Lawn Care

Using Groundcover as a Lawn Alternative

creeping jenny

Every year in the fall, with daytime temperatures cooling off, gardeners everywhere take time to evaluate their landscape and recover from the harsh summer heat and the effect it has on the plants.

Fescue lawns typically require some renovation after summer. The heat stresses out cool season grasses like fescue, causing die out. Without renovation and reseeding of lawns, weeds can quickly take over, changing the landscape and impacting the landscape beds that surround it. Most of us are very familiar with this scenario and shake our heads because of the time, energy and resources that go into the annual renovation of lawn.

Many gardeners are frustrated and have resorted to converting their cool season lawns into warm season lawns, which are well adapted to the heat and go dormant during the cool season. Some community homeowner association restrictive covenants prevent homeowners from moving towards more sustainable warm season grasses—placing homeowners in a “catch 22” cycle of renovate, reseed, and repair. So what options are there for alternatives to a lawn?

There are several ground covers available, and include a variety of plants that are low growing and can tolerate light to moderate pedestrian traffic. These “walk-able” plants are typically evergreen perennials that provide continuous green foliage over the course of the year. These groundcovers do generally flower and change over the year–so the look and feel of the landscape will change with their introduction. Many of these plants are also drought tolerant, with different species available for the different environmental conditions that exist in the landscape, including selections recommended for sun to shade and in-between.

When introducing a ground cover as a replacement for lawn, you will be changing the way you manage your landscape. Instead of mowing, you will be weeding, at least until the groundcover has effectively covered the area of your landscape. This may require that you phase in the transition so that you are not overwhelmed by unwanted additional maintenance. Once the ground cover has established itself, which can take three years depending on spacing, less maintenance should be required.

Stepping-stones can easily be added to the area to more clearly define pedestrian paths and can add interest to the overall landscape plan. The initial investment for alternative groundcovers in place of lawn is higher. Keep in mind that groundcovers spread and will require periodic edging to keep them confined, in addition to occasional thinning of plants depending on the groundcover selection. Consideration of the added costs associated with installing and initially maintaining groundcovers should be taken into account prior to making the decision to move forward with this project.

The variety of lawn alternatives is vast. Begin by analyzing the site and assessing the environmental conditions, which include: light, soil pH, soil moisture and size. Consider how the space is used and identify areas where high traffic may occur. Make sure you choose plants that are hardy for our climate (zone 7b) and can withstand cold winter temperatures and variable weather conditions including periodic drought.

Fall is a great time of year to get the project started. Soil temperatures are still warm which encourages root systems to grow and develop. Outdoor air temperatures are lower, reducing transplant stress, with plenty of time still available for the new transplants to grow and establish themselves before winter.

These are just a few of the possible groundcover options to consider as an alternative to a lawn.

Full Sun
Candytuft
(Iberis sempervirens)

Creeping phlox
(Phlox stolonifera)

Creeping thyme
(Thymus serpyllum)

St. Johns’ Wort
(Hypericum species)

Part sun to part shade
Bugal weed
(Ajuga reptans species)

Creeping wire vine
(Muehlenbeckia axillaries)

Periwinkle
(Vinca minor species)

Shade
Dwarf mondo grass
(Ophiopogon species)

Heuchera species
* not a walk-able groundcover

Lentin rose
(Helleborus orientalis)
* not a walk-able groundcover

Golden creeping Jenny
(Lysimachia Goldii)

For a comprehensive selection of groundcovers in go to:
•    www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/quickref/ground%20cover/groundcover.html
•    www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/factsheets/groundcover/groundcoverindex.html
•    ag.udel.edu/udbg/sl/vegetation/Groundcovers.pdf

Byline
Michelle Wallace is the former Consumer Horticulture Agent for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in Durham Co. For questions about groundcovers or to get additional advice, contact the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners at 919-560-0528 or email [email protected]