Garden Designers Roundtable: Trying out groundcovers as lawn replacements

by Susan Harris on August 23, 2011

The Garden Designers Roundtable invited the Lawn Reform Coalition to be their guest blogger(s) this month, combining forces to publish 18 articles about Lawn Replacement on the same day, and linking to each other. Great idea, designers!  Scroll down for the links to those 17 other blog posts, including one by me on GardenRant.  There I report on the disaster I made of my back-yard lawn replacement project – now bare earth fast eroding down the hillside.

I loved the colorful and tidy little mosaic of low groundcovers here in my front yard, all criss-crossed by brick pavers that repeat the brick in the sidewalk and porch floor.  I loved it all, that is, until the Thymes started dying off, and the Creeping Cinquefoil overtook the Creeping Jenny – a story of plant failures I chronicled here. (Details about the thymes and other plants from Stepables that I tested in this garden are listed here.)

The goal was and is to find plants that stay low, are evergreen (more or less) and require nothing at all – no watering, no feeding, obviously no mowing, and as little weeding as possible.  Also, they have to behave well with each other, not overtake their neighbors.  Keeping them all short helps – 3″ and shorter – and also avoiding plants that climb on top of each other, like the cinquefoil did.

So I got rid of the bullying Cinquefoil, and seeded some Alyssym over the remaining Creeping Jenny, which I’m keeping an eye on, hoping it thrives on the shadier side of this little plot.  I  removed all the (dying or at least not thriving) thyme from the sunnier side and planted 8 new creeping Sedums that I’m trying out for general vigor, rate of spread – important in a groundcover unless you have a large enough budget to accomplish instant coverage – and appearance throughout the year.  My tentative conclusion is that creeping Sedums could be a beautiful and nearly maintenance-free alternative to lawns on sunny spots – assuming good drainage for these dry-loving plants.   They sure do all that on green roofs.  They tolerate little to no foot traffic, of course.  Thus the criss-crossing pavers.  And no tag football or kids running through sprinklers.  Thanks to Sandy McDougall and Ed Snodgrass for all the plants!


Above, from left: S. spurium possibly ‘Dragon’s Blood‘ or ‘Fuldaglut‘ that was a passalong from a neighbor.  Next is a patch of S. reflexum ‘Blue Spruce,’ which is beautiful but grows VERY slowly; and above it, the much more vigorous S. rupestre ‘Angelina’. Far right: another chartreuse Sedum -  S. makinoi ‘Limelight,’ which has been a slow-grower for me.  In the foreground, lots of Alyssum.

Closer looks at (in foreground) S. spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’ or ‘Fuldaglot”. I’ll be getting rid of this because – sorry – its coloring is too similar to soil.  It has very little impact here, and doesn’t fill in thick enough to prevent weeds, anyway.  Above it is the wonderful ‘Angelina’, which everyone seems to love – for good reason.  Just don’t step on it – it’s more breakable than most Sedums.


Above foreground, what’s left of the Creeping Jenny, with Alyssum in bloom.

Bottom left:  S. makinoi ‘Limelight’ - gorgeous but slow-growing.  Top left:  S. floriferum ‘Weihnstephaner Gold,’ which really does have gold blooms and is a moderate spreader.  On the right is an Ice Plant doing a bit of reblooming in August.  I love Ice Plant but it hasn’t spread much in its first year and it looks pretty bad in the winter.

Above left, some of the S. takesimemese that Ed Snodgrass gave me a big ‘ole flat of, which quickly proved to be the most vigorous Sedum I’ve ever green.  Great gold flowers, seen here having having turned brown by August but still looking fine by me.   I’ll be using LOTS of this Sedum.  On the right is  S. album ‘Coral Carpet’ (I think), which is spreading awfully slowly.

It’s funny how these two Sedums look exactly alike except for the color, but are actually two different species.  Plus, they perform so differently.  Left: S. reflexum ‘Blue Spruce’; right:  S. rupestre ‘Angelina’.

