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The Advantages of Alternative Ground Cover


With temperatures expected to reach just shy of eighty for the second day in our beautiful Maryland, we can finally be sure that spring is here.  Now is the time to loosen up the garden, apply compost and soil amendments, pick out plants and seeds, and have at some serious landscape maintenance and spring garden projects.  You might only want to add some plants or move some beds around, but those desiring a more dramatic change to the yard might choose to add a water garden or water feature, build a greenhouse, start a rock garden, kill the lawn, design a nightscape—

Wait.  Kill the lawn?

In increasing numbers, gardeners and homeowners are choosing to abandon the traditional turf lawn for affordable, low-maintenance ground covers.  The process starts with destroying the grass.

Take a deep breath.

Turf lawns have long been a symbol of prosperity in the United States, so it isn’t surprising that some might be shocked at the idea of ripping out the grass.  Though the only greenery featured in the front yards of most early homes in this country was found in the family garden, those with the money to travel to Europe soon found themselves wanting to see a little bit more.  Large and wealthy European estates with their rolling green lawns inspired Americans to recreate the same effect in their own yards, and between the Victorians of the mid-1800s and the suburbanites of the 1950s, the lawn became a required element of the modern home.  Well, it used to be. 

Due to the economic troubles of recent and rising environmental concerns, many have decided that getting rid of the grass just makes sense.  According to the EPA, 30% of the 26 billion gallons of water used daily in the United States (that’s about 7.8 billion gallons) goes toward lawn and landscape irrigation (EPA.gov).  When most Americans are trying to stretch the pennies, that water bill is no laughing matter.  Add to that the cost of maintenance, fertilizers, and pesticides, and you have a rather expensive and time-consuming landscape.  Turf lawns may also be contributing to some significant environmental damage.  The treatments used by many to keep their lawns green and healthy could be running off into natural water.  These nutrients can cause massive algae blooms that severely affect water ecosystems.  The exhaust from motorized mowing and trimming tools associated with lawn maintenance contains carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that have been linked with air pollution and illness.

Replacing the lawn with non-traditional ground cover can greatly reduce the amount of water necessary to keep your yard green.  Ground cover plants require minimal fertilizers and pesticides to stay healthy, and in many cases, they will not exceed a few inches—this eliminates the need to mow.  Less pollution, less energy, less cost—what isn’t there to like?  The most exciting part is the new textures, colors, and shapes these ground covers can help you achieve in your landscape.  There are mosses and very tiny creeping plants that can replace turf, giving your lawn a brightness and manicured style that your neighbors won’t quite be able to put their finger on from far away.  Slightly taller creeping flowers and foliage can be used as a natural and fluid edging material to bridge the gap between taller plants in beds and short turf replacement plants.  Ground covers can be worked into beds and under shrubs to act as natural mulch and give your beds a fuller and wilder look.  Use ground covers in conjunction with rocks,  logs, and craggy terrain elements to create an impressive cascading garden, especially where grass typically doesn’t do well.  Ground covers can do much more than replace the grass if you are willing to work a variety of them into your landscape and gardens.  What you will end up with is a landscape that looks more involved, but actually, requires much less attention than a turf lawn in the long run.

Ground cover plants come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and can suit either sunny or shady areas.  Here are some popular options:



Ice plant





 Lamb's ear







Wild ginger


Lily of the valley



Ideally, you should select native ground cover plants or plants that are suited to the rainfall in your area so that you need to water them little if at all.  When you have selected your plants and are certain about how and where you’d like to place them, you will need to kill the grass.  Rather than use herbicides to do this, you can dig or till the grass up or cover the area with a tarp, newspaper, or mulch to kill it slowly.  This process may be very difficult or take a long time depending on whether you’re taking out an entire lawn or just sections.  When the grass is gone, you will need to amend the soil and make improvements the same as you would when installing a new bed or preparing for new plantings.  Follow the recommended care instructions for the plants that you are installing to plant them and water them.  Ground cover plants may look sparse at first, but they will all spread relatively quickly.  Be certain to feed them every year like your other plants, and be sure that you are keeping traffic through them low if they don’t tolerate being walked on.  As the plants become established, you will have to trim them every so often to keep them looking neat and under control.

At MasterGardening.com, we are all about sustainability for the environment and for your wallet.  If you would like to read more about Earth-conscious  and money-saving gardening techniques, check out our article, Eco-Friendly Gardening.