A new course for the American lawn
Sustainability: Leadership into Action
course for the
These alternatives provide
a meadow look and lower
Homeowners are showing more interest
in alternatives to the traditional turf
lawn that provide beauty and walkability
without as much need to mow, water
or fertilize. Popular selections that can
replace an entire lawn include wooly
thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus, top)
and Irish moss (Sagina subulata, bottom).
By Elizabeth Petersen
People love the look of a lawn,
and it serves an important function in
garden design, according to Maurice
Horn, co-owner of Joy Creek Nursery in
“Lawns are necessary as open
spaces on big, formal properties,” he
said. “In the small garden, the lawn
is important as a place from which to
view surrounding plants. It is a destination, a place to pause, relax and enjoy
No doubt, luxuriant, green expanses have a calming, inviting effect, but
lawns cost a lot.
Lawns cost in terms of an endless cycle of care (feed, water, mow;
repeat); a slew of investments (feed,
water, mow; repeat), and negative
impacts on the environment (runoff
from residential lawns is a major component of water pollution).
As a result, attitudes about lawns
are changing. Faced with smaller sites,
water shortages, scant time and high
costs, consumers want alternatives to
traditional lawns. “Lots of people have
lawns they don’t want to take care of,”
What are they to do?
J.J. Sweeney, owner and head
designer of Salamander Designs in
Portland, Ore., specializes in sustainable and water-wise landscaping. She
encourages clients to consider alternatives to traditional lawns, depending on
their needs and preferences.
“Lawn has the legitimate design characteristic of being soothing to the eye,”
she said, “but alternatives can accomplish
that same simplicity of design.”
“If one is trying to avoid mowing,
weeding, and feeding, there are many
the American Lawn
J.J. Sweeney suggests these
plants as viable options for
Leptinella squalida – brass buttons
Sagina subulata – Scotch and Irish moss
Laurentia fluviatilis/Pratia pedunculata – bluestar creeper
Cerastium tomentosum – Snow
Dianthus repens – species pinks
Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ –
golden creeping Jenny
Mentha requienii – Corsican mint
Phlox subulata – creeping phlox
Saponaria – soapwort
Selaginella – Peacock moss
options,” Sweeney said. “If one also
wants to reduce water use, there are
still many options. But if one wants a
true lawn substitute, options are significantly reduced, and for a play space for
kids, there is really only one alternative:
Sweeney has installed eco-lawns
for clients using seed mixes developed
by Oregon researchers. “Those who
install and like their eco-lawns are a
little less rigid about what is and is not
a weed,” she said.
Ecology lawn seed mixes
Lots of lawns start in Oregon, the
biggest producer of cool-season turf grass
seed in the nation. So it makes sense that
Oregon academics and growers have
tackled the problems that come with large
scale and residential lawns.
At Oregon State University, now
retired Associate Professor Tom Cook
tested for turf that would 1) stay green
without the benefit of watering or fertilizing; 2) be tough enough for kids and
dogs to play on everyday; and 3) not
Is such a thing possible?
“We are getting closer all the time,”
said Keith Hopkins of Hobbs & Hopkins
Ltd/ProTime Seed in Portland, Ore.
Hopkins works closely with developing and marketing traditional and
alternative lawn seed mixes. As alternatives for manicured lawns, ProTime
offers five Ecology seed mixes and
three Alternative Lawn seed mixes. All
include a mixture of genetically dwarf,
low-growing perennial ryegrass and tiny
flowers or small, herbaceous plants.
“All they really have to be is
green,” Hopkins said.
The first commercially available
low-maintenance lawn seed mix, which
was developed by Cook and introduced “ahead of its time” in 1990, was
ProTime’s Fleur de Lawn. This longtime
favorite provides a “wine and cheese
look,” Hopkins said and only needs
occasional trimming on the highest
mower setting to encourage re-flowering. Trimmings left on the lawn help
Recently, ProTime has been able
to start adding a tiny clover to its
alternative lawn mixes. Developed in
Europe and available in limited quantities, small-leaf Microclover® (Trifolium
repens) fixes nitrogen and feeds grass
plants. It stays green even in drought
and cold and looks like lawn from a
Although currently available for use
by parks, golf courses and other largescale professionals, these alternative
seed mixes are not readily available to
the retail market yet. Hopkins predicts
that they will reach the consumer market within five years.
“Now that we have the components
of naturally dwarfed grasses and microclover, consumers will soon be able
to have green lawns and reduce the
amount of watering, feeding and mowing,” he said.
Low growing groundcovers
Groundcovers offer additional
options for achieving the function of
a lawn without the same demands.
Although few plants other than turf
provide the tight, smooth look of lawn,
groundcovers — used with or without
stepping stones to take the brunt of
foot traffic — can reduce the need for
mowing, feeding and watering.
Ketch de Kanter owns Little Prince
You Can Rely On!
Fleur de Lawn was the first commercially available
low-maintenance lawn seed mix, introduced in
1990 by ProTime Seed of Portland, Ore.
of Oregon, a wholesale grower of
ground covers, perennials, ornamentals
grasses, ferns and succulents in Aurora,
Ore. He grows plants sold under the
STEPABLES® program, a collection of
163 low-growing plants that are rated
for tolerance to foot traffic.
Demand for this type of plant is
increasing, de Kanter said. “Everyone
has a troubled spot, a place where grass
One plant in the STEPABLES® line
is miniature Elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’), which forms a tight solid
mat of gray/green foliage and is rated
for heavy foot traffic. It produces pink
flowers for four to six weeks in summer, tolerates drought well and requires
sharp drainage. (Zone 4)
De Kanter decided to test Elfin
thyme by planting a small lawn of it at
his home. The low, green herb, planted
on 12-inch centers, filled in completely.