I’ve compiled info about all the Sedums I’m growing here on my website – that link includes Ed Snodgrass’s suggestions for covering ground in a variety of situations.  He’s the Green Roof Plants guy right here in Maryland, so he trials plants in the same climate as me.  Also on my website are links to blog stories about my lawn replacement journey, front yard and back.

Now check out posts about lawn replacement from these Lawn Reform Coalition members:

And these members of the Garden Designers Roundtable:


Scott Hokunson August 23, 2011 at 9:25 am

Wow, I guess you found a few great plants for your project. I love the Sedum takesimemese!

Genevieve August 23, 2011 at 10:31 am

I’ll join the crowds in loving that Sedum ‘Angelina’! What a fresh-looking, classy little plant. My chickens stomped all over mine, so I have a definite case of Sedum envy.

Pam/Digging August 23, 2011 at 10:33 am

I like hearing about your sedum field testing. I have some of those myself.

But it’s hard to find plants that need absolutely nothing at all. I suggested sedges and dwarf mondo grass on your other post — they have the look of grass but don’t need mowing. We have drought-tolerant native sedges that work here in Austin, but even they do better with occasional water.

susan harris August 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Pam, good suggestions, and I’d love seeing examples of Mid-Atlanatic sedges on sunny banks. (The Scott Arboretum has a bunch of them in mostly shade.) I know Little Bluestem and Switchgrass would work, but they’re much taller. Dwarf mondo would do almost as good a job here as Liriope would, but it barely spreads at all, so would take a large budget to get instant coverage.

Evelyn Hadden August 23, 2011 at 11:34 am

Susan, it’s so great that you are trying all these plants and publicizing your experiences for the rest of us to learn from. One thing that makes me hopeful about sedums is how easy they are to propagate. Just break off a piece and stick it into the soil, and chances are it will root. So it’s possible that walking on your sedum and grinding the pieces into the soil might encourage it to grow more thickly! Wouldn’t that be a nice form of maintenance? :)

commonweeder August 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm

I have groundcovers like barrenwort in places where there is almost no foot traffic and I’ve added common thyme plugs here and there in the bottom half of our big front ‘lawn’ what are rapidly taking over the grass. It gets mowed a couple of times a summer. There is a lot of thyme in the back ‘lawn’ as well. I use the term lawn loosely. I could as easily say typical weedy patch, but I rather like ‘flowery mead’.

rebecca sweet August 23, 2011 at 5:26 pm

I’ve had problems with thyme as well – it always seems to do well for awhile, then it craps out. Are you able to grow Dymondia? I’ve had incredible luck with that groundcover – it stays tight and low to the ground and is super drought tolerant.

Susan Morrison August 23, 2011 at 7:46 pm

My clients are surprised when they express interest in a low-water, low maintenance lawn alternative and I can’t rattle off a dozen options that I’m positive will thrive in their gardens. Thanks for the reminder that trial and error are still the foundation of exploring new ideas in the garden.

Kylee from Our Little Acre August 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Not sure if you’ve tried Sedum acre (Golden Carpet Stonecrop) or not, but I have to rip this out by the handfuls in my garden. I let it do what it wants in most places, but it can get out of hand in a hurry. It’s super easy to grow. I tell people that want some to take a handful and throw it at some dirt, then stand back. It’s able to handle light foot traffic, too. I step on it all the time when working in my garden. It also stays low.

susan harris August 23, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Kylee, that’s exactly the Sedum I’m trying to cover my whole back yard with because it’s SOOOO vigorous – and grows here as a weed. My Lawn Alternative post on GardenRant today is about that Sedum – except I call it S. sarmentosum and mention that it’s often idetnified as S. acre. Ed Snodgrass at Green Roof Plants ID’d it for me as Sarmentosum so I’m calling it that now.

