ISSUE 8  |  Water Crisis

Fields of Green: 5 Favorite Lawn Substitutes

February 28, 2014 2:00 PM

BY Janet Hall

Ah, the scent of freshly mowed grass. And… lawn mower noise, grass allergies, proliferation of chemical fertilizers, obscene water consumption, and continual war with lawn intruders (of the “weed” variety). The suburban romance with groomed grass turf is over.

The good news for those who still want a field of green is the abundance of lawn substitutes that can accommodate foot traffic, pet traffic, and rounds of lawn games.

Have you ventured into this new turf? Do tell (in the comments section below).

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Above: What’s better than lying on a fresh green carpet on a spring day and searching for shapes in the clouds? Consider ground covers or eco-lawn varieties that reduce or eliminate mowing, irrigation, and chemicals (keeping the important people and animals in your life healthy). Photograph by Pietro Bellini via Flickr.

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Above: Surprisingly nearly as rugged as ordinary grass, Blue Star Creeper (Isotoma fluviatillis) ground cover is fast growing and can take heavy foot traffic. It creates a floral meadow in the spring and summer. Hardy in zones 5 to 9; $9.95 for a 1-quart pot at Great Garden Plants.

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Above: Green Carpet Rupturewort (Herniaria glabra) is so-called for its abundance of tiny leaves that grow in a very low flat manner to create a dense evergreen carpet. It turns a reddish color in winter. Hardy in zones 5 to 9; $4.95 for a 3-inch pot at Mountain Valley Growers.

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Above: Have an abundance of shade? Consider replacing your lawn with moss. (Yes, this may require a shift in thinking if you’ve been fighting to keep moss out of your lawn.) Sheet Moss (Hypnum) is easy to cultivate and stands up to foot traffic. It forms a low dense mat, making it a favored lawn alternative; $24.95 for five pounds (covers 5 square feet) at TN Native Tree & Plant Nursery. Image via Safe Lawns.

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Above: A mix of hardy moss varieties can be used to create a moss lawn. See 10 Easy Pieces: the Most Magical Mosses for more ideas. Photograph via Green Upgrader.

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Above: For sunny spots, consider Kidney Weed (Dichondra micrantha). It thrives in warmer climates (zones 8-10), spreads easily and grows to 1 or 2 inches in height; $5.60 for a 1/2-ounce seed packet (about 6,000 seeds) at Park Seed. Image via Randy McManus Designs.

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Above: Very drought tolerant, low-growing Elfin Thyme (Thymus serpyllum) forms a tight solid mat of green foliage that blooms with light pink flowers in summer. The sun-loving plant is a vigorous creeper that stands up to foot traffic. And, did I mention the scent? A set of three 4-inch pots is $19.95 at Greenwood Nursery.

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Above: Rather than scrap grass altogether, consider an eco-lawn mix of grasses and flowering plants. A variety of mixes is available and their “ingredients” vary. They all offer a low-water, low-maintenance meadow-like lawn that can be left to grow or can be mowed (albeit far less frequently) to keep it low.

Fleur de Lawn is a flowering eco-lawn mix with low growing perennial flowers that change color and texture through the seasons. It was developed at Oregon State University through research on eco-friendly landscapes; $29.95 for a 1-pound bag at Pro Time Lawn Seed. Photograph via Oregon State University Department of Horticulture.

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Above: Not ready to abandoned your lawn entirely? There is a middle ground that falls under the category of “wanted weeds.” Transform your existing lawn into a low-maintenance, less-thirsty, self fertilizing lawn by over-seeding it with clover seed. Clover absorbs nitrogen from the air and deposits it into the ground, providing a constant stream of nutrition for the lawn (so you can forget fertilizers). It also has deep roots, making it less thirsty and more drought tolerant. The best clover varieties to introduce to lawns are micro clovers that are small and blend in well with grass. A 2-pound bag of Earth Turf Clover Overseed (covers 500 square feet) is $29.

By the way, you can keep your lawn without guilt; here are 7 Ways to Save Water in the Garden.

N.B.: This is an update of a post originally published on March 21, 2013.