Front-yard make-over. Goodbye lawn, hello creeping perennials.

Before

by Gardening Coach  Susan Harris

I liked my front lawn just fine, really.  The perfect oval surrounded by mixed borders looked nicely put together, and the lawn took all of five minutes to mow.  I fed it just a few times over our 20 years together.

But a gardener’s gotta garden, and lawn care just doesn’t cut for me (ha-ha).  Yes, I was bored, and I started to dream about other uses for this prime real estate in front of my house.  Real plants, and an assortment of them instead of this bloom-free monoculture.

The Make-Over

It didn’t take long to dig out this little bit of turfgrass and smooth out the surface.  Installing the red-brick path bisecting the oval in two directions was slow-going, I’ll admit, but so worth it.  The paths repeat the brick in the walkway and front porch, and the overall result reminds of me those old kitchen gardens in Williamsburg.

Now the plants.  In the foreground below are Creeping Cinquefoil (Potentilla nana) and Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia).  Both are plants you wouldn’t put where they could creep into a natural area, but here on an isolated site their vigor makes them the perfect lawn alternative.

After, in July

Below is the view this week, with a mix of creeping thymes in the foreground.   Behind them are two creeping sedums, some reseeded Alyssums, and some Mazus reptans.   You can watch a 16-second video of this garden, also taken in May, as seen from the front porch, over on Youtube.

After, in May

How they Compare with Turfgrass
Now we all know what turfgrasses are like to take care of but what about this mash-up of 10 different plants?  After two years you can still see some bare ground around the thymes – because they spread so slowly.  Some are faster than others but they’re not what I’d call vigorous growers.  I recommend Thymes for small spaces between and around stones, rather than covering large areas.  They’re gorgeous and offer the advantage of staying nice and short.

But the real workhorses for covering round fast proved to be the Creeping Jenny and Creeping Cinquefoil. Not only do they creep their little hearts’ out, but they’re equally vigorous, with neither overpowering the other, and they also stay short.  When plants are one to two inches there’s no question of ever needing to mow.

But not mowing doesn’t mean no-maintenance, and the main job has been weeding.  Bare ground in the sun is an invitation to weeds and I had plenty of visitors.  I’m also doing a lot of tweaking of the plants, always looking for a prettier pattern or overall design.   And the down side to plants this fast-growing is that they WILL spread into the borders, so some edging is required to keep everything in bounds.

Now I’ll admit that unlike mowing, jobs like weeding and tweaking are done at ground level and I have to stop after 30 minutes or risk a backache the next morning.   But heck, it’s creative and fun.   As opposed to, say, lawn care.   But I swear, the only other work required is raking up leaves and acorns in the fall.   Okay, and watering during the couple of droughts we have every summer.

What Makes a Good Alternative Lawn?

Glad you asked, because the answers are just starting to be clear for this gardener.

  1. Unless you have a big budget, they need to fill in fast, especially on a hillside.
  2. They need to be thick enough to keep weed seeds from germinating.  All of these plants will do that.
  3. They need to be short.   H ow short depends on your particular level of comfort with the high-grass look so close to your house.  I’ve chosen to keep the front “lawn” under 2 inches but have a wilder 4-8-inch look in the back yard.  (Here’s the story of the backyard make-over earlier on this blog.)

Functionally, none of these plants would hold up to touch football, but that’s why they’ll never completely replace the lawn.   Better types of turfgrasses are being developed and tested, though, and lawn care is morphing from Big Chem to Local Organic Compost Supplier as fast as you can say Go Green!

Thanks to Stepables for sending me an awesome bunch of plants to try out.  They’re listed in this story about them from October of  ’07.

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