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How to Choose the Right Lawn Alternatives


Don’t want a lawn? Lawn alternatives are suitable for low–traffic areas where the plants won’t get trampled on too heavily, or to fill the gaps between pavers.

What lawn alternative plants do very well is form a nice thick mat which is quite effective at suppressing weed growth to almost zero. They also provide a more visually interesting option to plain old grass.

Some lawn alternative plants will flower, bringing in swathes of colour to the garden in brilliant fashion.

Coccineus Thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus’) in flower covering a French drain

Common Misconceptions about Lawn Alternatives

Working in the garden nursery industry part-time, I often meet people who ask about lawn alternatives, and then when I question them about what area they wish to cover, I get answers such as 100 square metres (over 1,000 square feet)! What they’re intending to do is replace a huge expanse of lawn with a lawn alternative. So, what’s wrong with that?

Well, firstly, it will cost a fortune! Most lawn alternatives don’t come in seed, so you need to buy small plants in tubestock, and you’ll probably need to plant around four per square metre (around one every two square feet) to get good coverage and a reasonable fill during the growing season. They’re not intended to cover areas the size of small sports playing fields!

Sometimes, the reason people consider lawn alternatives is because they don’t want to mow or maintain the area. In this respect, only the flat and lower growing lawn alternatives can be left unattended, the taller ones often need clipping at the end of summer to keep them tidy.

Secondly, what would anyone do with such a large area that can’t take heavy traffic? Consider how often you would need to cross such an area, and if it’s the most direct route to another garden feature or entrance/exit. Grass can take abuse, even grazing from animals. Lawn alternatives can’t, they’re plants with stems, and if the stems break, you end up with dead bits, that’s inevitable.

Lawn alternatives are an alternative to a lawn, as are garden beds, ponds, pavers, stone toppings, or concrete surfaces, they’re something (much nicer) that you can put in place of a lawn. They are not lawn substitutes!

If you want a hard wearing surface for your young children to play sports on, or for your hyperactive dogs to run around in endless circles all day long out of boredom, then you probably want a regular lawn (and a dog walker).

Way too big to use a lawn alternative! Think through your reasons…

What if you really do want a lawn alternative, what’s the best way to plan your garden area?

Choosing the Best Lawn Alternatives for Your Location

There’s a wide choice of lawn alternatives to suit different locations. Some prefer moist soils, others prefer shade, some cope with hot and dry conditions, so be sure to match the lawn alternative plant to your location and soil conditions.

Lawn alternatives used here in Australia include:

Exotic plants

Native plants

Begin by assessing the area, how much sun will it get? If it will be exposed to hot, scorching afternoon west sun in summer and get very dry, then the only choice is usually a Creeping Thyme of some sort. Similarly, if the soil is being sucked dry by the roots of a nearby tree and there’s a lot of sun, then consider using a creeping thyme as a lawn alternative.

And before you ask, no, creeping thymes are not edible, they have a slight aroma but the oil content is too low for culinary use. They’re bred for flowering and a dense groundcover growth habit, not flavour!

Creeping White Thyme

There are many varieties of Creeping Thyme, some grow completely flat, such as Coccineus Thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus’), while others grow taller and need to be clipped regularly, typically after flowering, to keep them tidy.

Coccineus Thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus’) grows very flat and copes with hot, dry conditions. here it’s growing up into a crack in the concrete!

Water is a major consideration when selecting lawn alternative plants. Is the location shady or is there part sun? Moist? Part sun to full sun and moisture will give you the most options for lawn alternatives. If you want to increase the options available, consider watering regularly or installing irrigation.

In moist areas that are quite shady, Native Dichondra, aka Kidney Weed (Dichondra repens), and Native Violet (Viola hederacea) do quite well.

Native Violet (Viola hederacea) beginning to flower

Alpine pratia will cope with full sun to part shade as long as the soil stays fairly moist. It has delicate pale blue star-shaped flowers, whereas Common Pratia (Pratia pedunculata) has white flowers.