Linda Lehmusvirta August 23, 2011 at 8:58 pm

This is really great! It IS hard to completely replace a lawn with plants, when people/pets need to run around. Thank you for this good look at honesty. We’ve got to get there, but make it easy for the folks who aren’t crazy gardeners like we are! In Texas, I am using more sedges and once it’s not 105 here, will add more.

Shirley Bovshow "EdenMaker" August 24, 2011 at 1:38 am

Susan, I’m new to this blog- what a nice discovery.
I’m a huge fan of sedum and the many varieties that are cultivated. It is one of my “go to” ground cover plants for replacing lawns.

Jocelyn/the art garden August 24, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Susan, I enjoyed reading about your experiments – there are so many variables in gardening that it really IS all local. If you’re game to try another ice plant, I’d suggest the yellow flowering variety, Delosperma nubigenum. It is the best looking year round, and also the most long-lived in my zone 5 garden (Denver).

Beth Goodnight August 25, 2011 at 11:50 am

I agree with Pam/Digging… requiring plants that ‘stay low, are evergreen (more or less) and require nothing at all – no watering, no feeding, obviously no mowing, and as little weeding as possible’ is a next to impossible order. It’s just unrealistic.

A recent post in Thomas Rainer’s excellent blog ‘Grounded Design’ was about the misconceptions clients/homeowners have about the terms low-maintenance and drought-tolerant (among other things). They take low-maintenance to mean NO-maintenace, and drought-tolerant to mean NO-water.

A landscape is a living thing. It needs care and sustenance.

I think we as homeowners and stewards of our small plots of this earth, need to be realistic about what Mother Nature both provides and demands. Being realistic involves learning what can and can’t be done where we garden locally, leaving behind our personal desires, and embracing/respecting Mother Nature’s local requirements. And I’m not talking exclusive use of natives. I don’t think that is necessary to fully cooperate with Mother Nature.

And I agree with Susan Morrison’s comment about not being able to rattle off a list of things guaranteed to work in a specific location. I’m a designer and gardening coach, and can’t do it either! There are just too many site-specific variables to consider. Study and observation are required to make truly valuable and realistic plant recommendations. And trial and error is often necessary… something, unfortunately, many homeowners aren’t willing to put time and money into. It seems we’ve also brainwashed homeowners/clients that they will get stellar landscaping result on the very first try. Um… not necessarily.

Thanks for the good resources, info and forum, Susan. It’s nice to read what real gardeners are learning from their gardens. :-)

Debbie/GardenofPossibilities August 25, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Susan, A very informative post that I’ve bookmarked for future use. I grew ‘Dragon’s Blood’ for a few years in my zone 6 garden and it seemed to be doing fine. Then one year it totally disappeared. I’ve been reluctant to try other sedums since then but your post has given me some inspiration.

Lise Neely August 27, 2011 at 10:05 am

Great article. I’ve been inspired by my ‘Edible Plants’ course at Longwood, and the book, ‘Edible Estates,’ to remove a large portion of my front lawn and replace it with a vegetable garden. You’ve provided more inspiration and design ideas – thank you!

hcgvid August 29, 2011 at 3:58 pm

DId you know that sunflowers abosorb toxins and radiation in the soil–so it’s great to plant sunflowers in your garden for healthier crop yields.

Check out our garden tutorials!

Judy Cumming September 7, 2011 at 7:21 pm

I love sedums too, but for a lawn replacement that I would be walking on, I prefer roman chamomile. It is tight to the ground, doesn’t look too bad in the Pacific NW winters, but does have the white flowers. I don’t think the deer like them though. I don’t have deer here, only rabbits. The pungent fragrance of the chamomile doesn’t seem to be attractive to the rabbits. I started mine from plants which have spread beautifully. I actually use them in a path, so they get lots of foot traffic.

Anthropogen September 14, 2011 at 2:33 am

If you live in the tropics/sub-tropics try Arachis glabrata, an excellent low, tight, nitrogen-fixing ground-cover. Produces an edible yellow flower, and is fantastic for erosion control. Grows easily from cuttings.

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