Like any traditional American gardener, I’ve paid homage to the gods of turfgrass around my house. I’ll admit that lawns provide a place to rest the eye and showcase mixed borders; they also create a sense of order and safety around the house. But turfgrass is boring—not to mention high maintenance. All the buying and schlepping of products and the constant mowing and watering is overwhelming. Maintaining my lawn required carrying a mower down some tricky stairs, and because I didn’t water my lawn, it looked brown for most of the summer. So I was actually being selfish when I dug up and composted my turfgrass. And with the grass gone, I also kissed good-bye to the mower, the fertilizer, the sprinkler, and almost all of the weeding.
If you don’t need a tough playing surface for kids and dogs, grass can be replaced with just about anything—trees, shrubs, perennials, edibles, patios, gazebos—but I chose to simply copy the look of a lawn using plants more to my liking. No mini-meadow for me—just low ground covers that require little or no care, are interesting and fun to grow, and look good all year. What I call my gorgeous “exlawn” is thriving with a mix of evergreen ground covers that enjoy sun, can handle light traffic, and will survive a heavy garden hose being lugged across them.
Mass these ground covers for a one-of-a-kind look
The most grasslike plant I’ve experimented with is lilyturf (Liriope spicata and cvs.). Definitely in the “thug” category, lilyturf is best planted alone and in controlled sites. I recommend it for the hellstrip between sidewalks and streets, but its vigorous runners may still reappear on the other side of the sidewalk. I would avoid planting it in areas you walk over because it has a lumpy growth habit and reaches 8 to 16 inches tall. Because lilyturf does not require mowing, you could also plant it on steep banks where erosion is a problem and mowing is difficult. In moist or dry soil and in sun or shade, this plant thrives (but spreads less aggressively in full shade). Because it fills in fast, this type of liriope will cover large spaces at little or no cost. In my town, neighbors are always willing to share their extras.
A well-behaved cousin (Liriope muscari and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 6–10) is a much better choice where spreading would be a problem. It has the same carefree qualities as lilyturf, including the optional care of late-winter clipping or mowing to remove ratty foliage.
Where my oval-shaped, 20-foot-long by 11-foot-wide front lawn once grew, I planted a few varieties of thyme (Thymus spp. and cvs.) for their fragrance and drought tolerance. Slow spreading and at a cost of $3 to $6 per plant, they’re not an inexpensive option. You can expect each plant to spread about 6 inches per year, so filling a large space takes a hefty budget or a lot of patience. I learned the hard way that plopping thyme into regular garden soil just won’t do. It needs a good 6-inch depth of fast-draining soil for optimal growth.
If you are growing thyme, expect to weed aggressively the first year. During the second year, it will begin to outcompete new weed seeds, and by the third or fourth season, it will reach full coverage. To speed up the process, divide larger clumps to fill in any gaps. Once filled in, thyme is close to trouble-free. It doesn’t require mowing or fertilizing and only needs water in drought conditions. It can handle moderate foot traffic (being walked on once or twice a day), and it releases a lovely fragrance as you stroll over it. I grow ‘Bressingham’ creeping thyme (T. doerfleri ‘Bressingham’, Zones 6–9) and white creeping thyme (T. serphyllum ‘Albus’, Zones 4–9); both are under 2 inches tall.
An option for shady sites with some daily foot traffic is mazus (Mazus reptans and cvs.), which spreads by creeping stems that root as they creep along. At 2 inches tall, it appears almost flat against the soil. It prefers moist soil, so provide some irrigation in dry climates. When established, it’s a dense green carpet that outcompetes weeds and sports attractive lavender blooms in spring through summer. It is noted for fall color in some climates and is evergreen in warm areas.
Golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) is a known thug. It doesn’t play well with its neighbors but is perfect for replacing lawns as it can be kept within bounds simply by edging. The plant is less than 3 inches tall with an aggressive spread. Its eye-popping chartreuse leaves turn an attractive red in winter, then green up again in early spring. It tolerates full sun to partial shade and needs supplemental water during periods of moderate drought. It’s tough enough to handle occasional foot traffic.
