The dawn of lawn alternatives
March 23, 2023 | View PDF
The expansive lawns in Europe and the invention of golf in the late 1900s launched America's obsession with a perfect plot of grass. The invention of the rotary mower and the development of climate-adapted grass varieties made a landscape of turfgrass more accessible for homeowners.
As time went by, homeowners relegated the vegetables and herbs typically grown in the front of the house to the backyard, and monocultures of grass were installed in the front. A healthy green lawn - the bigger the better - became a status symbol.
That sensibility lingers. More than 40 million acres are dedicated to lawns in the United States, according to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Management. Other sources put the amount even higher. But as climate change worsens and environmental concerns increase, people are beginning to look for drought-tolerant, lower-maintenance alternatives. A growing awareness of the plight of pollinators also pushes the trend.
"Yes, there's been a surge of interest in the desire to have something other than lawn," said Amy Whitworth, an eco-minded landscape designer and owner of Plan-it Earth Design in Portland.
Whitworth is well-versed in lawn replacements. "It's actually been coming up for the last 10 years or so," she said. "But the heat bomb was a game changer for everybody. It opened everyone's eyes and now drought tolerance is on the top of everyone's wish list."
In Whitworth's line of work, she finds that many clients don't want lawns at all; others want alternatives that look like lawns. There's something for everyone, and the nursery industry is on it.
Mighty mini clover
Outsidepride in Independence, Oregon, is bullish on mini clover (Trifolium repens), owner Troy Hake said. He's a big fan of the tiny-but-mighty plant. People like it, too. Sales were up 67% in 2022 compared to 2021.
"I was actually quite surprised, but mini clover really is amazing and people are picking up on that," he said. "I would say in the last five or so years we get more emails from customers wanting a lawn alternative primarily because water is expensive, and some municipalities are restricting it."
For those wanting a landscape that's green, low growing, and drought tolerant, mini clover accomplishes that. It looks like a lawn, but that's where the similarities end. It only needs to be mown about once a month, depending on the eventual height desired for this 6-inch-tall plant. Water needs are minimal to keep its lawnlike appearance.
"Personally, l prefer to kill the clover in my yard," said Hake, who sells bucketloads of grass seed but admits to growing mini clover at home. "I'm a grass seed guy but I've grown to like clover. It grows easily, sprouts easily, is easy to maintain and it uses less water. It's ideal for so many people."
Unlike regular lawns, micro clover reduces the need for fertilizer, which saves money and the planet. All clovers, including micro clover, fix nitrogen - or pull it from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil so it can feed the microbes that feed plants.
"You can't ask for more than that, except we'd like it a little shorter," said Hake, who is working with Smith Seed Services to develop a new micro clover. "That's what we're trying for. Something you wouldn't have to mow at all. If we could breed min clover that remains 2–3 inches tall and stops, sales would increase exponentially."
Eclectic eco lawn
Along the same vein is the eco lawn mix developed in 1985 by Oregon State University's Tom Cook, a retired professor and turf specialist in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Since his mixture hit the market, it's been customized by companies around the country.
The first eco lawn was made up of dwarf perennial ryegrass and hard fescue, non-competitive grasses that go dormant in summer without regular watering. The addition of yarrow and clover, which stay green with very little water, helps keep the lawn looking green when the grasses go brown. Some mixes add flowering broadleaved plants such as mini clover, English daisy, Roman chamomile, and Alyssum.
Joni Shaffer-Elteto, co-owner of Native Plantscapes NW in Salem, Oregon, uses the eco lawn she sources at Pro Time Lawn Seed in Portland for her designs and installations.
"I started noticing an uptick last summer," Shaffer-Elteto said. "It went from people talking about lawn alternatives to having projects that actually use it. There's a big change in consumer consciousness of climate change with the onset of COVID. When people were home, many were gardening and thinking about it. And also the fires. It was a huge awakening for people. Things are not as they used to be."
For those homeowners looking for something that's more habitat-friendly, Shaffer-Elteto suggests eco lawn as an alternative because of its attractiveness to pollinators when in bloom. People are still looking for a patch of something lawnlike for children and pets. Ecolawn also fits that bill.
