While record numbers of Californians are ripping out their lawns due to extreme drought, here in Minnesota our lawns are lusher than ever, with rain after rain rolling through.
Still, the chances are good that you’re already tired of mowing that turf grass — and summer has barely begun.
You’re not alone if you’re in no mood to mow. Many homeowners are rethinking the lawn, for a multitude of reasons. In addition to those precious summer minutes spent cutting the grass, consider what you put into maintaining the perfect lawn, from fossil fuels and fertilizer to weedkillers and pest control. And don’t forget the nerve-grating noise on Saturday mornings.
Think past pachysandra and periwinkle, and you’ll find lots of attractive alternatives to traditional turf. If you want the ground-hugging, uniform look of a lawn yet also some “step-ability,” consider a number of low-growing, creeping perennials rather than standard groundcovers.
When planting large numbers of one species, pay attention to spacing. If you’re patient, you can divide and multiply your plants for free the following year, without having to break the bank, although most of these species do spread fairly quickly. Unlike turf lawns, these plants are able to endure periods of low water, once established, so you can adjust or turn off the sprinklers. However, all do require good drainage to thrive.
With the following choices, you get a bonus of seasonal blooms, so of course you’ll want to tread lightly during flowering. But that’s another plus — these lawn substitutes offer something for pollinators that lawns can’t.
Creeping thyme: A personal favorite, the tiny leaves give it a ground-skimming, carpetlike texture. It spreads quickly to form a thick mat that’s almost impervious to weeds. Depending upon the variety, which include ‘Highland Cream’ and ‘Pink Chintz’ among others, you’ll get white or pink blooms in late May to early June. Creeping thyme is able to withstand moderate foot traffic, and your steps release its wonderful fragrance.
Speedwell: Low, spreading varieties of the Veronica family provide pretty blue or white flowers in late spring, while the glossy, dark-green foliage remains for the rest of season. Although it grows 4 to 6 inches tall, it tolerates moderate foot traffic. Speedwell is adaptable to many soil types: loamy, sandy or clay.
Ornamental strawberry: In addition to handsome, dark-green foliage, you’ll also get cheerful flowers of white or pink in late spring. The ‘Lipstick’ variety, with its hot pink blooms, even promises a few edible berries. Spreads at a moderate growth rate of 6 to 10 inches a year.
Stonecrop: Better known by their Latin label, sedum, many of these hardy succulents can handle moderate foot traffic, including ‘Baby Tears,’ ‘Aureum,’ ‘Coral Carpet’ and ‘Goldmoss,’ to name a few. Summer finds them flowering in white or yellow. With so many varieties available, make sure to check with your garden center for specifics on tread-worthiness.
Dianthus: Otherwise known as pinks, they are taller than some lawn substitutes. Their beautiful blue-gray foliage is just as lovely as the perky pink blooms. Planted en masse in a yard in my neighborhood, the spring flowers are a treat, but I admire the ocean-hued foliage all season along.
Bugleweed: Another favorite, ajuga ‘Black Scallop,’ spreads quickly, with dark, almost black, round and crinkled leaves. In spring, it blooms in short spikes of deep blue. In my yard, it contrasts dramatically with the golden foliage of sedum ‘Angelina.’ ‘Chocolate Chips’ has narrow bronze leaves and a tighter-knit texture that keeps weeds at bay. The flower spikes of cornflower blue make a great display in spring. I grow this one with sedum ‘Lime Zinger’ for added texture. Ajuga does well in both sun and shade.
Single-species mass plantings of large perennials are another way to deep-six the grass, but you’ll have to forgo most foot traffic except for occasional weeding. Daylilies, hostas, catmint and even dwarf honeysuckle are possibilities.
Even if you want to reduce only part of the area you’ve devoted to grass, most folks want a low-maintenance landscape. Unless you install Astroturf, remember that there will be some care and tending required to establish and maintain lawn alternatives.
The hardest part of the process is removing the lawn. Renting a manual or motorized sod-cutter is your best bet. It’s a bit more expensive on the front end, but quick and efficient. You can even re-use the rolls of sod (upside down) to form mounds and berms in other planting areas.
There are other ways to ditch the turf but they can seem painfully slow and not too pretty; sheet-composting involves covering the grass with cardboard or thick layers of newspaper, and then layering organic material, lasagna-style, to create a new planting medium. This method works best for small areas vs. a whole lawn.
Or you can solarize the lawn, smothering it with black plastic in hot weather until the grass is vaporized. There’s always Roundup, but who wants to douse the yard (three times before it’s good and gone) with chemicals all summer long?
For more ideas to help ditch the lawn, check this out.