Lush, green grass lawns and all their attendant rituals are as American as apple pie. Most all of us have memories of playing in sprinklers as children, Fourth of July barbecues on the lawn, and the definitive sound of summer's arrival, the comforting distant roar of a lawnmower. Our beloved turf lawns still have their place, but today many eye-catching lawn alternatives exist, which can use fewer resources, and are kinder to the environment.
One of the chief benefits of using lawn grass alternatives is lower water use. According to a 1995 U.S. Geological Survey study, landscaping accounts for nearly 30 percent of domestic water use in America, and most of it goes to keep our lawn grass green. While lawns are functional, easy to maintain and provide a neat appearance, alternative plants, which need much less water and fertilizer, can create the same effect.
The most important consideration is the amount of foot traffic the ground cover will have to withstand. Turf will hold up better than most other ground covers in high traffic areas, so consider using alternative plants in places where they won't be disturbed very often. If you want to use alternative ground covers in higher traffic areas, consider using stepping stones or creating a gravel pathway for access. Other important factors to consider in selecting plants include soil type, slope and climate.
A good choice for dry spots without heavy foot traffic is woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus). This very low growing thyme makes a soft, fragrant lawn, resists drought, and is quite cold hardy. It's also a good plant to use between stepping stones.
If you're looking for spring color, try creeping phlox (Phlox subulata). It's a low, mat forming, evergreen ground cover, which grows to six inches tall and is covered with plentiful white, pink or lavender flowers in early spring.
Creeping junipers (Juniperus horizontalis) are woody evergreen ground covers, ideal for poor soils with drought conditions. There are many cultivars available, in various heights and colors.
For a striking effect, try blue fescue (Festuca ovina glauca). This drought tolerant, ornamental grass forms soft, round clumps, eight to ten inches high. Cultivars range from blue-green to almost powder blue.
Ground covers are selected because of their rapid growth that lets them out compete other plants. While this is often a very desirable attribute in the home landscape, it also makes some ground covers among the most difficult invasive plants to control. The best way to avoid planting an undesirable invasive ground cover is to use plants that are native to your region. Check with a reputable local nursery to confirm that any exotic plants you use won't become pests.
Ground covers are the hardest working plants in your landscape. They keep weeds at bay, provide visually smooth, even planes and serve as walking surfaces. During the 1950s, sweeping verdant lawns of closely cropped turf grass became de rigueur for American residential landscapes. While turf has its advantages, it demands high inputs of water and fertilizer, which can pollute waterways. The growing trend to use alternative ground covers, especially in lower use areas of the landscape is a positive step toward environmentally friendly landscapes.