Monday, June 7, 2010

Lawn Grass Substitutes

For some homeowners, lawn work is therapeutic and the end result is a matter of pride.  Others consider it to be necessary, but time-consuming and an unwelcome expense.  Some folks think lawns are ecologically unfriendly, requiring chemical applications and too much water.  The fact is that lawns can be all of that, more or less.  It depends on your perspective.  But this guide is not intended to argue the virtues and vices of grass.  The purpose is to stimulate your thinking about options and to inform you of various plant alternatives to the typical lawn.

What practical purposes do lawns serve?
  • Lawns prevent wind and water erosion.
  • Lawns moderate soil and air temperatures.
  • Lawns suppress growth of undesirable plants.
  • Lawns create buffers.
  • Lawns allow visibility.
  • Lawns provide resilient living surfaces for outdoor activities.
Grass does all of these so well.

When thinking about alternatives, you should consider which of these purposes you need to satisfy, then determine whether anything else will work so well for you as grass.

As with any landscape plan, you'll need to assess your circumstances and choose your plants accordingly.  Consider your maximum and minimum seasonal temperatures, exposure to sun or shade, available water, slope, soil characteristics.

Almost any low-growing plant will help to prevent erosion, moderate temperatures, suppress weeds, create buffers and allow for visibility.  But fewer accommodate foot traffic in outdoor living spaces as well as grass.  Even grass has its limits.

The following plants tolerate some foot traffic, especially if planted around flag stones or pavers, and are easy to step over.  Some are drought-tolerant.  The list is not exhaustive.  The descriptions are very brief.

Acaena inermis.  Also known as New Zealand Bur.  Best varieties are 'Purpurea' and 'Blue Haze'.  Evergreen foliage of 'Purpurea' turns red in full sun.  Foliage of 'Blue Haze is blue-gray color.  Creamy white flowers in early summer.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 6-9.  Grows to 6" in height.  Drought tolerant.  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Acinos alpinus.  Also known as Alpine Calamint or Alpine Catmint.  Pinkish purple flower from spring to fall.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 5-10.  Height approx. 6".  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Ajuga reptans.  Also known as Carpet Bugleweed.  Bronze to variegated foliage.  Blue flowers on short spikes in spring.  Full sun to full shade.  USDA climate zones 3-9.  Well-drained soil.  Drought-tolerant.  Best varieties include 'Burgundy Glow' (3" to 4"), 'Chocolate Chip' (2" to 4"), 'Gaiety'/'Bronze Improved' (3" to 4").  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Arenaria balearica.  Also known as Mossy Sandwort.  Evergreen foliage.  White blooms in spring.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-11.  Grows to under 6" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Chrysogonum virginianum 'Pierre'.  Also known as Green and Gold.  Yellow flowers over green foliage.  Full sun to partial shade.  USDA climate zones 5-9.  Moist soil.  Grows 4" to 6" in height.  Low tolerance for foot traffic.


Cymbalaria aequitriloba.  Also known as Kenilworth Ivy.  Evergreen foliage.  White to purple flowers in spring to summer.  Light shade to full shade in USDA climate zones 7-10.  Drought tolerant.  Grows to 6".  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Euonymus fortunei 'Kewensis'.  Glossy green foliage only 1/4" to 5/8".  Full sun to full shade.  Drought-tolerant.  USDA climte zones 4-9.  Grows to 3".  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Ficus pumila.  Also known as Creeping Fig.  Green or variegated foliage.  Can climb.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 8b-10.  Grows from 1/2" to 1 1/2" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Glechoma hederacea 'Variegata'.  Also known as Variegated Ground Ivy or Variegated Creeping Charlie.  Blue flowers spring to summer.  Full sun to full shade in USDA climate zones 3-9.  Grows to under 3".  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Herniaria glabra.  Also known as Green Carpet.  'Sea Foam' is a good variety.  Evergreen green or variegated leaves turn red in winter.  White flower.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 6-9 (some gardeners report success in zones 5 - 11).  Grows to 3".  High tolerance for foot traffic.

Houstonia caerulea.  Also known as Bluets.  Light blue flowers from spring to fall.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 3-8.  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides.  Also known as Pennywort.  Small white flowers in summer.  Requires moist soil.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 8-10.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Laurentia (Isotoma) fluviatilis.  Also known as Blue Star Creeper.  Blue flowers in spring.  Evergreen to semi-evergreen foliage.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 5b to 10.  Grows to 3".  High tolerance for foot traffic.

Leptinella gruveri.  Also known as Brass Buttons.  The hybrid 'Platt's Black' is very beautiful.  Small yellow flowers in summer.  Forms dense evergreen carpet.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 8-10.  High tolerance for foot traffic.

Lotus corniculatus.  Also known as Bird Foot Trefoil.  Dense dark green mat.  Orange buds and yellow flowers from spring to fall.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 3-9.  Grows to 4".  High tolerance for foot traffic.

Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea'.  Also known as Golden Creeping Jenny.  Low, mat-forming plant with gold leaves and yellow flowers.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 3-10.  Grows to 3".  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Mazus reptans.  Blue or white flowers in spring.  Fast-spreading.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 2" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Muehlenbeckia axillaris.  Also known as Creeping Wire Vine or Maidenhair Vine.  Low, mat-forming plant.  Small white flowers in summer.  Full sun to full shade in USDA climate zones 5-10.  Drought-tolerant.  Grows to 4".  High tolerance for foot traffic.

Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana'.  Also known as Dwarf Mondo Grass.  Evergreen, dark leaf blades 1/8" wide.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun to full shade in USDA climate zones 6-10.  Grows to 3".  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Phlox subulata.  Also known as Thrift or Creeping Phlox.  Pink, red, white, lavender flowers in early spring.  Tolerates drought and wide range of soil conditions.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 3-9.  Grows 4" to 6" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Potentilla neumanniana 'Nana'.  Also known as Creeping Cinquefoil.  Dark green leaves.  Evergreen.  Yellow flowers in late spring.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 5-10.  Grows to 3".   High tolerance for foot traffic.

