That a garden needs a lawn is often taken for granted, but there’s no rule that says you have to have one. Certainly lawn provides a cool green element that unifies a garden and offers space to walk, play or just sit, but there other plants that do the same job. By planting a lawn alternative you don’t need to give up on green space or cover the yard in concrete or paving.
Lawn grass really is just a groundcover that does best in a sunny situation. Most of the common lawn grasses (couch, buffalo, kikuyu and cool season grasses such as rye grass) are popular because they are fast growing, easy to maintain with regular mowing and handle foot traffic.
If you don’t want to mow a lawn or are struggling to grow one, then consider other plant options to fill the space. Growing a lawn alternative takes a little more thought but can result in a very low-maintenance and pleasing result.
A good place to try a lawn alternative is in a shaded spot where grass is hard to grow. Forget grass in the shade or under a tree and replace it with a lush groundcover such as baby’s tears (Soleirolia soeirolii), kidney weed (Dichondra repens), which is a native plant and not a weed at all despite its common name, Australian native violet (Viola hederacea) or one of the mints such as pennyroyal or Corsican mint. A fragrant pick is Pearlwort (Sagina subulata) (pictured above), a moss-like groundcover with tiny white flowers in spring and summer.
All form a groundhugging cover and all, apart from baby’s tears, tolerate a little bit of foot traffic. In areas where it is necessary to walk frequently, lay steppingstones or the occasional paver to walk on, to reduce pressure on the groundcover plants.
There are also lawn alternatives that thrive in the sun. Some grow naturally higher than a mown lawn but others mimic the low, close-cropped look of grass. As with shade options, some tolerate foot traffic while others are best managed by walking across stepping stones.
Low-growing options include any of the thymes (Thymus spp.), pratia (Pratia pedunculata), which has white or blue star flowers in spring and forms a moss-like mat, white mazus (Mazus repens), another a creeping groundcover with a sprinkling of white or blue flowers, or nierembergia (Nierembergia repens), which covers its low growth with white flowers. The silver-leafed Dymondia ‘Marguerite’ (Dymondia margaretae), develops a neat, carpet like look and yellow flowers. Kidney weed, pennyroyal and pearlwort can also be grown in sunny spots.
Where there’s room for taller growth (ankle to knee high) consider Cotula ‘Brass Buttons’, a succulent-like plant which grows to around 10cm high with yellow button flowers, or myoporum (Myoporum acuminatum), which grow 60 to 90 centimetres high to create a lush green look. Myoporum spreads by runners. The fine leaf form gives the best lawn alternative effect.
There’s even a lawn alternative that’s a type of grass. Known as zoysia (Zoysia tenuifolia), it grows and is maintained much like lawn but needs mowing only a couple of times a year. Well grown it forms a dense green sward, particularly in warm climates. It is ideal for slopes where mowing is difficult. It spreads by stolons (like a running grass) and has strong horizontal growth.
Establishment & maintenance
Lawn alternatives such as those mentioned above are usually sold as small pots or plugs to be planted into prepared soil. Large clumps can be divided into smaller pieces to get more coverage. As a rule of thumb, plant at least six plants per square metre for good coverage (smaller, slower growers need to be more closely planted).
Most lawn alternatives are not as vigorous as traditional lawn grasses. While this means they don’t need to be regularly cut back, it can mean they are slow to establish and to cover a large area. While lawn alternatives are growing, keep the area clear of weeds by hand weeding and mulching.
Once the plants are growing well and have covered their allotted space, they can be kept in bounds with trimming (try a whipper snipper or shears) or by using a spade to cut the edges. Water when conditions are dry and especially while the plants are getting established. Apply an all-purpose garden fertiliser (not lawn food) in spring.