More on Lawn Alternatives

Green Living Tip:  More on Lawn Alternatives
By Jen Fontaine

It’s great to be back, after a week’s ‘break’ caused by the proverbial ‘circumstances beyond our control.’ Our last tip shared a few thoughts on how to deal with or replace the greedy lawns that so many of us maintain, at considerable cost in water, effort and fertilizer.  This week’s tip just goes one step further, looking at a few practical examples. 

Some nurseries offer grasses that require little care; one example, featured on the first site below, is a “No Mow” lawn, which consists of a mix of fescue grasses that forms a thick carpet: this combination is drought resistant, tolerates sun or shade, is recommended for our area, and needs no mowing (or at most one or two mowings a year, depending on the look you prefer). Another choice is Dwarf Mondo Grass, which grows only two to four inches tall and can be planted in both sun and shade.  If you’re hoping for a traditional grassy look, options like these might meet your needs while helping you save on water and lawnmower fuel.

Other plants come in a wide variety; the same nursery that lists the fescue grass combination offers eighteen other choices, ranging from tall plants, like ferns and sedges, too much smaller plants.  There’s no quick way to choose, since each variety has its own requirements, pros and cons.  So in this short column, we can only hope to give a few examples. An attractive choice is Bearberry, a native plant that is deer-resistant, grows at most an inch high, tolerates part shade as well as full sun, attracts butterflies  and other pollinators, and needs little water; but there is a down side:  this little plant likes sand or light soil, so won’t grow on heavy clay soils. 

Those with heavier soils might consider Wild Ginger, another native plant that again needs little water, is host to a type of swallowtail butterfly, and looks good planted along with native ferns.  Another plus: these plants can be spaced a foot apart and will still form a carpet in two to three years.  But there’s always a catch: wild ginger requires shade, or at least partial shade. Taller plants may be less suitable as lawn replacements, but can be used wherever foot traffic is light, or in borders.  An attractive example is Goat’s Beard, which grows up to 6 inches tall and produces feathery white flowers.  Once again, this plant attracts butterflies and other pollinators and can grow in a range of soil types;  but like wild ginger, this plant loves shade.  Also to consider: it spreads slowly, so would require more plants per square foot to fill in a space in a short time.

The list of alternatives is much too long to cover here.  If you’re thinking of replacing your lawn with an ecologically friendly substitute, do explore on your own, keeping in mind the factors we’ve been looking at: soil, light and water requirements, speed of spreading, height and appearance. Also important: check whether your favorite plant is a native.  Not all sites or nurseries provide this information, but a plant’s status can usually be discovered with a bit of detective work. The ‘native’ versus ‘invasive’ question may be tricky, though. One listing for Creeping Jenny, for instance, claims that this plant is “considered invasive in some regions of the country,” which does not give a clear answer for PA residents; a similar warning comes with Dwarf White Clover, which  offers the questionable benefit of being “less invasive” than some of its cousins.

There are at least some clear answers. Beware of English Ivy and periwinkle, both of which are dangerously invasive and can escape to forests where they crowd out local species.  Others may be tricky, like Pachysandra, which comes in two varieties, Allegheny and Japanese (you’ll easily be able to tell which is local from the names).  On the safe side, you can find dozens of phlox varieties, almost all of which are native.  Check out the last two sources below for a discussion of native ground covers.  The last is especially valuable, as it covers native plants for our area. 

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