Groundcovers and Plants to Use As Lawn Alternatives

Tired of maintaining a grassy lawn? Prepare for spring and find inspiration to start replacing parts of your lawn with groundcovers.
By: Julie A Martens

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©John Greenlee and Greenlee and Associates

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©Feldman Martin

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©John Greenlee and Greenlee and Associates

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Miniature Brass Buttons (Leptinella gruveri)

Before trading in your turf, consider how much traffic will occur over your lawn replacement. For heavy traffic, miniature brass buttons is the plant of choice. A combination of above and below ground runners combine to create a thick mat that can even withstand car traffic up to twice a day. Miniature brass buttons features serrated leaves and thrives in part to full shade. Moisture is critical; this lawn alternative isn’t drought tolerant. Plants are hardy in Zones 7 to 10.

Woolly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosis)

Swap sloping lawn for a drought-tolerant, sun-loving groundcover with an easy-grows-it personality. Woolly thyme fits the bill perfectly. The woolly leaves form a gray mat that shrugs off pests and diseases. In summer, this groundcover bursts into bloom, transforming any space into a blanket of pink. Woolly thyme demands good drainage and stands up to moderate foot traffic. Plants aren’t useful in the kitchen, but are hardy in Zones 6 to 10. Trim stems as needed to keep plants within boundaries. A light shearing after bloom encourages bushy growth.

Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum)

Create a front yard with outstanding curb appeal thanks to a mixture of groundcovers, native grasses and lavender. This blend features drought-tolerant, sun-loving beauties, including white-flowered snow-in-summer. This perennial groundcover earns its name from the blooms that blanket plants in late spring to early summer. Leaves offer an eye-catching gray hue. Plants spread rapidly, covering upwards of 12 inches of ground annually. Snow-in-summer doesn’t withstand much foot traffic. Plants tolerate full sun, poor soils and are hardy in Zones 3 to 7.

Before & After

Change a traditional lawn for a meadow garden planted with a mix of native sedges like this Burlingame, California home. Sedges are tough, low-maintenance grass relatives that don’t need the intense care turf does. They also create a wildlife-friendly environment, beckoning birds and beneficial insects. Chemicals aren’t necessary to keep this front yard finery looking its best. When planting a meadow, amend soil before planting with plenty of organic material, and be sure to water for the first few months to establish strong root growth.

Roman Chamomile (Chamomile nobilis)

Give your home true curb appeal by replacing street-side lawn with sweetly scented Roman chamomile. This perennial groundcover releases a wonderful fragrance when crushed underfoot — it’s perfect for curbside areas, paths and patios. Yellow button blooms punctuate the bright green leaves in late spring. Plants are hardy in Zones 7 to 10 and cover ground quickly, spreading more than 12 inches annually.

Scotch Moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’)

Combine a groundcover with other flowering perennials to eliminate a hard-to-mow slope. Scotch Moss is tough as nails when it comes to foot traffic. It actually benefits from being walked on — traffic helps keep plants hugging the ground. Give these gold-tinted plants part sun to part shade, with more sun in cooler regions and protection from hot afternoon sun in warm areas. This perennial grows quickly and is hardy in Zones 4 to 10. Small white blooms appear in spring.

Red Creeping Thyme (Thymus coccineus)

This site offers a slight slope and a small lawn area in front of a utility panel. Red creeping thyme provides a great solution for this tiny patch of turf. It withstands moderate foot traffic, is deer-resistant and hardy in Zones 3 to 9. Plants form a dense mat blanketed with bright reddish blooms in early summer. Foliage is evergreen and turns bronze in winter. Give red creeping thyme a spot in full sun with well-drained soil. Shear plants after flowers fade in midsummer to produce bushy, well-branched plants.

Before & After

The area beside a driveway is often a great spot to trade lawn for groundcovers. When you’re facing poor soil, bad drainage and standing water, consider replacing lawn with a dry creek. That’s what homeowners in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, did. The stone-lined creek bed is basically a rain garden with a French drain beneath. The whole system helps direct and mitigate storm water runoff. Water-loving, low-maintenance plants, including hydrangea, iris, fern and astilbe thrive in moist soil along the dry creek drainage swale.

Coral Carpet Sedum (Sedum album ‘Coral Carpet’)

Forget irrigating lawn in a hot, dry spot. Replace it with Coral Carpet sedum, a hearty plant that thrives in dry soil. This perennial groundcover weaves a textural tapestry with leaves that resemble ocean coral. Leaf color changes frequently, with deep green shifting to coral and red tones when plants experience high heat or cold. In summer, white blooms blanket plants, which are hardy in Zones 3 to 10. Give plants sharp drainage — avoid overwatering — and tuck them in a spot with full to part sun. This sedum stands up to moderate foot traffic.

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)

Replace high-maintenance front yard turf with an easy care combination of shrubs, ferns and a fast-growing groundcover: creeping Jenny. This perennial is hardy in Zones 4 to 10 and features stems that root as they sprawl over soil. The plant boasts versatile moisture tolerances, growing in conditions from dry to standing water. Cheery yellow blooms appear along stems in spring. Creeping jenny is evergreen in areas with mild winters and tolerates moderate foot traffic.

Before & After

A plain-Jane grassy backyard in Vacaville, California, transforms into a low-maintenance meadow with strong multi-season interest. The meadow look features white awn muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘White Cloud’) and autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis). When creating a meadow, count on grasses like the white awn muhly to form a framework. Then add grasses arranged on triangular centers to create a natural look. Lastly, fill in any empty spots with perennials. Spread mulch to help keep weeds down while meadow plants establish and to retain soil moisture.

Violets (Viola spp.)

A mix of violets offers an easy-care option for that narrow strip along the driveway. A blend of Australian violet (Viola hederacea; hardy in Zones 7 to 11) and Labrador violet (Viola labradorica; hardy in Zones 2 to 10) withstand moderate foot traffic, while Dark Freckles violet (Viola sororia ‘Dark Freckles’; hardy in Zones 4 to 11) does better with light traffic. Violets make a terrific living mulch beneath plantings and also look great paired with spring bulbs.

Blue Star Creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis)

Eliminate part of your lawn care chores by adding a planting bed with a living mulch of blue star creeper. This ground-hugging perennial looks dainty and delicate, but has a tough-as-nails personality. It can withstand heavy foot traffic and is versatile in its growth needs. Part shade, part sun, full sun, humus-rich soil, sandy, clay, gravel — blue star creeper likes it all. Blue starry blooms appear starting in spring and can continue all summer long when plants are happy. This groundcover is hardy in Zones 6 to 9.

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