Don't Want a Lawn? Try These Alternatives

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Face it. Dry climates, such as the desert Southwest, and the amount of water that a lawn needs make having a lawn out of the question for some people. Here are some more usable or low-maintenance alternatives:

  • Plant ground covers: Ground covers are usually low-growing, often spreading plants that form a uniform layer of foliage when planted close together. Ground covers range from very low-growing plants that are just a few inches high to more shrubby types that are several feet high.

    [Credit:
    Credit: "Ground Cover," © 2008 Peter Smithy, psmithy, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode 

    Many of these ground huggers can withstand light foot traffic:

    • Wooly yarrow (Achillea tomentosa): This tough, hardy ground cover reaches to about 6 to 9 inches high and can take foot traffic. In the summer, yellow flowers complement the ferny, gray-green foliage.

    • Carpet bugle (Ajuga reptans): Carpet bugle grows 2 to 6 inches high with handsome, deep green or purplish leaves. This hardy plant sports blue flowers that grow on spikes in spring and early summer.

    • Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile): This plant’s fine-textured, aromatic foliage reaches about 6 inches high.

    • English ivy (Hedera helix): This widely adapted, sprawling foliage plant sometimes has variegated leaves. Generally, this hardy plant grows 12 to 18 inches high and can climb.

    • Aaron’s Beard, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum calycinum): Sunny yellow flowers highlight this hardy plant, which grows 12 inches high.

    • Iceplant (Aizoaceae): This large family of low-growing succulents has bright flowers. Most of these drought-tolerant plants are not very hardy and are best adapted to mild-winter climates.

    • Mondo grass or lily turf (Liriope or Ophiopogon): Grassy leaves and summer flowers identify these two similar, hardy plants. They also thrive in shade.

    • Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis): This attractive foliage plant is ideal for shady, moist situations.

    • Spring cinquefoil (Potentilla tabernaemontana): Spring cinquefoil has neatly lobed leaves and yellow flowers and grows 3 to 6 inches high.

    • Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox): A spreading herb with aromatic foliage and white to pink flowers, this plant grows 3 to 6 inches high.

    • Dwarf periwinkle (Vinca minor): This ground cover displays dark green leaves and violet blue flowers. Growing 6 to 12 inches high, dwarf periwinkles thrive in shade and are hardy.

    Shrubby ground covers include plants that are shrubbier and usually taller. Unless otherwise mentioned, all are very hardy.

    • Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi): This hardy evergreen shrub grows to about 12 inches high and sports small white flowers and red berries.

    • Barberries (Berberis): Barberries are available in many low-growing varieties, some with purplish-green leaves.

    • Cotoneasters (Cotoneaster): This large group of deciduous and evergreen plants includes many excellent ground covers.

    • Winterberry (Euonymus fortunei): Winterberries are very hardy evergreen plants that come in many fine ground cover forms.

    • Junipers (Juniperus): These excellent, hardy plants have needlelike foliage.

    • Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides): The sprawling, vining evergreen plant has shiny foliage and fragrant flowers.

  • Plant a tranquil meadow: One exciting trend in lawn alternatives is the new interest in using native grasses and other low-growing prairie-type plants. Meadows come in three basic types.

    • Native grasses are superbly adapted to their native ranges and often well-adapted to other areas, too. Native grasses can survive on less water than traditional lawn grasses. You don’t have to mow (or just mow infrequently), so they’re low maintenance.

    • Meadow mixes usually include a combination of low-growing wildflowers and native or introduced grasses.

    • Wildflowers come in seed mixes that you can choose according to region of adaptation, plant height, flower color, whether they grow in sun or shade, and even how well they attract butterflies. For a lawn alternative, you probably want lower-growing plants, but if you don’t need to walk on it, any height can do.

  • Build a deck or patio: A deck or patio can be a very useful and low-maintenance alternative to a lawn. Granted, this alternative can be quite a bit more expensive than turf, but the beauty and style that decks and patios add to a landscape are usually worth it.

    Even in the front yard, many people find that a deck or patio — combined with a fence or wall for privacy — can turn a tired-looking home into one with character and utility.

  • Fill space with gravel, stones, and rock: Rock and gravel look best in the landscape when they mimic nature. Use one color of the same size rock everywhere, and you have just plain ugly. Use a blend of sizes, shapes, and colors of local rock, and you create real beauty.


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