Lawns. They started out as a status symbol, and they’ve been holding that dubiously positive rank since they were first carved out of the fields around castles. Back then, there was at least some strategic advantage. It’s pretty hard to have your army sneak up on an enemy stronghold when it’s surrounded by acres of carefully-trimmed plants rather than a forest.
In peaceful times, the meticulously-cut acres surrounding your home were a public declaration of your wealth. In an age without lawn mowers and gasoline, the only way to keep the turf trim was by employing scores of subservient, scythe-wielding serfs (say that five times fast) to do what amounted to pretty pointless work.
For the common folk, lawns were public grazing areas kept trim by willing herds of sheep and cattle. It’s where we get the term “launde” which is an Old English word meaning glade or barren area. You certainly couldn’t brag about your monetary accumulations as the lords did — the animal manure was the dead giveaway — but there was probably no denying the pleasure of strolling unimpeded across a gently rolling hill.
These days that perfectly-trimmed, bright green stripe of grass is visual mainstay and source of pride in residential America. Depending on your opinion, you can thank or gripe at Abraham Levitt for embedding a green, weedless carpet of turf into the white picket-fence psyche of the past six decades or so. He was a key part of pioneering the image of suburban conformity that we still uphold.
Keeping up with the Joneses and their perfect patch of fescue has become the middle-class attempt to pretend to be the old fancy lords (that they probably don’t even realize they are emulating). Lawns are a booming industry, raking in 99.5 billion a year to keep that useless patch of green as lush as possible.
Turf grass is the most widely-grown “crop” in the United States, but it’s time for lawns (as we know them) to go. In addition to spraying scores of pesticides and fertilizers to keep that freakily verdant grass bright no matter what the weather, Americans use one-third or more of their available freshwater to care for their lawns.
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I want to repeat that fact because it makes my brain hurt. At least one-third of our drinkable water isn’t used to grow food, water livestock, or give thirsty people a drink. It is used to water non-native, non-food swathes of grass that are chemically forced to stay a monoculture, and cropped weekly by gas-guzzling machines as a status symbol. Sigh.
But as much as I hate the wastefulness of lawns, I know that old habits die hard, and bucking convention can be difficult when you’re doing it alone in your community. Even if you’re clear-eyed enough to see how unnecessary a dumb carpet of grass is to the quality of life, your nosy neighbors or homeowner’s association (HOA) are usually not sympathetic to your views.
Change is slow. So in the meantime, if you absolutely must have a lawn-ish thing in front of your house, but want to get out of the useless grass growing business, there are many options for you to consider to keep that ground covered.
Ground cover plants certainly need not be limited to grass. The very definition of ground cover from a landscaping perspective is a low-growing, low-maintenance, perennial, spreading plant that keeps the ground from being bare.
Note: This is a different plant than a cover crop.
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The world of plants that fit the ground cover bill is diverse and fascinating, and some are specialists where grass falls short. Do you have shady areas that are looking a bit naked? Maybe a slope too steep and eroding to support turf? Peruse this list of non-traditional, fabulous ground covers that might be exactly what you need.
1. Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
- Any USDA Zone
- Most delicious ground cover
Yes, it’s that same oregano that makes your pizza sauce sing! This perennial herb grows beautifully in full sun in any zone, but it does best in areas with warm weather and well-draining soil.
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Though any type of oregano will do, try creeping oregano O. vulgare ‘Humile’ for a low-growing, mat-forming variety. Oregano can tolerate some foot traffic but won’t put up with heavy use for long, so plant it where you can enjoy the scent without stomping on it too much.
One of my favorite memories of childhood is the oregano patch that escaped into my parent’s backyard. We always joked that their yard was barely one-third grass with all the lovely wildflowers they allowed. Every time my dad mowed, the aroma was delightful. I recall running over it often without affecting its growth.
- USDA Zones 4 to 9
- Best ground cover to harvest as tea
Chamomile releases the scent of apple and daisies with every footfall, and if you live in zones 4 to 9, you could easily grow that beauty to cover your yard. Interestingly, the plant historically used to cover those smooth, castle fields of opulence wasn’t the Kentucky bluegrass of modern suburbs, but chamomile and thyme.
