Lawn Alternatives

Image of Loriope No Mo

The green sea of a well-kept lawn adds a sense of serenity to the yard, however harsh chemicals and time spent on upkeep can ruin this tranquility.

By Abby Lapides

[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener March 2019 issue.]

The green sea of a well-kept lawn adds a sense of serenity to the yard, however harsh chemicals and time spent on upkeep can ruin this tranquility. Low maintenance lawn alternatives are key to keeping you and your lawn Zen.

An image of Carex eburnea

Bristle leaf sedge, Carex eburnea, photo by Hortech

Sedges are a great place to start when looking into plants that give the feel of a lawn. The Missouri native bristle leaf sedge, Carex eburnea, is perfect for those shady spots around trees where almost no turf grass will grow. Hair-like green blades grow 6 to 12” tall and wide in just about any shady spot, and will thrive and spread via rhizomes if in richer soils. Tolerates light foot traffic.

Another Missouri native sedge with a similar appearance is the Pennsylvania sedge, Carex pensylvanica. It grows about a foot tall and wide with wispy green blades that lay on the ground like a delicate carpet. Also known as oak sedge, it is happiest when in the company of oaks. Grows in part to full shade and will slowly spread through rhizomes.

An excellent groundcover for shady areas is ‘Green Sheen’ spurge. Growing about 8” tall, glossy foliage forms a dense carpet of dark green that looks perfect all year long. ‘Green Sheen’ thrives in dark shade and the deer and bunnies don’t bother it. It is best planted where there is low foot traffic.

One plant that may be the perfect alternative to turf grasses is ‘NOMO’ creeping lily turf. ‘NOMO’ is the compact sister of traditional creeping lily turf that’s been a staple groundcover for many years. ‘NOMO’ reaches only 3-6” tall and forms thick lush lawns that needs no mowing and can withstand children and dog traffic. It grows in sun or shade and is drought tolerant once established. No mowing, no watering, no-brainer!

An image of Phlox subulata Red Wing

Phlox subulata ‘Red Wing’, image courtesy Walters Gardens

 Creeping phlox or moss phlox is a staple for early spring gardens. Its complete carpeting of bright colors when blooming brings a joy like no other. While I adore the flowers, I’m more interested in the tough green foliage that grows in just about any sunny spot with good drainage. The low semi-evergreen foliage forms a dense green carpet that can tolerate some foot traffic. It looks fabulous when spilling over retaining walls or planted on a hill. I wouldn’t replant my whole yard with creeping phlox, but it would be an ideal choice for a sunny slope or near the driveway.

If you have a hot and dry spot that the sprinkler isn’t hitting, look to sedums to give a lush carpet without much water. Sedums come in all different colors and heights. My favorites for a low growing lawn alternative are the golden yellow ‘Angelina’ or the vibrant red ‘Wildfire’. Sedums play well together so plant a few in the same area to give a rainbow of color. These beauties require little to no water, but I would not put them where there’s foot traffic.

Instead of tearing out your hair trying to figuring out what fungal disease is infecting your grass or attempting to kill the myriad of weeds infesting your lawn, plant some groundcovers and return to the joy of gardening.

Abby Lapides is owner and a speaker at Sugar Creek Gardens Nursery in Kirkwood, Missouri. She has degrees from the University of Missouri, and is a member of the Landscape and Nursery Association of Greater St. Louis.