Alpine Pratia (Pratia puberula) is a very flat gowing ground cover which fills nicely between pavers

Corsican mint also required full sun to part shade, and good moisture. It is completely flat growing with very small round leaves, and does have a bit of a minty aroma.

Some lawn alternatives such as Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) are frost sensitive, so they may not look the best and die back a bit during winter. Frost tender lawn alternatives do better in protected areas where frost doesn’t gather, so don’t plant them in low lying areas at the bottom of a slope or a wide open area where frost will hit from directly overhead.

I case you’re wondering, Brahmi is also known as Memory Herb, it’s a well known medicinal herb from Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine that has been used for over 3000 years as a nerve tonic and memory-enhancing herb. It’s traditionally used by students to help with learning and memory recall and by older people to prevent memory loss, and dementia and maintain brain health.

Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) as a lawn alternative, also a medicinal herbal plant

Protecting Alternative Lawns with Access Paths

Once you’ve selected the correct lawn alternative for your location, the next step is to plan access across it if required, as lawn alternatives don’t handle heavy traffic.

If the area is a thoroughfare which you need to cross to access a garage, garden shed, barbecue area, gate, entrance/exit or other such place, then you need to plan for a path. Paths can be made of pavers, stepping stones, crushed rock toppings, mulches and various other landscaping materials. The great thing about paths is that they stop you getting wet or muddy feet in winter and prevent wear and tear on your lawn alternative area, so it stays looking good all year round.

Common Pratia (Pratia pedunculata) around pavers in a shady, moist front garden that gets mainly morning sun

Lawn Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) growing around more formal concrete pavers. Lawn chamomile can grow taller and needs occasional clipping to keep tidy.

When designing paths, keep in mind that they don’t have to be straight as a ruler, they can be curved to add visual appeal to a garden. Conversely, don’t make paths too wavy and undulating as people will then take the most direct path to their intended destination – if they can walk straight across they will!

Give some thought to the type of paths that will suit your garden, and the areas that they will need to link together. A little bit of pre-planning will go a long way to prevent lots of issues in the.

Too Much Space to Fill with Alternative Lawn?

We now know that you can’t just take a huge lawn area and substitute a lawn alternative instead of grass and expect to use it in the same way. So how do you fill a large expanse of land?

I would pose the very same question to any gardener planning on having a huge lawn. Why do you need a very large lawn? Consider the mowing and maintenance. Will a smaller lawn do? What function will the lawn serve, and how big will it need to be for that purpose?

How do we fill a large space? The solution is exactly the same in both cases – don’t turn a huge space into a monoculture of one thing, either lawn or lawn alternative, do multiple things with the space and add more appeal and functionality to a garden.

Reduce the area that needs to be covered with lawn or a lawn alternative by:

These are just some possible ideas, essentially you can do anything with a garden to suit your personal tastes!

In Summary…

Lawn alternatives are a nice feature to include in a garden instead of having more lawns. They’re not substitutes for lawns, as lawns have their place and purpose. They are an alternative, a different choice in the way you use your garden space.

Lawn alternatives can be used to fill a space with plants that are much more attractive and much lower maintenance than grass, and as an alternative to having lawn if you don’t use (or like) lawns. Let’s be realistic here, many people have lawns because everybody else does, it’s a strange cultural custom, and that’s not a good reason for having a lawn!

With careful selection of the right plant for the right place, and the intelligent use of paths through an area, lawn alternatives can be used successfully in a garden and provide many more benefits than a plain old grass lawn does.

If you want to have an appropriate sized lawn that serves your purposes (other than creating a mowing and maintenance task each weekend) and a lawn alternative area in another part of the garden, then go for it, as both lawns and lawn alternatives are both viable ways to fill areas of garden space!

Get creative, and build a garden that you can enjoy!

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