Chamomile loves both full and dappled sun and requires very little mowing which results in a dense green cover dazzled with starry white blossoms. Chamaemelum nobile is a creeping variety that is lawn-suitable. A dwarf, non-flowering variety, C. nobile ‘Treneague’ will give you a fragrant, dense, evergreen mat that some say is the perfect lawn replacement.
In order to get a chamomile lawn established, you’ll need to remove the grass. They can’t tolerate competition very well. Be sure the soil is a bit airy, too. Clay and rocky soils aren’t their cup of tea (ha). Chamomile can be stepped on reasonably once established — at least after 12 weeks — but will show signs of wear if trodden daily.
3. Thyme (Thymus spp.)
- USDA Zones 5 to 8
- Drought-tolerant ground cover
If you don’t have the time to mow your lawn regularly, perhaps it is time to replace it with thyme (if you’ll forgive me for that atrocious sentence)! Consider transforming part of your landscape into an aromatic thyme garden.
Thyme is drought-tolerant, often used in the sizzling heat of full-sun rock gardens, and available in a huge array of scents, leaf patterns, and bloom colors. They are hardy through zones 5 to 8, though growers in zone 5 may find that thyme won’t survive the winter as perennials.
It may take a bit longer to get established, but once it does, it should be hassle-free. For areas where you intend to walk, look for creeping varieties like Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus’ or wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus).
Also, if you have children running around your yard, the sensitive, delicate beauty of many types of ground cover won’t be able to handle their active games. No need to bar kids from being kids outside, though. Just plant appropriately! Both thyme and clover (see below) can handle walking, running, or somersaults.
4. White Clover (Trifolium repens)
- USDA Zones 3 to 10
- Low-maintenance and pollinator-friendly ground cover
Clover may be seen as a weed in a traditional lawn, but what if it was the whole lawn? White clover is super low-maintenance, fantastic for pollinators, thrives in drought, doesn’t grow tall, smells amazing, and won’t need to be watered or fertilized. As a legume, it is a nitrogen fixer, so you can think of it as creating its own fertilizer. It grows beautifully in zones 3 to 10 in full sun or partial shade, and it isn’t picky about soil quality.
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There are two downsides that I see to clover. The first is that it is a little less durable than a grass lawn, but this can be easily remedied by planting grass and clover together. They’ll back up each other and give you a surface that will take the worst of what your kids and dogs can throw at it.
The second downside is that it’s considered invasive in the United States. Clover is originally a native of Europe. I have somewhat ambivalent feelings about its invasiveness, however, as it is a fantastic fodder crop, wonderful for bees, and in my opinion, far better than grass alone. There’s absolutely no chance of eradicating clover, but if you’re intending to plant an entirely native patch on your land, be aware that clover does spread and isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
As a side note, be sure you’re planting white clover. Red clover while edible and medicinal, grows to be feet taller than the comfortable strolling-height of its more diminutive cousin.
5. Lily Turf (Liriope)
- USDA Zones 4 to 10
- Most grass-like ground cover
Also called monkey grass (though there’s a totally different family of plants that also shares the common name) and lilyturf, this easy-care perennial is a fantastic choice for borders and those awkward areas of ground between sidewalks and the road, or around trees.
If you don’t need your yard for kickball games, you could even plant this flowering relative of narcissus in the whole yard. It forms a dense cover that barely requires maintenance. It is actually damaged most by overwatering and certainly doesn’t need to be mowed — though it’s not a plant you should plan on walking over.
Grow it in full sun or partial shade in zones 4 to 10 and enjoy your extra time without maintenance. There are a few different varieties of Liriope including L. muscari (clumping), L. gigantea (giant), and L. spicata (spreading).
6. Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)
- USDA Zones 4 to 8
- Best ground cover for acidic soils
Many of us probably have some evergreen trees with bare spots surrounding them. The acid soil produced by their dropped needles is not always welcoming for growth. There are some plants, however, that can thrive in that environment, particularly if your pines and spruces are open enough to let some light hit the ground. Check through this list of native plants that tolerate acid soils (go for wild ginger and wintergreen for some bonus edible treats).
