Get Off The Grass

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

By Linda Lehmusvirta


lawn alternative mossMoss
In moist, shady gardens with acidic soil, moss makes few demands.“It’s something that requires very little attention unless you just want to look at it all day long,” says Nancy Church, director of business development for Moss Acres, an online moss supplier.

Once established in moist climates, moss rarely needs watering. It attaches to the ground with rhizoids, not roots, getting its nutrition and moisture from the air. “As a nonvascular plant, it gets what it needs in a shady environment from the moisture that comes from the boundary layer of the soil, from rain, dew, and even from fog,” Church says. Moss lawns need no fertilizer.

Moss grows best on compacted soil, even clay, in a pH range of 5.5 to 6.5. Going dormant under snow or in dry summers, moss rebounds quickly. “But do not water it in the heat. If it’s necessary, we recommend watering either in the morning or in late evening when it’s cooler,” Church says.

For shady lawns, Church recommends Hypnum, often called sheet moss, or Thuidium, referred to as fern moss. Both have low profiles that dismiss the lawn mower. Until their energetic stems and spores form a dense mat, weed by hand. Moss is easily smothered, so keep the surface swept clean of fallen leaves. Add woodland wildflowers and naturalizing bulbs for a garden in the lawn.

Moss tolerates occasional footsteps. But because moss doesn’t have roots, rambunctious digging dogs would tend to calamity. In areas of frequent foot traffic, provide stepping-stone pathways.

Instead of fighting clover in the lawn, give it top billing. White Dutch clover (Trifolium repens) is on the rebound as a perennial lawn alternative that’s tough as nails in sun to part shade. Like other legumes, it takes nitrogen from the air and stockpiles it in root nodules, so it fertilizes itself.

“It can grow in bad soils and in a wide pH range. It prefers a 6.0 to 7.0 pH, but clover will grow down to a 5.0,” says Troy Hake, president of, an online garden and landscape supplier. White Dutch clover’s range extends nationwide, but Hake reports that it’s best adapted in Zones 5 to 8; in colder zones, it may not survive winter. In hotter zones, he recommends planting in areas that receive partial shade.

Spreading horizontally, clover needs just an occasional mow if a lower profile than its average 6 inches is preferred. Its white flowers attract bees—another bonus, unless someone in the family is allergic to stings. In that case, simply mow off the flowers.

Microclover, a small-leaved clover developed for interplanting with turfgrasses, produces smaller flowers that aren’t as attractive to bees. Hake likes it because it does not encroach aggressively on flowerbeds. “It’s shorter and finer-bladed than white Dutch. At a distance, it almost looks like grass,” he says.

Clover is evergreen down to single-digit temperatures. A spring mow removes winter burn and stimulates new growth. “Clover doesn’t have really deep roots, but they’re hardy. Even if you get some top kill, it’s going to come back from the root zone,” says Hake. Although it appreciates supplemental water in dry summers, clover isn’t a thirsty consumer.

It withstands occasional strolls across its surface, but Hake advises, “If you have big dogs that walk on the same path every day, it’s going to wear a trail just as it would in lawn grass.” He adds: “It’s not as soft as grass, but you can walk barefoot on it.”