Let’s look realistically at a few lawn alternatives. And note – the term is realistically. This article isn’t going to be pushing a politically correct version of gardening but rather giving you some of the data you require to make an informed decision about what works (or doesn’t work) in your garden and landscaping.
What I’m going to cover in this article
A lot of folks think that groundcover plants are the answer to their dreams when it comes to lawn alternatives. Well, maybe yes and maybe no.
Let’s get one myth out of the way right at the beginning. Ground covers do not fight off or beat back weeds. They might slow down some weed growth (annual seeds) but invasive perennial grass species and other perennial weeds can invade and establish themselves.
So be prepared to weed the ground cover. And this is hand-weeding because there is no registered chemical (not that you’d use one if you’re an organic gardener) that will kill off weeds and not damage the ground cover.
Taller groundcovers such as Pachysandra (once established – it takes several years of hand weeding to get them filled in enough) are tall enough to stop annual weed seeds from getting enough light to initiate germination. And they will shade out any annual weed that starts. Perennial weeds tend to be a little more aggressive and have enough energy to get up and over that canopy.
Short groundcovers such as Thymus species are not overly suited to fight off weeds because of their height and the ability of perennial species to grow up and through that leaf canopy.
Bottom line: Ground covers are great for situations such as deep shade where grass won’t grow but expect to have to do hand-weeding to control weeds. And like all garden areas, if you allow the grass and perennial weeds to become established, you’ll have a mess on your hands.
Native plants and the “meadow look” are also a popular alternative for those who have never done this kind of gardening. The prevailing “wisdom” is that natives somehow are more tolerant of drought and will fight off invading weeds.
Reality is that native plants are no more drought tolerant than some ornamentals. It depends on where you are native to! If you try to grow a native orchid in the heat of Texas, well you’re just out of luck. In order to have a native garden, you have to pick plants that are native to your region not native to other regions.
Planting an Echinacea in a garden area where this plant is not found in nature is simply gardening – not native gardening.
And the bottom line again is that no plant – native or import – will fight off weeds. The larger the area under cultivation, the more you’ll have to weed. Thistles abound in our east coast gardens if you don’t control them immediately and this is not to mention sow-thistle and dandelions that simply love the freedom of no-weeding.
Frankly, planting natives is no less work than planting any other kind of garden if you want it to look good.
Ah, this is the prairie “look” and it can not only look good but can be as low-labor as is possible in lawn alternatives. The reason for this is two-fold. The first is that taller ornamental grasses can compete with the best of them and will hold and fight invaders off. The second is that once the ornamental grasses are established, you wont’ see most invading weeds because the grasses will hide them or disguise them.
You will have to dig out the invading thistles and other taller weeds.
You’ll also have to dig up, divide and separate out different grasses every 3-5 years or the more aggressive species will overgrow the less aggressive plants and you’ll have an area of tall, aggressive grass plants.
It does take a yearly cutting back in the spring to clean up all the debris and old leaves. You’ll be able to do a weeding at this time because weeds will start growing before the ornamental grass,
If this is the “look” you want, then you’re good to go. Do not allow them to escape into the neighbor’s yard. Remember that some of these grasses can send underground rhizomes many feet out from the mother plant.
Treat shrubs as you would a perennial and create pathways through the lawn area and plant nothing but evergreens and flowering shrubs in the area. You’ll be able to create a stunning garden of leaf and blossom color shading and make a lovely garden area in this trendy series of lawn alternatives.
The advantage here is that you can lay landscape fabric and mulch down to reduce and almost totally eliminate weeding. You may have rodent or rabbit damage to bark and stems but this kind of “tall” gardening both looks good and lasts for a long time with relatively little maintenance.
Paving the area or putting in a pond or other hardscape is one of the popular lawn alternatives with small urban garden designers. It eliminates much of the maintenance needed other than killing weed invaders that try to establish themselves between the cracks of the bricks.
You can create color by the seasonal use of container gardens and fashion colors can be used to keep your garden area trendy.
I’ve written a great many articles here on how to have a chemical free lawn and provided guidance here on step-by-step organic management. My sense is that lawns are being given a bad rap when it comes to the ability to grow them organically and get the benefits of a great lawn.
My experience with lawns is that they take no more water than a garden (1 to 1 1/2 inches a week) and if you really want to stop watering, they’ll turn brown and then green back up again in the fall when rains resume. I note that perennials will wither and disappear but will not return in the fall and may even not return the following spring.
The downside of course is that you have to mow the lawn on an almost-weekly basis and this can take time and energy. I also note that if you have an average sized urban lawn, the new generation of hand mowers is both much easier to use than the old push mowers and eco-friendly. Not to mention how good it is for your waistline.
If you have a sunny area – then grass is still one of the best groundcovers as it is easy to maintain, requires few inputs if done organically and gives a great look to the garden area.
If you have a shady area where grass won’t grow, then shade-loving ground covers or hardscapes are probably your options for lawn alternatives.
If you are dead set against grass (for whatever reason) simply understand that it is possible to create any of the above lawn alternatives but that those choices come with a price of labour and more expensive establishment.