News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Grass isn’t the only thing that can make your yard green

Linn County Master Gardener

OSU Linn County Master Gardener.

Lawn dried out or turned into a natural blooming meadow? Only the weeds are green? Got fairy ring fungus? Want to mow less? Been buying and applying chemical fertilizers and weed killers but want to become more ecologically responsible? 

Consider replacing green lawn with greener ground covers. And you might get flowers, too! 

Fall is a good time to repair, re-seed or replace a lawn. The rain will return and keep it watered while to seeds or plugs get established. 

But why plant more work? Plan a no-mow green space. People passing by the Community Garden may think we planted a new lawn this summer, but actually we let the violets spread over the poor soil and under the fir trees. As they self-sow and make new plants, we will space them around where the grass once grew to form a nice green mat with pretty little flowers in the spring.

Lawns became popular when the post-World War II housing developers marketed suburban mini-estates that would remind returning soldiers of European estates they saw overseas. Owning their own green space and garden space would make them feel “regal” as new homeowners. 

The marketing worked and the lawn care and chemical companies have thrived. Lawns are part of the home landscape throughout the country now and an unconscious part of having a “presentable” home after generations of expectations and aspirations. 

It’s a new world now that values landscaping for CO2 absorption, water conservation and sustainable gardening that contribute to a better, healthier earth. Nix the chemicals and plant for a better environment – and less effort. If a section of lawn can be replaced by (native) shrubs or evergreen ground covers the mowing time can decrease proportionate to the summer water bill.

What can we plant in place of a lawn? Grass is a resource-heavy plant. Drought-hardy low maintenance ground covers can be just as invasive as grass, but that can be an advantage when we want them to spread where grass once thrived. 

Some ground covers, like ivy, can be considered invasive species and will need to be avoided or contained. Choose ground covers that are “steppable” and low-growing, like thyme, blue star creeper, Corsican mint, Veronica (speedwell), creeping Jenny (moneywort), Ajuga (bugleweed), buttercup, violets, (wild) barren strawberry, clover, and mosses. Most of these form dense green carpets, often with seasonal flowers and pleasant scents when walked on. 

Mowing once a year, after flowering, will keep them tidy. They can be planted en-masse, or in patterns of various textures and shades of greens that might change seasonally. 

Another bonus: some of these plants are the ones we’ve been trying to kill with weed-and-feed in our lawns. Let the grass die and grow the evergreen weeds. Except dandelion, tansy, thistle and queen-anne’s-lace that definitely get too tall for enjoyment. 

The low-growing spreaders will flower, seed and fill in quickly if planted in the rainy season. Many of them have root systems that will loosen up the soil for better drainage and expand as mulches under shrubs. They can be under-planted with bulbs for additional interest. 

Most of ground covers will grow in sun and shade, and they require less irrigation. Ground covers are also better for slopes that are difficult to mow. Like moss, many of the ground covers actually prefer compacted, acidic, poor soils and do not require spending money of fertilizers.

To start replacements over a lawn area, first mow the grass as short as possible, scalping it down to the soil. Spread some compost over the top for the seed or plant starts to get established. The ground covers will crowd out the grass over time, just like they have been trying to do all along. This year, let them have their way and within a couple of years the grass may give up. 

Covering the grass with cardboard before composting will help to hasten the demise of grass underneath when they cannot find the light of day to grow. Fall is a great time to plant because the rain will help germinate seeds or encourage root growth. Some seeds may lie dormant until spring temperature and moisture conditions are right for germination.

Still want a grass lawn? Consider over-seeding with fine fescue. It is drought-tolerant and low-growing, requiring mowing only a couple of times per year. Fescue is a sustainable alternative to high-maintenance/high-resource  grass mixes. In fact, fescue is often included in grass mixes to cover while the other grasses get established. 

Fescue will bloom and go to seed, filling in the space more densely, but that’s a good thing. Whatever you do, cover the ground to keep moisture and nutrients in the soil. Nature abhors bare ground and will plant our least-favorite weed to fill in when we’re not looking.

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