Know your turfgrass alternatives

R. L. Rhodes
Print Friendly

The gleaming green lawn of well-trimmed turfgrass is firmly rooted in the American consciousness, but not every lawn is suited for grass. If you find yourself doing everything right and still struggling to maintain a healthy lawn, maybe it’s time to consider some alternatives. By mixing in different varieties of greenery, you can revitalize your lawn and make caring for your home that much less of a chore.

Herbaceous perennials

Something of a catch-all, this category includes creepers like phlox and juniper, fruiting plants like strawberry and huckleberry, low-lying flowers like cheddar pink and lily of the valley, succulents like sedum (pictured above), as well as mosses and thyme. These diverse ground covers add color and interest to a yard even as they replace thirsty grasses. By relying on native species, you can not only brighten your lawn, but also ensure its survival through the local seasonal extremes.

Most ground covers will need to be contained so that they don’t spread into areas where they’re not wanted. Especially with creeping plants, like strawberries, considering surrounding the plot with a brick or wood edging. Cutting the edging a few edges below the level of the soil will help keep your ground cover from tunneling its way out, a la Hogan’s Heroes.

It can take several years to get a newly planted ground cover to the extent and coverage you’d like. While your ground cover is establishing itself, you’ll need to be vigilant about weeding. Consistent mulching will help as well. Once you’ve achieved the desired coverage, though, these alternative ground cover require relatively little maintenance.

Sedge

Most popular turfgrasses are derived from species that were brought over from Africa, Asia and Europe. They were so popular with settlers, in fact, that they quickly edged out many of the native plants that once filled the North American landscape. Because of its similarities to grass, one of those native varieties, carex or the “true sedge,” has been gaining traction with homeowners in recent years.

One advantage is that many varieties of sedge are evergreen, which handily addresses the frustration some homeowners feel at balancing out cool- and warm-season turfgrasses. Another is that, as native flora, some sedges are better adapted for thriving at local extremes. Some sedges thrive in marshy conditions, making them perfect for water gardens and regions with prolonged rainfall; others are more drought-resistant than most turfgrasses. Some popular North American varieties are catlin, Baltimore and California meadow sedge.

Ornamental grasses

Turfgrass is popular in part because it lends itself to use. You can play on it, walk across it, lounge in it, and so on. But not every plot of yard needs to serve as a low, green activity space. Ornamental grasses are the flashier counterparts to turfgrasses, perfect for filling out landscapes with graceful displays that sway in the breeze.

In many regards, ornamental grasses are much like their low-lying kin. They love sunny exposures and come in cool-season and warm-season varieties. Yet they differ in significant ways. One of the most significant differences is that, once established, ornamental grasses tend to be more drought-resistant than popular turfgrasses, which makes them perfect for yards in drier, hotter climates like the American Southwest. And unlike most turfgrass, the whole point with an ornamental grass is to let it grow tall, so shearing is needed only once or twice a year. If ornamental grasses appeal to you, check out our tutorial on creating a miniature meadow.

Got questions about this article or any other garden topic? Go here now to post your gardening ideas, questions, kudos or complaints. We have gardening experts standing by to help you!