Marin Master Gardeners
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Alternatives to Lawns

April 23, 2012
Juliana Jensen

Ah, the lawn:  a lovely green swath suitable for croquet and tea parties, children’s games and, of course, lawn chairs.   When I visit my uncle at his farm in southern Pennsylvania, I am astonished at the acres and acres of green lawns spreading around the houses in his area.    It must take hours of riding around on a power mower and buckets of fertilizer to keep these lawns at this peak of perfection.


Here in Marin, we have dry summers, clay soil, hilly terrain, and frequent droughts.    It is not a natural climate for a lawn.   The water requirements of a lawn keep them expensive and impractical in our region.  Often lawns require pricey fertilizer or herbicides that are not good for our environment.   They take a lot of time to maintain for a homeowner, or add to the expense if a service is used.  

Lawns have their place, of course.   Nothing beats a lawn as a place for children’s play.  A small patch of green can be a lovely accent in a garden plan.   But there are creative, fragrant, and aesthetically pleasing alternatives to maintaining a lawn at home.

Now, instead of a lawn, picture this:  steppingstones through a Mediterranean pleasure garden of aromatic herbs, flowering low-growing ornamentals, and adorable miniature succulents.   When you step on them, a fragrance is released redolent of summer—apples, spices, violets.   You can harvest bits for a soothing bath or a delicious tea.  Most are drought-tolerant once established, reseed easily, and make no demands on you, other than an occasional shearing back.

Let’s start with the herbs.   You can actually create a whole “lawn” of chamomile.  It tolerates foot traffic while producing sweet flowers for tea or baths.   When you step on it you smell the scent of apples.  Another good herb that tolerates walking on is thyme.  The low-growing varieties such as woolly thyme, Thymus lanuginosus, or creeping thyme, Thymus praecox arcticus, release an aromatic spicy scent when stepped on.  Thyme is especially nice around pavers.  

The low-growing, flowering ornamentals also make a nice ground cover.   Mazus reptans, a Himalayan plant that sprouts interesting purple flowers, tolerates heavy foot traffic and works well between stepping stones.  Fragaria chiloensis, the beach strawberry, is a flat, pretty, native ornamental strawberry that spreads easily and produces white flowers in the spring and the occasional not-too-tasty fruit. Also look for the carpet-forming miniature daisy, Bellium minutum, the Santa Barbara daisy, Erigeron karvinskianus, or sea thrift, Armeria maritima.

If you want particularly fragrant plants, consider a small variety of dianthus, Dianthus gratianopolitanus, which forms low mats of blue-gray foliage with pink blossoms from spring through fall that are deliciously fragrant.   Another easily spreading and fragrant flower is the native California sweet violet, sometimes sold as Viola odorata.   One of the tops in fragrance, for those who enjoy the scent, is the Bevan’s cranesbill, Geranium macrorrhizum.  This plant blooms in red and magenta flowers in late spring through summer and also provides autumn color.  

Another approach to ground cover is the succulent garden.   This is very appropriate for our climate and appeals to a different, sparser aesthetic.  These plants aren’t really to be walked on, but they grow nicely along a gravel path and are satisfyingly diverse in color and shape.  Some colorful, succulent ground covers are Sedum spurium, Dragon’s blood sedum, and Crassula erosula, “Campfire.”   The Marin Master Gardeners maintain a beautiful succulent garden at the Falkirk Cultural Center that can be seen every day.  

So give it a go.  You can start by just eliminating a small piece of your lawn.  Maybe you can put in a pathway with herbs around the pavers.  Or start a succulent rock garden in a patchy area where the lawn doesn’t grow very well anyway.  You may find that your creativity is sparked as the beauty of your garden swells to your independent tastes.    Let the professionals at the local park take care of the lawn.   You’re busy bathing in chamomile.

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