In the 17th century, manicured lawns became the new status symbol for wealthy aristocrats in England and France. Today, people still admire expansive lawns, but most of us don’t have a bevy of servants to do the hard work of mowing, weeding, watering, fertilizing and aerating. On beautiful summer days, when the beach beacons, who wants to do yard work?
According to Statistics Canada, the average residential water consumption in 2013 was a massive 223 litres per day for indoor and outdoor uses. A Columbia University report in 2010 found that five percent of America’s air pollution was caused by lawnmowers and each year more than 17 million gallons of fuel is spilled when refilling lawn and garden equipment—that is more than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
After much effort and environmental cost, sometimes a lawn just bakes in the summer sun. In recent years, municipalities have had to prohibit lawn watering during lengthy dry spells. Parched lawns are becoming a common sight in July and August, which is another good reason to reinvent traditional lawns.
Alternatives to Grass
Groundcover plants spread laterally and mature at a maximum of just 3cm to 10cm, so they do not require mowing. Once groundcover plants are established, they generally require less water than standard lawn grass.
High foot traffic options:
Used by some farmers as a green cover crop, clover helps to aerate the soil with its deep roots and ‘fixes’ atmospheric nitrogen (a natural fertilizer) in the soil. Some varieties of clover are quite tall (e.g., red clover) but Dutch white clover is the best option for groundcover because it matures at ankle height, is durable and produces attractive white flowers.
Pros: It is soft underfoot, remains green nearly year-round, and can withstand heavy foot traffic.
Cons: The sweet nectar in the flowers can attract deer.
Thyme grows relatively slowly, but once it develops, it produces a dense mat of tiny leaves and flowers. The best options for groundcover are non-culinary varieties: red creeping thyme, mother-of-thyme and woolly thyme.
Pros: All three of these types of thyme tolerate high foot traffic, emit a pleasant herbal scent and will not attract deer.
Cons: Thyme grows slowly.
A cascading carpet of small, golden-green leaves and yellow flowers makes Creeping Jenny suitable for all types of groundcover projects from terraced rock gardens to flat lawns.
Pros: In milder parts of Canada, Creeping Jenny will retain its colour year-round and tolerates moderate foot traffic.
Cons: It can require more watering than groundcovers such as clover.
Light foot traffic options:
Velvety Scotch moss works best in shaded areas and looks lovely surrounding rustic pathway stones. Moss grows best in regions that receive more rainfall.
Fragrant Corsican mint produces small, rounded leaves and tiny purple flowers. Unlike spearmint that can rapidly take over an entire garden, this mint grows more slowly and is not considered invasive. It requires moist, fertile soil.
Durable and realistic artificial turf can provide the look and feel of grass for patio areas and even a putting green. Turf can be a visual break between plant cluster islands. Another benefit is that Fido will never create a ‘burn’ spot on your lawn ever again. When installed professionally, artificial turf is typically guaranteed for a decade or more.
Lawns were in fashion for 400 years. It may be time to replace monochromatic lawns with beautiful modern versions featuring an array of colours, textures and shapes.
The possibilities are endless and will ultimately depend on the size and slope of your lawn, the amount of sunlight it receives and your preferences. Consider some or all of these ideas:
Terraces: Ideal for a sloped lawn, rock terraces can be filled with a variety of plants, cascading flowers and groundcover.
Pathways: From poured concrete to natural steppingstones, pathways help to define the space and allow you to use tender groundcover plants as your lawn.
Ornamental grasses: Add drama and height with clumping grass varieties such as soft feathery Fountain grass, or Little Bluestem, which is bluish green in the summer then turns purple, red and copper in the autumn.
Edibles: The broad green blades of a leek plant and the colourful autumn leaves of blueberry bushes deliver beauty with bounty. How could your favourite herbs, fruits and vegetables meld with your landscape design?
Raised garden beds: A pretty way to grow edibles is in raised boxes, which also make the garden easy to access.
Start small. Instead of ripping up the entire lawn, experiment with a small section to learn what works best for you.