Mix these low growers for a creative alternative to turf
If a single species massed together is not exciting enough for you, create your own growing mosaic by combining a few species together.
Vigorous enough to be combined with golden creeping Jenny is dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla neumanniana ‘Nana’); together, they form a lovely mosaic in chartreuse and light green. From April to June, dwarf cinquefoil has small, buttery gold flowers, which hover over delicate strawberry-like leaves that reach 3 to 4 inches tall with about a 1-foot spread. Plant it in well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade and then leave it alone; it’s tough as nails but doesn’t tolerate being transplanted. Dwarf cinquefoil can take more foot traffic than the other lawn alternatives I’ve planted, but it still can’t handle any soccer games.
In my 1,000-square-foot backyard, I planted golden carpet sedum (Sedum acre, Zones 3–8), a creeping variety that is only 4 inches tall. Because I already had this succulent growing along my dry streambed, I simply lifted chunks of it and planted them a foot apart across the expanse that was once lawn; within two months, they completely filled in without costing me a cent. It’s drought tolerant and never needs fertilizing—or really any care at all. By the second year, the sedum was thick enough to completely outcompete weeds. Golden carpet sedum has bright yellow blooms in late spring, which are covered by pollinators. Its undulating habit is lovely, and despite a short root system, it retains the soil on the hillside in my back garden. Although it is slower growing, creeping red sedum (Sedum spurium and cvs., Zones 4–9) sports multicolored leaves and makes an interesting combination with golden carpet sedum. Both varieties handle light foot traffic.
For a nice companion to creeping sedums, I tried Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens, Zones 4–8). Clovers were once added to turf mixes for their excellent nitrogen-fixing or self-fertilizing talents until the weed killer 2,4-D turned out to kill it, too; after that, advertisers simply rebranded it as a weed. It’s not a weed. It’s a self-feeding wonder plant, and compared to common turfgrasses, it tolerates more shade, poorer soils, and less water. Yet when I mixed clover with a creeping sedum, by the second season it shaded and then killed the shorter plant, so don’t do what I did! Clover is best grown alone to form a cheap, easy-care lawn (though one that’s not tough enough for sports). Clover growers can mow regularly to mimic the look of a lawn, mow once in summer to remove brown flowers and encourage rebloom, or not mow at all.
My exlawn is certainly more colorful and interesting than turfgrass could ever be and is less work—that is, less work than the perfect-looking, overwatered, overfed, and oversprayed lawn my dad was so proud of. My mix of lilyturf, thyme, mazus, creeping Jenny, dwarf cinquefoil, sedum, and clover is always evolving. I’ll be tweaking it for years to come. After all, what I love is gardening, not “yardening.”
3 Ways to Remove Grass
1. Power it up
You can slice the sod with a sod cutter, but expect to get some good exercise in the process. A gas-powered sod cutter is not as fast and easy as its makers claim, but it’s worth a try; it can be rented from most equipment-rental stores for about $45 a day. For the same cost, try a rototiller. It unearths the grass and weeds but does not remove them. The problem is that, because the grass and weeds are not removed, the seeds and roots remain and weeding soon becomes a problem.
2. Muscle it out
I used a flat-edged shovel to remove my lawn. I slid the blade under the sod roots, sliced out an area, and lifted the chunks out by hand. I removed about 30 square feet of sod per hour this way. I cold-composted the clumps of sod, which delivered the best compost ever—without my ever having to turn the pile.
3. Smother it down
The layer method (also known as “lawn lasagna”) smothers rather than removes the grass. Place eight overlapping layers of newspaper or one layer of cardboard over the area you want to remove, then cover that with about a 3-inch-deep layer of weed-free mulch or compost. Water it down, and wait. This simple decomposing process takes six months to a year. So if you have patience, this is a good option for you.
Susan Harris tends her exlawn in the Washington, D.C., area. She is a member of the Lawn Reform Coalition, and writes for GardenRant.com.
Photos, except where noted: Steve Aitken
The following plant sellers offer the widest selection of lawn alternatives mentioned in this article.