Every new homeowner fantasizes about the perfect lawn. Emerald green, banked by flourishing beds, all surrounded by a white picket fence. The smell of fresh cut grass in the morning and the perfect ballpark mowing stripes. Fast forward a few years (or months) to the realization that that perfect lawn takes more time, money, and stress than you could have imagined. Got some shady spots? Good luck. Droughts common in your area? Time to break out the sprinkler. Don't worry, you only have to water every day. You say you have an underground irrigation system? Have you seen what an overwatered lawn looks like? Not pretty. And let's not even get into weed control. So, over time, that green mass turns into a patchy brown mess.
Depending on your location, schedule, and wallet, grass may not be the right fit for you. But, thankfully, there are plenty of out-of-the-box grass alternatives that are maintenance free, grow rapidly, and are just as beautiful as a conventional lawn.
White Dutch Clover (Trifolium repens)
Most of us already have this quick-spreading little bugger in our lawns. Yes, it is usually considered a weed. But in recent years studies have shown how beneficial clover actually is. It has come to be referred to as a "wanted weed." Clover is best known for fertilizing the soil. Like peanuts, it's a legume that stores nitrogen in nodes underground, thus enriching the soil. One bed of clover can quickly transform poor soil (where it will still excel) into nutrient-rich soil. Their deep roots also aide in reducing soil compaction.
Clover has a slew of other benefits. It flourishes in full sun to partial shade and is very drought tolerant, staying green and lush even on the hottest summer days. The seeds have a high germination rate and grow rapidly, stretching to fill large spaces easily. As mentioned earlier, it can grow in a range of soil types and pH levels, and it is basically maintenance free, needing a mowing only once a month during the growing season. Clover thrives as a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 5 through 9 and will stay green down to single digits in the winter. A spring lawn can easily be revitalized by simply mowing off any winter burn in March. The white flowers that bloom from spring through summer attract bees and other wildlife. Also, it is very inexpensive to grow, costing only $4.00 per 4,000 square feet of coverage.
If you don't want to ditch the grass all together, clover makes an excellent companion for conventional turf, helping to fertilize the soil for grasses and retain moisture during droughts. When seeding a lawn with clover, keep the soil evenly moist (not soggy) for 3 weeks to ensure proper germination and rooting. While clover is durable under foot-traffic, over-zealous pets may wear out patches eventually. It is not durable enough to withstand very high-traffic areas. And if anyone in your family has an allergy to beestings, you may want to consider a different alternative.
For shady moist lawns, moss is king. Established moss lawns grow in a thick soft carpet that is beautiful to behold. And, not to mention, basically maintenance free. Moss need never be mown and should only be watered in the heaviest of droughts. Moss attaches to the soil using rhizoids, not roots, and gets its moisture and nutrition from the air. Because it is a nonvascular plant, it can grow in heavy clay soils and needs no fertilizer. Weeds can rarely penetrate the thick mossy mat but stick out when they do and can easily be pulled by hand. Your moss lawn will go dormant during the winter, but rebounds quickly in the spring.
Creating a moss lawn is easy. The best way to know which type of moss will flourish in your area is by taking a walk around in the spring and seeing what grows naturally. Then, simply take a chunk (or a few) of the moss and blend it with a cup of buttermilk and a cup of water. Spread this mixture on the ground and keep lightly moist. Germination usually takes 7-10 days. If your space is large and mixing up your own moss milkshake would take too long, you can always go online and buy a mixture there. For shady lawns Hypnum and Thuidium are two popular low-growing varieties. Or, cut small plugs of moss from a source, about a inch across and including roots. Place these in your area about 6 inches apart. Keep them damp and watch them spread! In optimum conditions, the moss will grow quickly and be completely filled in in one growing season.
Moss can tolerate foot traffic, but can be uprooted easily by digging dogs or areas of heavy traffic. During periods of drought (less than an inch of rain per week) water only in the morning or evening to prevent spotting. Make sure to keep your moss free of detritus like blankets of fallen leaves, as these will cut off oxygen to the plant and can cause dieback and spotting.
Stonecrop (Sedum spp.)
Where all else burns up, stonecrop flourishes. The sedum genus includes many succulent plants that hold up well in hot dry conditions and less than favorable soil types. Stonecrop is a creeping variety often utilized in rock gardens and the like due to its tolerance of clay or sand soils. There are many types of stonecrop, some that have great cold tolerance, and many that have showy flowers and foliage. Cuttings of stonecrop root easily, need no mowing, and hardly any additional water once established. Some varieties are very hardy and cold tolerant.
Top picks for lawns include: S. albums "Coral Carpet" - Hardy to zone three, shorter than 2 inches tall, and new growth comes in an attractive reddish-pink in the sun. S. rupestre "Blue Spruce" - A gorgeous green-blue variety that is low-growing, hardy to zone four, and partially evergreen. S. kamtschaticum "Variegatum" - Can grow to be 5 inches tall but has stunning green/yellow/white striped foliage and beautiful pinnacles of orange and yellow rosettes in the late summer. Hardy to zone five.
Unfortunately, stonecrop can be fragile and does not hold up well under frequent traffic. Water only during times of drought.
Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora)
This little-used ground cover is a tough plant to kill and an easy lawn alternative. "Frogfruit is robust; it's not delicate at all. I love it because it grows in sun or shade. Any conditions where you would normally grow grass would be perfect," commented Director of Horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Andrea DeLong-Amaya. Frogfruit is evergreen during mild winters, tolerant of both flood and drought, and spreads vigorously. It is highly salt tolerant and can grow in all soil types. This perennial is hardy through USDA zones 6 to 11. Frogfruit has low-growing dense green foliage topped off with attractive white or purple flower clusters all year long. The flowers produce sweet nectar that attract and feed bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Seeds are easy to come by on Native Seed Exchange sites and are typically half the price of conventional grass seed. Sow onto naked soil in mid-April and keep evenly damp. Germination will occur in 2 weeks or so. Once established, in weeks with less than one inch of rain give your lawn a nice soak in the morning or evening. Frogfruit holds up very well in light to medium foot traffic.
If you don't want to be tied down to just one thing, consider a lawn alternative seed mix. Many seed companies produce grass alternative mixes, and the seeds contained within vary. They typically include a variety of maintenance-free grasses, wildflowers, and ground covers. Mix types vary too, from shade-loving mixes to drought tolerant, full-sun tolerant, cold-tolerant, or a few of each. Many offer year round beauty by including multiple perennials with different seasons of interest. Eco-friendly and organic mixes are also available.
Gravel or Mulch
Using an inanimate ground cover may initially seem unappealing. But, this most maintenance free option, when done right, is absolutely gorgeous. There are a huge variety of different stone or mulch mixes in every color, shape, and texture imaginable. If the area to be covered is shaped well and flanked in beds, or includes island beds within, gravel or mulch covered swaths of lawn look elegant and manicured. And, of course, they need no maintenance of any kind. Keep in mind that wood mulches will break down and need to be revamped with fresh mulch once a year. Stone lawns with island beds landscaped in succulents, bulbs, and even small japanese maples, are very aesthetically pleasing and unique.
Conventional lawns certainly do have a nostalgic aesthetic. But, they are a pain to maintain. And the constant watering and spraying for weeds and bugs and fungus is harmful to our environment and the health of your other plants. Do you spend more time lugging around a lawn mower, yanking weeds, and reseeding than you do admiring your big lawn? If so, it might be time to consider one of these alternatives which will not only be easy to grow, but will be easy on the environment and your wallet.