While meticulously manicured grass lawns are a staple of modern neighborhoods, these plots of green come with many downsides. Principal among them is the need for regular mowing, a chore that primarily serves to stave off your neighbors’ disapproval by conforming to a dated suburban ideal.
You’re tired. We’re tired. It’s time to consider an attractive, low-maintenance alternative by replacing your lawn with ground cover plants that don’t require any mowing at all. Once these plants take hold, they can be irrigated much less frequently than lawns—maybe once every six weeks if it hasn’t rained. Many are also resistant to pests.
“It’s a joy not to have to mow and still have everything look green,” says Wendy Wilber, the statewide Master Gardener Volunteer Program coordinator at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. We agree—let’s get you started on your path to a better lower maintenance yard.
What to plant, based on where you live
Native plants are often your best choice for successful ground covers. If you have pets, you may also want to ensure your preferred plants don’t have seed heads that could attach to animals passing through. Here are some natives for planting in different geographic regions. The first three grow well in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, and Texas in full or partial sun.
Powderpuff mimosa, or sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa), is a fast-growing 3- to 4-inch-tall plant with purple powderpuff flowers. It grows in Arkansas and the southern states listed above.
Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) grows 3 to 6 inches tall and has white flowers. Its broad range stretches from the southern half of the US to the tropics, including Arizona, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah.
Lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata) grows 1 to 2 feet tall with a rosette of leaves at its base. It has blue flowers and fragrant foliage like its culinary cousin. You can grow it in the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast.
While not a native plant, perennial peanut (Arachis glabrata) is a popular ground cover. Since it hit US soil in 1936, it has not spread into native areas or become a nuisance plant, IFAS says. It reaches about 6 inches tall and has yellow, buttercup-like flowers. A fan of warm temperatures, it grows in full or partial sun throughout Florida and in the southern parts of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.
[Related: Build a garden for native pollinators]
The next three native plants are suitable for installations in shade or partial shade and cooler climates.
Common wild ginger (Asarum canadense) can grow to 5 inches tall and has velvety heart-shaped leaves with hidden red-brown flowers. It is seen in more than 20 northern states.
Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) is a ground-hugging plant with white flowers and edible fruit. It grows in every state.
Wild stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) has foliage that creeps along the ground and sends up 8-inch-tall spikes with white flowers. Find it in cool states from the Midwest to the Northeast.
These are just a few examples of good ground cover plants, and your choices are not limited to what you can find in nurseries. “Look around your area,” says Wilber. “If you see native plants you like that are growing well naturally, consider using them as a ground cover in your landscape.”
The best time to start a lawn replacement is at the beginning of the growing season for your area. This will protect the new plants from being damaged or killed by cold weather.
Choose an area where the grass is just something you look at rather than a place where people walk or play. The amount of sun or shade there will determine the ground cover you select, and the soil should be well drained—with more sand than clay.
Begin the process by removing your old grass, breaking up and removing its roots so it won’t reemerge. You can rent a machine called a sod cutter or dig it up with a shovel. Other removal options are covering the lawn with black plastic for four to six weeks to smother it (which takes much longer) or killing it with an herbicide (preferably one that’s environmentally friendly). If you use herbicide, it should be safe to plant your ground cover after three days, but make sure you check the label to be sure. Once the grass is gone, grade the soil to be sure it is level and not lumpy. This can be a laborious process, so there’s no shame in hiring a professional.
Installing your new ground cover
When it’s time to fill in the now-bare ground, it’s best to use mats of plants for full coverage, but this can be expensive. More commonly, individual plants are planted no farther than 12 inches apart. Mulch between the plants with pine straw to keep the soil moist, protect it from runoff, and suppress weeds, Wilber says.
For the first two months, water twice a week for 30 minutes. After that, water once a week for the next six months depending on how much it rains. Once the ground cover is established, these relatively drought-proof plants will thrive with normal rainfall. Assuming you have adequate irrigation, weed suppression, appropriate sunlight, and favorable growing temperatures, the plot should fill in within 12 to 18 months, Wilber says.
How to maintain ground cover plants
Once your ground cover is established, little maintenance is required. Fertilizer and pesticides will probably be unnecessary, as it will grow on its own and attract few pests. If there has been little rain and the plants look parched, water them, Wilber says.
While it is possible to mow ground cover, it is not necessary. Mowing should not be done on a new planting. If you wish to mow, wait until the ground cover has filled in and reached its full height or you will prevent it from putting down good roots. For more help with ground covers, contact your local county extension office, Wilber says.
The happy result
“Replacing grass lawns with ground cover is potentially a way to save water and reduce the cost of lawn maintenance while providing biodiversity in our landscape,” Wilber notes. “In many states, lawns are the largest crop grown. Ground covers are a good way to introduce native plants into the landscape by using them as a turf alternative in places where people won’t be walking or recreating.”
Now, instead of boring grass that has to be mowed, you have a lush yard brimming with flowering plants. Explore the options that work in your area and get ready to put your feet up once your ground cover gets growing.