Pratia angulata.  Also known as Star Creeper.  Dark green leaves.  White to blue flowers in spring.  Red fruit in fall.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 6-10.  Grows to 2".  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Pratia pendunculata.  Also known as Little Star Creeper.  Syn. Isotoma, Laurentia.  'County Park' and 'Tom Stone' are desirable varieties.  Blue to purple star-shaped flowers from spring to fall.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 7-10.  Grows to under 6".  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Rubus calycinoides.  Also known as Creeping Raspberry.  Dark green, puckered foliage.  Evergreen.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 6-10.  Grows to 2".  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Sagina subulata.  Also known as Scotch Moss.  Green or gold foliage with small white star-shaped flowers.  Forms low, dense mat.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 3".  High tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum album.  Also known as Baby Tears.  Teardrop-shaped green foliage turns red in fall.  White flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 4".  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum acre.  Also known as Gold Moss or Gold Stonecrop.  Soft yellow-green foliage turns red in winter.  Yellow flowers.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 4".  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum hispanicum var. minus.  Also known as Blue Moss, Blue Stonecrop or Tiny Buttons.  Soft blue-gray groundcover produces small pink flowers in summer. Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 2-9.  Grows to 4".  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum lydium.  Also known as Mossy Stonecrop.  Succulent green leaves turn burgundy-red when stressed by drought or cold.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 5-9.  Grows to 4".  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum makinoi 'Ogon'.  Small evergreen foliage gold in color with pink shades.  Yellow-green flowers in spring.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 7-9.  Grows to 2" in height.  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum requieneii.  Also known as Miniature Stonecrop.  Very small green leaves and yellow star-shaped flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to less than 2".  Very durable.  High tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum spurium 'Dragon's Blood'.  Red and green variegated leaves in whorled clusters.  Red flowers in late summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 3-9. Grows to 3".  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum spurium 'Fuldaglut'.  Semi-evergreen, bronze fleshy leaves whorled around the stem.  Turns burgundy in fall.  Pink-red flowers in summer.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 3-9.  Grows to 3" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum spurium 'John Creech'.  Semi-evergreen, fleshy foliage.  Pink flowers in early spring.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 3-9.  Grows to 2" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum spurium Tricolor'.  Variegated green, red and white foliage.  Evergreen.  Pink flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 3-9.  Grows to 4" in height.  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Sedum tetractinum.  Also known as Chinese Sedum.  Flat evergreen foliage, light green in color turns reddish in fall.  Yellow flowers in summer.  Drought tolerant.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 3" in height.  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Thymus doerfleri
'Doone Valley'.  Also known as Wild Thyme or Doone Valley Thyme.  Lemon-scented golden variegated foliage is evergreen.  Produces lilac flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 4".  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Thymus praecox 'Elfin'.  Also known as Miniature Thyme.  Gray-green foliage forms tight mat.  Light pink flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 5-10.  Grows to under 2".  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Thymus praecox 'Pink Chintz'.  Gray-green fragrant foliage is evergreen.  Light pink flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows 1" to 3" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Thymus praecox ' Coccineus'.  Also known as Red Creeping Thyme.  Scented foliage turns bronze in winter.  Red flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 4" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Thymus praecox 'Albiflorus'.  Also known as Wild Thyme or White Creeping Thyme.  Scented evergreen foliage.  White flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 4" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Thymus praecox
'Pseudolanuginosus'.  Also known as Wooly Thyme.  Scented gray foliage is evergreen.  Pink flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 3" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Thymus citriodorus.  Also known as Creeping Lemon Thyme.  Green, lemon-scented foliage is evergreen.  Lilac flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 3" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Thymus citriodorus 'Archer's Gold'.  Also known as 'Archer's Gold' Lemon Thyme or Creeping Lemon Thyme.  Bright gold, lemon-scented foliage is evergreen.  Lilac flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 3" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Thymus x 'Spicy Orange'.  Green, needle-like foliage is fragrant and evergreen.  Pink flowers in summer.  Drought-tolerant.  Full sun in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 2" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Trifolium repens 'Atropurpureum'.  Red-bronze evergreen foliage with green margin.  White flowers in spring and summer.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Excellent for erosion control.  Grows to under 6" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Veronica liwanensis
.  Also known as Turkish Speedwell.  Evergreen, deep green color.  Blue flowers in summer.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-8.  Grows to under 4" in height.  Low tolerance for foot traffic.

Veronica penduncularis 'Georgia Blue'.  Evergreen foliage turns bronze in fall.  Blue flowers in spring.  Drought tolerant.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows 3" to 6".  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Veronica repens 'Sunshine.'  Also known as 'Sunshine' Creeping Speedwell.  Yellow green foliage.  Bluish-white flowers in spring to summer.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 6-9.  Drought-tolerant.  Grows to 1" in height.  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Veronica surculosa 'Waterperry'.  Also known as 'Waterperry Blue'.  Lustrous semi-evergreen foliage turns bronze in winter.  Blue flowers in spring.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-8.  Grows to under 4".  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Veronica x 'New Century'.  Evergreen, deep green color.  Foliage turns bronze in winter.  Blue flowers in summer.  Full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 4-9.  Grows to 4".  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

Viola labradorica.  Also known as Labrador Violet.  Foliage changes color throughout seasons, green-blue-black.  Small lilac flowers from spring to fall.  Partial shade in USDA climate zones 3-8.  Grows to under 4".  Medium tolerance for foot traffic.

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