, yet require less maintenance than turfgrasses. Options like sedges, moss, and clover thrive without fertilizers, require less water than grass, and rarely or never need to be mowed. A few grasses, including Korean velvet grass (shown at left) and buffalograss, develop an attractive character when left untouched by the lawn mower. These ground-blanketing plants can’t replace playground turf, but after all, most of the lawn’s real estate is for show, not recreation.

With grasslike leaves borne in clumps, perennial sedges (Carex spp.) capture the soothing comfort of unbroken lawn. Leave them unmowed to let the breeze tickle their foliage. Or maintain a more formal look with just a few mows a year.

There are many narrow-bladed grass alternatives in the genus Carex. Some thrive in sun; others seek shade. Varying in height and texture, there are sedges for dry or boggy spots, clay or sandy soils, and all USDA Plant Hardiness Zones. “There are so many of what I call these ‘groundcover grasses’ that can make a cool, green, ecologically sound panel for you to walk upon or just to look at,” Greenlee says. Because of the abundance of choices, it’s a good idea to seek the advice of local extension agents or native-plant experts for help in selecting a regionally appropriate sedge.

When landscape architect James David of David Peese Design lost most of his monkey grass in the Texas drought of 2009, he switched to C. retroflexa var. texensis (also calledC. texensis). “I think it’s one of the great shade sedges of all time. I would tend to use it in dry shade as it is so drought-tolerant,” he says.

This clumping, evergreen sedge grows in sun to part shade from Texas to the eastern seaboard, in Zones 5 to 9. It’s drought-tolerant, but it may require extra moisture during extended dry weather. It has slender 6-inch-high foliage and spreads by seeds.

Greenlee applauds C. praegracilis, a sun lover that creeps from rhizomes. Tolerant of soil and weather conditions throughout the United States (except Texas and the Deep South), it withstands boggy spots as well as seasonally dry soil. Regional clones vary in height from under a foot to a more meadowy 3 feet.

Mow a sedge lawn in spring to remove any winter burn. “Mow it then, and let it have fresh space to flush back out,” says Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. After sedges flower, allow their seeds to scatter and fill the gaps between clumps. Sedge lawns stand up well to light foot traffic.

Glorify sedges with seasonal bulbs. “I have naturalized rain lilies, and they bloom through it,” David says of his sedge lawn. “Then, as soon as it rains, the lilies come out. It’s a beautiful bonus. And don’t forget bulbs like Ipheion, small jonquils, and species tulips that just disappear in summer.”