Sunday, April 8, 2012

Lawn Substitutes

Homeowners who want to decrease their turf are on the rise. Requests are for groundcovers that are more interesting, don’t require mowing, provide color and can handle light foot traffic. I call these lawn substitutes.

Some landscape designs look great with groves of trees, ferns, shade tolerant plants, rock gardens, wildflower meadows, patios, decks or large island beds as alternatives to turf. The challenge is how to integrate areas when lawn creates a good connector or common thread. The cool, deep green color is visually attractive as a backdrop for red, pink, magenta, lavender and other colors.
Wildflower meadows create colorful groundcovers. 
Here are some dependable lawn substitutes that will ultimately grow together and create large lush areas.

• Low growing drifts or sweeps of native grasses, like native broom-sedge (Andropogon virginicus) or blue gramma (Bouteloua gracilis) make an impressive display with showy seed-heads, colorful foliage and seeds in summer and fall, holding their form into winter. They never need mowing and are drought tolerant and will cover large sunny areas, self-sowing to naturalize.

• Creeping thyme (Thymus serphyllum) will fill smaller gaps with flowers and fragrance. Provide good drainage and full sun and plant between path stones where you might brush or step on the foliage exuding fragrance.

• Bugleweed (Ajuga) is available in red, pink, purple, green, variegated, curled and smooth-leafed forms. Drifts look beautiful in spring bloom. They are happy in shade and spread widely. Leave enough room for them to wander.

• Other low growing plants for full sun and smaller areas that won't show much damage if exposed to some foot traffic and will emanate fragrance when bruised are Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) and a hybrid of Roman chamomile called treneague (Chamaemelum nobile 'Treneague'). They will cover open spaces in rock or herb gardens and “travel” between the joints of paving.

• Try some mazus in partial sun. With regular moisture, it will spread to cover areas previously occupied by lawn. It works well between flagstones on informal paths. It hugs the ground flowering purple, blue or white in late spring. You can walk over healthy stands of it and divide into mats for other sections of your property.

• Dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nana’) is an evergreen grassy member of the lily family that grows 3-4” high and never needs mowing. The plants tiller together like turf and are tolerant of drought, foot traffic and shade.

• Two groundcover mat forming plants that make an impression, but won’t take much foot traffic, are pearlwort or Irish moss (Sagina subulata) a diminutive, fine textured, ground hugger (flowers white, related to carnations and good for rock gardens) that will cover large areas in well drained sites, and sedum (S. spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’) with copper red foliage, reaching 2-4” in height and spreads quickly. It can languish in summer humidity but will stay full the rest of the year.

• Moss makes a handsome low maintenance cover for the woodland, but won’t handle much foot traffic. It has several millimeter rhizoids that anchor the plant, but will cover an area only if it’s happy. In addition to spores, it spreads by growing new stems and colonizing patches of soil, rock, brick or other organic material that provides moisture. If it's doing better than the lawn, acidify (according to labeled instructions) with aluminum sulfate to encourage growth.

• Cover the ground with wildflowers. Sow wildflower seed in June in weed-free, lightly loosened soil. Leaving an area to nature will also result in plants covering the ground, either voluntarily or by counting on wildlife and weather.

© 2012 Joel M. Lerner
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