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Wish you could ditch your grass or just do less mowing? You’re not alone! Before you throw down more grass seed, discover 12 lawn alternatives—low-maintenance, drought-resistant grasses and ground covers you can step on!
Are you tired of suffering through the hassle of keeping your grass green? Have a tough slope that is hard to mow safely? Want to grow a “stepable” carpet around your walkway pavers? Hardy, low-growing ground covers are great alternatives to grass.
Grass is a resource-heavy plant, requiring constant irrigation, mowing (which usually means gasoline), and our time. Today, there are other options which are often quite beautiful yet also “no mow” or low-maintenance. Sound impossible? Read on.
Like grasses, many ground cover plants tend to be aggressive spreaders, so plant them only in areas where they can be contained. Additionally, a number of ground cover plants are considered invasive species and their use may be regulated in some areas; always check local regulations before planting.
1. Creeping Thyme
Growing only 4 inches tall, Creeping Thyme can take quite a bit of foot traffic, releasing its delicious herby fragrance whenever it is walked on. Some folks have replaced their entire lawns with it.
This low-growing perennial has charming pink blossoms in late spring and early summer and is a favorite with the bees in my yard. It can take Zones 4-9. It’s not only a lawn replacement but also will cover slopes, grow between paving stones, and creep around roses. Thyme is drought-tolerant and works in any soil as long as it’s well draining.
If you wish to walk barefoot, we recommend the very soft Woolly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) which also withstands considerable foot traffic.
2. Blue Star Creeper
Only 4 inches tall, Blue Star Creeper (Laurentia fluviatilis) is great as a no-mow lawn substitute. It may look dainty, but Blue Star is a hardy, stepable ground cover that’s sturdy enough to take foot traffic. Spreading by underground runners to quickly form a dense blanket, it has tiny green leaves and pale blue, star-shaped flowers that blossom from spring through late summer. Hardy in Zones 5-9.
3. Corsican Mint
A low-growing evergreen, Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii) is a stepable plant that tolerates foot travel well, releasing a lovely scent when underfoot. It’s quite versatile, growing in sun or shade and in dry or moist areas. The tiny leaves have dainty white blooms in the spring into summer, and also look great covering bulb garden beds or planted between stepping stones. Zones 6 to 9.
4. Creeping Wire Vine
Creeping Wire Vine (Muehlenbeckia) is a dense evergreen perennial with rounded glossy green leaves over a spreading mat of wiry stems. It’s a very stepable and tough ground cover, fast-spreading, and low-maintenance. It’s also sometimes referred to as Matted Lignum.
A versatile creeper, Creeping Wire Vine grows in sunny or partial shade locations, with any type of soil as long as it’s well-draining. Inconspicuous white flowers bloom in late spring and white berries form at the end of the season. Zones 5 to 9.
5. Veronica ‘Waterperry blue’
A low, creeping perennial, Veronica (Speedwell) ‘Waterperry blue’, is a super tough stepable plant that is a perfect lawn substitute. It grows to 5 inches tall and spreads to 15 inches wide, featuring deep green leaves turn coppery in fall and tiny (1/2”), round, lavender-blue flowers which bloom in the spring and intermittently throughout the summer.
6. Creeping Jenny
Also called Moneywort, Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) spreads fast enough to be called “speeding Jenny” so keep a close eye on her. (We probably wouldn’t plant in between stepping stones or she’d run over them.) Incredibly versatile, this creeping perennial works as a lawn substitute, on slopes, and cascading over rocky terrain.
Her round leaves are usually green, or look for golden ‘Aurea’ which brightens up any dreary corner! Both bear yellow flowers and stay close to the ground, barely 2 inches high. Creeping Jenny grows well in almost any terrain, including moist or dry shade. Zones 3-9.
7. Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
Ajuga forms a beautiful ground-covering carpet on the ground and can take foot traffic well. It also grows well in dry shade, such as under trees where little else can grow and blooms with tiny purple flowers in spring and autumn.
Ours thrive in tough spots like over the leach field and along the shady north side of the house where little else grows. We just mow them once a year after the flowers have faded. Zones 3-10.
