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SHARING SECRETS: Going Grassless With Ground Covers

Like many grass substitutes, Sedum reflexum is a low-water, visually interesting ground cover option.

Edited by Dayle Cheever.

In an effort to reduce water use, many of us have eliminated grass. What soft ground covers have you had success with as a replacement for grass? Have you come up with any creative solutions as a substitute for grass?

Lucy Warren: Dymondia is one of my favorite drought-tolerant ground covers for open areas. It is a beautiful, soft gray green and pretty tough with an added bonus of yellow flowers. In landscaped areas, I allow the leaves to drop and stay in place creating a nice mulch, which cools the soil and minimizes evaporation, as well as slowly feeding the plants as it decomposes.

Michelle Golden: I have planted Sedum (stonecrop) in lieu of grass and it has been able to withstand kids and dog traffic, as well as being drought tolerant. Very thick once established, slow growing to cover, and looks beautiful.

Add a pop of color to your garden with ground covers like island snapdragon. Photo credit: Herb Knufken

Connie Beck: In full to partial shade, there is nothing better than island snapdragon (Gambelia speciosa, previously classified as Galvezia), but it is not the firecracker bush type. This is a vining ground cover I planted in 2001 from a one-gallon pot. It's in very porous decomposed granite and gets a weekly drip. The plant has been densely covering a twenty-five foot by twenty foot patch in my front yard for over fifteen years. It is about one foot tall and has red tubular flowers but, because of the shade, it does not bloom heavily. It re-roots very well, so it is anchoring the slope where it is planted and grows densely enough that there are no weeds in it. The original 1/8-inch drip line to the first plant may or may not still be functioning, but other than that, the whole patch only gets the rain here in very dry east county. About twice a year, I whack it back from the edges where it tries to grow over the pathways.

David O’Callaghan: Recently, I poured gravel in my back yard and have all the surrounding plant life (e.g., Aloe vera, avocado, and orange trees) on either a drip or bubbler system, depending on my hydrozones.

Lisa Bellora: As a designer, I recommend beautiful climate-appropriate plants for areas that will not be walked on, with mulch or flagstone pathways around them. For areas that will be walked on, Aloha Seashore Paspalum is a good grass that takes fifty percent less water than most turf grasses once established. Carex pansa or C. praegracilis meadows are nice, and can be mowed periodically. Some of my designer friends are using Kurapia (Lippia nodiflora), a low-water ground cover. And, of course, there is always Dymondia margaretae. The trick to having a Dymondia ‘lawn’ is using sub-surface irrigation. Overhead irrigation breeds weeds, which are a lot of work to remove.

Charlotte Getz: My ground cover areas are Dymondia, wooly thyme, and Calylophus berlandieri (sundrops). All are thriving with minimal water.

Cynthia Stribling: My ‘no grass’ solution for my small front yard has two sides. The shadier, more moist side is covered with brass buttons (Cotula coronopifolia), which spreads by runners and is very persistent. The fern-like leaves make a great ground cover, and when it blooms, the little pompoms of gold look very cute. The sunnier, drier side has been taken over by Mexican poppies (Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana). These are pale yellow rather than California gold, taller and bushier, with blue-green foliage. Needless to say, my front yard is very casual and not at all neatly groomed, so don’t count on the poppies unless you like floppy foliage and a billowy look. You also have to be patient enough to let the seeds ripen and scatter before you cut them back.

Linda Bresler: Dymondia magaritae (silver carpet) is a low ground cover that can substitute for grass in smaller spaces. The drawback is that you will need to pull out any weeds by hand since you won’t be mowing. Also, do not use fertilizer on it. Dymondia comes from South Africa, grows about two inches tall and spreads to about twenty inches. It is drought tolerant and can take some foot traffic.

Stephen Zolezzi: Regarding replacing grass, the best solution would have been to have never planted a lawn in the first place! But since many of us (including me) had fallen for the idea that we need to see a green expanse to be correct, I had about 1400 square feet planted. Then I saw the light. It was a gloomy day when the mail arrived, and among the envelopes I spied the Helix Water statement. Enclosed was a lengthy explanation for increased rates, which would be the first among many more doubling the base rate. It was time to sell the mower and plan for an evolution to happen. About one year later, I was ready to kill whatever hadn’t died, cover it with twenty yards of soil, plus four yards of rock, and two yards of gravel. I added over 300 cacti and succulents to create a tapestry of color and texture I never had with a lawn. And best of all, it gets watered once a month.

Kathleen Voltin: To take the place of grass in my back garden, I have soft, small mulch. It marks the pathways, gives a dark border to the veggie garden and fruit trees, and after a few years of walking on it I can use it as dirt (that I mix with nutrition) for some potted plants. My son and his friends walk barefoot on it, similar to grass. But they didn’t grow up knowing about grass, so they don’t know what they are missing.

Monica White: Wood chips and rocks—not too creative!

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