When transitioning from a turf lawn to another type of groundcover, start with a clean slate. Rent a sod cutter and slice off the existing lawn, leaving as much topsoil in place as possible. In small areas, a spade may be sufficient for removing the sod. Compost the chunks of sod or use them to fill low spots in the landscape. Till to loosen the soil (except when planting moss, which prefers compacted ground). Just before planting, till again or hoe lightly to remove any weeds that have sprouted.
Sedges: Plant plugs in spring or fall (or winter in the warmest climates), or sow seeds in spring. Water regularly until the plants are established. A topdressing of compost or mulch between the plugs will help maintain soil moisture and control weeds.
Moss: Plant in spring after the last frost, preferably after trees leaf out. Press chunks of moss firmly onto the surface of moistened soil. Lightly water the moss daily for at least 3 weeks. Depending on the growing conditions and the spacing of moss chunks, the moss lawn may take a year or more to fill in. In the meantime, keep bare spots weeded.
Clover: Sow seeds in spring when nighttime temperatures are consistently over 40°F. Keep moist until germination.
If renovating the entire lawn seems daunting, take it in stages. After all, the most successful gardener tackles one bed at a time, getting into the rhythm of new plants before launching the next escapade. Wean your landscape off the mower and get ready to start Saturday with a smile.
5 More Lawn Alternatives
Creeping thyme (Thymus spp.). In well-drained soil in sun to part shade, creeping thyme brings flowers to the lawn in Zones 4 to 9. Select low-growing varieties of Thymus serpyllum like ‘Elfin’, which can be snipped for use in the kitchen. Spice it up with lemon thyme (T. citriodorus) or fuzzy gray woolly thyme (T. pseudolanuginosus), a nonculinary species. Provide walkways to avoid constant crushing, though a bit of bruising adds a sensory bonus.
Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora). “Frogfruit is robust; it’s not delicate at all,” says Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. “I love it because it grows in sun or shade. Any conditions where you would normally grow grass would be perfect.”
From Oregon to the southern United States, in Zones 8 to 11, this perennial in the verbena family works fast to cover ground in a thick mat 4 to 6 inches tall. Summer and fall flowers attract butterflies and bees. “It roots at the nodes, so it takes foot traffic pretty well,” she says. Frogfruit goes dormant in freezing weather.
Stonecrop (Sedum spp.). The genus Sedum includes many creeping species, some ultrahardy and others tender. With their small, succulent leaves, they prosper on sun-scorched slopes and in other forbiddingly arid locations. Many are showy in bloom, bearing sprays of tiny star-shaped flowers. S. spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’, for example, flaunts rosy-pink flowers on 4-inch stems over a mat of bronze leaves. Sedums of all types root easily from stem cuttings. Unfortunately, the brittle stems and fleshy leaves don’t hold up well to footsteps.
Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides) and blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis). Although grasses, these two prairie natives don’t make the same maintenance demands as traditional turfgrasses. For the hot, dry, Central Plains states, Troy Hake from Outsidepride.com describes buffalograss as the “lazy man’s grass.” It requires minimal water, no fertilizer, and only occasional mowing. In fact, leaving it tall with just a few mows a year helps fend off weeds.
Hake and DeLong-Amaya recommend mixing buffalograss with blue grama. “Buffalograss tends not to be very dense,” says DeLong-Amaya. “It likes to grow with other grasses for a denser, more resilient turf.”
Silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea). Native to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, silver ponyfoot is hardy to 25°F. Given good drainage, decent soil, and sun to part shade, it quickly takes over. “It’s just so beautiful! Silver is such a great contrast to other plants or to hardscapes,” says DeLong-Amaya. “Texturally, it works well with other plants. It fills in quickly, since it spreads by runners.” Place stepping-stones where needed.