"What does that lawn really need to do," said Shaffer-Elteto, who has five projects going featuring eco lawns. "People don't want to pay for an irrigation system. They want to stop their chemical inputs but still want their lawn to look nice. Ecolawn saves money, saves maintenance, and is a place for dogs to go the bathroom. It fixes nitrogen and takes much less water. It's pretty self-sustaining."
At Little Prince of Oregon, a wholesale grower with a retail website (www.littleprincetoplants.com), groundcovers that serve as lawns have been gaining in popularity for the last 20 years. Sales are in the 20–30% range of inventory, according to Mark Leichty, director of business development. Leichty said Little Prince sells thousands of blue star creeper (Isotoma fluviatillis), Scotch (Sagina subulata 'Aurea') and Irish moss (S. subulata), and Vinca minor.
Other popular spreaders include elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum), which Leichty describes as a beautiful and somewhat drought-tolerant plant. However, unlike lawn, which has a root system that doesn't die when it goes dormant in summer, elfin thyme needs some water, or it will look bad and may die out.
Grace Dinsdale, owner of Blooming Junction retail nursery and wholesale grower Blooming Nursery in Cornelius, Oregon, hasn't noticed the uptick that Little Prince has, but said she saw a surge in demand after a newspaper article last summer. Even though demand has fallen off, she's on board. At home, Dinsdale planted a 500-by-14-foot checkerboard pattern in a variety of groundcovers. Conditions are all over the map - light shade, dark shade, hot morning sun, hot afternoon sun, and some areas that need to be driven on.
"It looks green," she said. "It looks fantastic, even though it doesn't look like I expected. I've moved stuff around. White creeping thyme was too slow. On the other hand, Pratia 'Celestial Spice' does better and better. It moves around and has delightful little blue flowers. It takes traffic, is drought tolerant, and will grow in shade."
As her planting fills in, it's more mottled than checkerboard, and she loves it. Some plants worked, others didn't. Dinsdale recommends that people try an assortment of spreaders on their site before planting the whole lawn to groundcovers. It can get expensive and discouraging.
Leptinella perpusilla, one groundcover that's proven particularly successful, had been retired by Dinsdale until she saw how well it did in her installation. It takes more traffic than the more popular thymes. Exceptions include lemon (T. × citriodorus) and lime thyme (T. × citriodorus 'Lime') and 'Bressingham' thyme. Wooly thyme (T. pseudolanuginosus), on the other hand, was not as successful. It tends to get overgrown in moist seasons, gets moldy underneath, collapses, and dies.
One of the toughest, Achillea 'Brass Buttons', can even be driven on, though not every day. Other resilient plants include Cotula 'Tiffendell Gold', an excellent, flat ground cover with showy yellow flowers that wave in the air. This Cotula even grows in fairly deep shade. Dinsdale said she knows someone who put it in their yard eight or nine years ago. They mow it once a year after it blooms and give it no water.
But no matter what groundcover they buy, customers need to realize new installations of lawn alternatives will need to be watered the first two years until established, Dinsdale pointed out. They also must be weeded until they fill in, which can take several years depending on the plant.
Inventory to meet demand
Whitworth of Plan-It Earth Design gives high marks to native drooping sedge (Carex pendula), foothill sedge (C. tumulicola) and a floppy fescue she gets from Pro-Time that she describes as nice and soft and moundy. She adds C. nigra and dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) to her list of go-to lawn alternatives. For smaller areas, she recommends dwarf Acorus, (A. gramineus 'Minimus Aureus'), a tiny plant that's not a big spreader but makes a nice, solid mat and needs only occasional irrigation.
Also on Whitworth's list of lawn alternatives is autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis), an evergreen, shortish ground cover for the sun. You wouldn't say it looks like a lawn, she said, but it makes a nice, green swatch. For a truly no-mow choice in sun, red creeping thyme (T. praecox 'Coccineus') is a no-brainer. For the coolest low spreaders for shade, she recommends the alpine water fern (Blechnum penna-marina), a short, flat fern, and the evergreen maidenhair fern, a beautiful native. Both need water only very occasionally.
Even with all the attention on lawn alternatives, Dinsdale hopes for more. She keeps a deep inventory of groundcovers because she'd like to see the trend grow.
"There's not as much demand as I think there should be," Dinsdale said. "Most people need more information, and we need to make the right material. It will take more installations to get people on board. It takes some work to figure out what's best. It's like electric cars - slow to catch on at first but then they take off."