Imagine 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.”
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 Outsidepride.com, 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.”
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.