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Also useful for shady, acid areas is sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). This European beauty is a non-native but very pretty ground cover that gives off an attractive aroma and grows in shade from zones 4 to 8. With starry, compound leaves and delicate white flowers, it can fill that bare patch with grace.
Care for this plant is simple. It doesn’t need to be watered, fertilized, or really messed with except for keeping its runners contained. Like all the creeping plants in this list, it can invade surrounding areas if left unchecked.
7. Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea)
- USDA Zones 5 to 9
- Fast-growing ground cover
I know, the name makes you feel like there’s a mustachioed man secretively staring at you from a fifteen-passenger van, but this pretty ground cover deserves a better reputation. Many people spend a lot of effort trying to poison it out of their lawns as a weed. It’s truly a shame because this “weed” does just great as a lawn in its own right.
It’s low growing with purple and green foliage, medicinally useful, pleasantly-flowered with little purple blooms, and able to flourish in the shade. Why does everyone hate this poor plant? You probably already have it growing in your yard if you live in zones 5 to 9. I would recommend letting it do its thing.
An issue with ground ivy, as it is also known, is keeping its invasive nature contained. If you’re interested in growing only native plants in a certain area, be on your guard against the aggressive runners. Also, it’s apparently toxic to horses, so plan accordingly.
8. Most Shade-Tolerant: Moss
- All USDA Zones
- Most shade-tolerant ground cover
Recreate that dreamy, dense carpet of spongy green that covers forest floors with a moss bed of your own. These soft-to-walk-on carpets require no mowing and can even tolerate some foot traffic. If you’re going to be trampling them a lot, I would recommend using flagstones for the heavy-use areas and letting them fill in the gaps with their luscious green.
Moss does require some specific situations for its best growth. The optimal choice for your area is native types that want to grow there anyway, so you’ll have to do some local research. Don’t harvest mosses from the wild. If you can, try to harvest them from your own lawn (they’re probably there) and use that as your base.
You can use a blender to make a moss slurry to propagate them (or to use as green graffiti — but that’s a whole different topic). Generally, they need acid soils, compact earth, shade, and enough moisture to keep them from drying out and turning brown.
9. Let the Meadow Return!
Maintaining a traditional lawn is a lot of work. You’re essentially forcing a monoculture to exist on land that wants anything but that! If you have the space for it, and the freedom to do what you want on your land without your HOA getting their panties in a bunch, consider returning the majority of your lawn back to what it was originally. For many of us, this could be a prairie, meadow, or a desert xeriscape depending on your location.
- All USDA Zones
- Most low-maintenance ground cover
This return could be as simple as just letting “nature do its thing” on your property. The birds will poop out some local seeds, the wind will carry in others, and eventually, you’ll start seeing more variety than boring old grass. This is how my parents handled their lawn. They still mowed it when needed to keep it from growing too tall, but when it came time for a middle-school wildflower collection project, I found 15 of the 20 specimens required from my own backyard!
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If you want to restore your land to a healthy, biodiverse zone of totally native plants, however, you’ll need to take out the old and bring in the new. Some beautiful and useful plants just can’t get a foothold if grass and clover are in the way. You will need to research what local, native plants could live in your area. Websites like Grow Native can help you rediscover what your land once grew.
Meadows benefit from being mowed (or scythed) only twice a year. So the weekly task of mowing the lawn is one you won’t need to put on the to-do list! Instead, you can welcome the hosts of butterflies, bees, pollinators, and birds that benefit from the food-rich habitat you’ve returned to your patch of Earth. For more information and motivation to convert at least part of your yard into a beautiful meadow, check out this article.
We may have inherited a legacy of carefully nursing non-native grasses into a bizarre, artificial carpet of featureless green, but we don’t need to accept that as our lawn-fate. Make your yard more than just an obsolete status-symbol, and transform it into something beautiful, aromatic, edible, and biodiverse.
Have any of you dared to spurn convention and gotten rid of your lawns for something better? If you have to deal with an HOA, what are your strategies for trying to make them see the light? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!