Ajuga spreads by runners and seeds—sometimes a little too energetically—and has earned a place on the invasive species list in some areas. If it does not pose a problem in your state, plants are still available for sale at most garden centers.
A native plant, Green-and-Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) is a native perennial ground cover that looks best on a shady slope, along a pond or woodland edge, or in a rock garden. Growing to a mature height of 3 to 4 inches, it spreads by underground rhizomes to form a clump upwards of 36 inches wide.
Staying green late into fall, Green-and-Gold has small, yellow, daisy-like blossoms in the spring with sporadic flowers in the summer and fall. It prefers moist, well-draining soil in partial to medium shade, and looks best naturalized with other woodland plants. Zones 5-9.
9. Barren strawberry
Want to cover a steep bank with a mat of glossy green foliage and bright yellow spring flowers? Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) is an ornamental strawberry-like plant (no berries) that grows up to 6 inches high and spreads by runner-like rhizomes, making it an ideal ground cover. It prefers shade and moist soil but will tolerate sunny locations if it doesn’t dry out. Zones 3-8. The foliage is evergreen, and tends to bronze up in cold winter climates.
10. Clover and Microclover
Grass seed used to always include clover, which greens up a lawn by drawing in nitrogen. You can even go 100% clover for no grass, using white, or Dutch, clover. Clover makes an ideal turfgrass substitute because it needs little mowing, stays green all season long, and makes its own fertilizer! See more about establishing a clover lawn here.
If you’re looking for more of a lawn replacement that’s softer, fully walkable, and playable, check out microclover—a newer, low-growing variety without blooms (i.e., no bees). It can stand up to occasional mowing, doesn’t grow tall, and tends to crowd out weeds.
Yes, this is a grass, but not your traditional lawn grass. Fine fescue is an herbaceous perennial tufted grass which forms a lush green carpet in either full sun or partial shade. It forms a dense sod that withstands moderate foot traffic and inhibits weed growth. Plus, fescue is drought-tolerant and is “no-mow” (or no more than twice a year), so fescue seed is a sustainable alternative to the traditional high-resource lawn. Fescue traditionally grew in clumps, however, there are specially engineered mixes that eliminate this issue.
If you have a shady backyard, embrace it! A moss lawn stays green all year long and requires almost no maintenance (no fertilizing, no mowing). It has a soft texture like a carpet, a lovely green-smelling scent, and even great for the soil as it acts as its own fertilizer.
Moss has a fondness for compacted, acidic, and nutrient-poor soils (though it’s surprisingly adaptable). Test your soil pH and add soil amendments, if needed, until the pH is about 5.5. If you have “mossy” conditions, you’ll find that moss transplants well with a high success rate. You can buy moss from a nursery, but do not buy dried crafting moss, as it will not grow.
To transplant moss, prepare a bare spot by scratching the surface with a pronged tool and moistening the area. Lay the moss in place and pat down; keep the area damp for several weeks.
A note on fake grass: You may have noticed that we did not mention artificial or synthetic turf as a grass alternative. If we are to conserve resources, the use of microplastic particles is not our preference. There’s still a long way to go in manufacturing even recycled materials with massive waste problems and long-term costs. While natural grass may have its challenges, it does allow for nature’s cycles to continue, the regeneration of soil, and the water to drain as it would in a natural system. Further, our pollinators, wildlife, or the ecosystem would not survive covered in plastic. A lawn of grass plants or open earth is always a better option, even if it’s not “perfect.”
Replacing Your Grass Lawn
To replace a large section of lawn with pollinator-friendly plants such as thyme, chamomile, or clover, before you scatter the seeds, scalp the existing grass by mowing it down to an inch or less and spread a layer of compost over the top. This will give your seeds good soil contact for germination. Keep them watered until they germinate. A light scattering of straw or hay over the top will conserve moisture and protect them from drying sunlight.
Fall is a great time to set out perennial plants so they can gain a foothold before winter. Next spring they’ll be ready and raring to grow. Once established, your new ground covers will not only be beautiful but low maintenance and much better than spending hours mowing or weeding!