Americans love a lush, green, grass lawn. Even where grass doesn’t grow well. More and more people are beginning to discover lawn alternatives.
You can have a beautiful and more sustainable lawn with less grass, or even without grass. More trees, shrubbery, flowers, and vegetables on your property reduce the amount of space you can devote to grass. And you can grow some other kind of groundcover in place of much or all of the grass you have.
Not only that, you can take care of a grass lawn with fewer chemicals and less water than most people use. The various alternative ground covers help you achieve an even more sustainable yard.
The American love affair with grass
How much grass is growing in the US? Until recently, no good way existed to find out. Research at NASA finally provided at least a usable estimate.
Cristina Milesi didn’t see grass lawns growing up in Italy. She attended the University of Montana for doctoral work. The sight of people watering grass while everything else around had turned brown intrigued her. She also noticed how much water ran down the street into storm drains.
Milesi knew that the US is a large area with diverse climates. Yet everyone seems to want the kind of yard—and grass—that grow well only in certain parts of the country. It is not a sustainable lawn out west.
I spent a summer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It rained hard nearly every afternoon, and lots of people kept their sprinklers running in the yard the whole time. So I understand Milesi’s amazement.
No published data existed that estimated just how much land was devoted to grass lawns. So Milesi submitted a research proposal to NASA to find out. Satellite imagery of the entire US with sufficient detail would have been cost prohibitive. It existed for just over a dozen metropolitan areas. Conventional satellite imagery does show impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots, and large roofs
Milesi’s team determined that the ratio of impervious surfaces to lawns is remarkably consistent all over the country. It enabled them to estimate of how much land in the US comprises lawns—not only people’s yards, but also golf courses and parks.
It turned out that land devoted to growing grass covers three times as much area as land devoted to growing corn. In fact, grass covers more surface area than any other irrigated crop in the country.
Alternative groundcovers for your lawn
I remember shopping in a Chicago suburb in the 1990s where it looked like everyone was growing weeds in their yard. It turned out that the town had outlawed grass lawns, so people sowed wildflowers instead.
What if you could find low-growing groundcovers for a sustainable lawn that look as pretty as grass but don’t require as much watering or mowing?
I can suggest several from my reading. You really need to check with a local garden center to find which lawn alternatives are native to your area. Non-native species can require extensive amounts of water and fertilizer to survive.
Whatever you do for lawn alternatives, don’t try to achieve a monoculture. A sustainable lawn requires welcoming biodiversity. If a ground cover naturally chokes out other plants, let it. If something will grow alongside your ground cover, let it.
Some of the following groundcovers can easily take over places where you don’t want them, so they need an edge barrier. You can get a metal edge barrier that you pound into the ground. A row of bricks can also work.
Clover fertilizes soil by adding nitrogen to it. It shades the soil and reduces evaporation of water. Pet urine doesn’t bother it. Bags of grass seed used to include a certain percentage of clover until some homeowners’ associations declared it a weed.
Not all clovers work for lawn alternatives. Yellow Blossom Clover and Red Clover can reach heights of three feet. Dutch White Clover grows only to about 4-8”.
Like any flowering plant, clover attracts bees. That’s a good thing. We need a healthy bee population. And if you don’t bother them, they won’t sting you.
When you first plant clover, it needs moist soil. Once established, though, it resists drought and stays green throughout the driest parts of summer. It tolerates foot traffic and occasional mowing, but it’s not durable enough for yard games or dog runs. It covers the ground very well.
Since moss never grows more than an inch tall, you never have to mow it at all. Once established, you don’t have to water it, either, except when you’re suffering serious drought conditions.
Just get some moss plugs and press them into the ground about six inches apart in the spring. Keep it moist. The moss will spread and cover the ground, possibly by fall. There are several varieties of moss to choose from. If you’re good at visualizing and planning, you can plant different varieties with different textures and thickness for extra beauty.
The main problem with moss is that it prefers shade. That’s great if you have shady parts of your lawn. You’ll need something else for areas that get much direct sunlight.
Moss can tolerate some foot traffic, but not as much as grass.
Another shade-loving groundcover, Sweet Woodruff forms such a dense canopy that weeds can’t get established in it. It grows only about two inches tall, so you never need to mow it. You probably won’t need to water it much, either.
Sweet Woodruff tolerates pet urine and some foot traffic. It gives off a pleasant scent when you walk on it. It’s even edible.
Creeping Charlie and other members of the mint family
If you really want a turf lawn, Creeping Charlie is your enemy. But if you want an alternative groundcover for a sustainable lawn, you’ll love it. It never grows tall enough to mow. You don’t have to water it. If you’d rather ignore your lawn than work to maintain it, you can hardly beat Creeping Charlie.
Beware, though, of anything called “creeping.” You’ll definitely need some kind of edge barrier to contain it.
Creeping Charlie has pretty little flowers. Unlike most lawn alternatives, it tolerates foot traffic and pet urine at least as well as grass. When you crush it underfoot, it gives off a pleasant minty smell.
Consider other varieties of mint for a sustainable lawn as well. Some will work for you better than others. Creeping Charlie, at least, wants part shade.
Creeping thyme can grow even in poor soil, so long as it’s well drained. It requires plenty of sun, so is not suitable for shady areas. It can stand up to some foot traffic and emits a pleasant odor.
There are several varieties to choose from. They rarely grow more than four inches tall and so do not require frequent mowing. Thyme is also drought resistant.
It’s hard to grow thyme from seed, so it will be less frustrating to get thyme plants. And so thyme can be more expensive than other lawn alternatives.
Ornamental grasses include mondo grass, liriope, pampas grass, and miscanthus. You plant these lawn alternatives for show, not for turf. They grow a lot taller than turf grass and can’t stand foot traffic.
So use them the same way you’d plant shrubbery or flower gardens for a sustainable yard. The more of any of these kinds of plants you have, the less turf you need to care for.
Some ornamental grasses turn brown over the winter, so you should trim them once a year. Others are evergreen and should be trimmed lightly if at all. When they get too big, dig them up, divide them, and replant.
Shop related products:
Greenworks 16-Inch Reel Lawn Mower with Grass Catcher
Milorganite 0636 Organic Nitrogen Fertilizer, 32-Pound
Outsidepride White Dutch Clover Seed: Nitro-Coated, Inoculated – 5 LBS
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