Foot traffic tolerance was tested by a
child’s birthday party. “It showed wear,
but recovered quickly,” he said.
As with lawns, weeds require attention, but “even so, Elfin thyme is a
showy alternative and needs less maintenance than lawn.”
De Kanter watered the thyme lawn
to get it established, but in its third
year, he applied no supplemental water
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the American Lawn
Lawn alternatives: Other resources
Moss Gardening by George Schenk 1997. (Timber Press, 1997).
Renowned horticulturist, retired professor and ”moss guru”, David Benner started gardening
with moss in lieu of grass at his woodland garden in Pennsylvania in the early1960's. Since
then he has converted two woodland acres into a lush, cool green oasis by growing moss with
wildflowers and evergreen groundcovers. Moss Acres is owned and operated by Benner’s son,
Al Benner (http://www.mossacres.com)
Offering an alternative to traditional lawn care, the SafeLawns Foundation aims to change
the lawn care culture of the US and Canada. Founder Paul Tukey encourages the use of nontoxic methods and presents a comprehensive guide for creating a lush lawn without chemicals
or pesticides in his book, (Storey Publishing). With 60,000 books in print, Tukey said, “We are
encouraged. This is an incredibly dynamic time of transition in the lawn care industry. There is
an huge influx of natural weed killers.”
Tukey and other leaders in North America’s lawn and garden alternative pesticide industry will
gather in Seattle, June 4, 2010, for the first Northwest Lawn & Garden Pesticide Summit.
and it stayed green. “In a small space,
Elfin thyme is as good as a lawn if
you’re willing to work at it a bit, but it
looks better if watered and fertilized,”
Another groundcover de Kanter
recommends for small spaces in sun
is Green Carpet herniaria (Herniaria
glabra ‘Green Carpet’), which is also
rated for heavy foot traffic. Tiny, tight
green leaves form an extremely dense
evergreen groundcover that turns red
in winter. A good option for parking
strips, this plant doesn’t bloom, but is
tough and tolerant. (Zone 5)
Double Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus
corniculatus ‘Pleniflorus’) is a resilient
plant that can take moderate foot traffic,
de Kanter said. Tiny, dark green leaves
form a dense mat that works well over
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flower bulbs and combined with other
perennials. The very hardy plant (Zone
4) produces double yellow flowers in
Dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon
japonicus ‘Nana’) gives a “real grass
look,” de Kanter said. It is super slow
growing and looks good all year. The
ornate dwarf grass (one to four inches,
zone 7) forms tufts of short, deep green
blades. Small, white, summer flowers
are followed by blue berries. “‘Nana’ is
terrific between pavers,” de Kanter said.
STEPABLES® president Frances
Hopkins, who started the program in
1990, continues to build the line with
plants “in all colors, for all regions and
all applications,” she said. Her favorite plant for lawn alternative is Sedum
album ‘Coral Carpet,’ which takes a
surprising amount of foot traffic and
changes color about ten times a year,
Horn, of Joy Creek Nursery, believes
that more research should be done on
using groundcovers as alternatives to
lawn, but he suggested trying plants that
are tight and close to the ground.
For a customer who wanted a lawn
substitute, Horn tried using Roman
chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile
‘Flore Pleno’, zones 6-9) and had mixed
results. Chamomile’s dense, tightly
packed thread-like evergreen foliage is
very aromatic, can be mowed and produces creamy, double button-like flowers. When a plant would die, though, it
left a hole and less than perfect look.
Wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus, zones 5-9), a prostrate
groundcover often grown between flagstones in a path or terrace, is a favorite
of Horn’s. It clings to the ground, only
reaching about half-inch with an indefinite spread. In early summer, pink flowers cover the foliage.
Another fine, low thyme,
‘Goldstream’ (Thymus serpyllum
‘Goldstream’, zones 5-8), stands up to
considerable abuse. At Joy Creek Nursery,
it is planted near the intersection of
two paths where it has been frequently
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the American Lawn
ing time and still looks good. Tiny fragrant leaves are flecked with gold, and
lilac flowers appear in summer.
Veronicas make great groundcovers too, and Horn suggests V. oltensis, a low, gray green perennial that
doesn’t run. It produces dark violet-blue
blooms in spring and intermittently
throughout the year. (Zones 5-8, 1 inch
x 12 inches)
Veronica prostrata and its cultivars
offer additional options, some lower
than others and some needing more
water than others. Veronica prostrata
‘Trehane’ (zones 5-8, 1.5 inch x 12
inches) is a terrific mat-former with
glowing yellow-green foliage and deep
blue flowers in early summer. V. prostrata ‘Aztec Gold’ PP13354 (sun to part
shade, zones 3-9) has gold leaves and
blue flowers in May. It only gets 3 inches tall with an indefinite spread.
Veronica repens ‘Alba’ is also a
low grower, 2 to 4 inches (zones 5-9).
Its dense green foliage forms a tight
mat and short spikes of white flowers
appear late spring to early summer.
Alternative options abound
Interest in meadows to replace
lawn is growing. U.S. grass expert John
Greenlee wrote The American Meadow:
Creating a Natural Alternative to the
Traditional Lawn (Timber Press, 2009).
It offers rationale, instructions, plant
lists and design suggestions for creating
this back-to-nature solution.
In shady, moist spots, where moss
often invades grass, moss is another lawn
alternative. Mosses add a soft beauty, and
once established, require little maintenance for beautiful rewards.
Instead of fighting a losing battle,
consider accepting and encouraging mosses as an alternative groundcover, suggests
Oregon State University publication bryophytes.science.oregonstate.edu.
Elizabeth Petersen writes for gardeners
and garden businesses, coaches students and writers, and tends a one-acre
garden in West Linn, Ore. She can be
reached at [email protected]