Susan Harris
All about gardening the eco-friendly way, by Susan Harris and 22 other garden writers and experts.

Lawn Alternatives at The Scott Arboretum

November 13, 2008 · 22 comments

Apparently I can’t get ENOUGH of the subject of lawn substitutes – evidenced by my attending two talks on the subject in the last week.  Which I suppose tells us people want to know about it, and that’s a good thing.

So here are the lawn alternatives shown off by Chuck Hinkle, gardener at The Scott Arboretum, at their recent confab on this hot topic.  After seeing a slide show about various lawn alternatives, we followed Chuck on a tour of some real-life examples from around the campus and viewed the following:

carex pensylvanica

Carex pensylvanica (photo above) is native to the Northeast and suitable for shade, part shade, and even tolerates full sun.  Deciduous, mounding, and semi-evergreen, according to sources (meaning evergreen if the winter is mild?).  It’s usually cut back in early spring, and Chuck suggests cutting it back again in July, especially if it’s in full sun.  He also says it’ll tolerate mowing.

Carex appalachia is native to dry woods in the eastern half of North America.   It’s deciduous and stays short. Suitable for shady areas.

carex platyphylla

Carex platyphylla (photo above) is native to woodland areas with "balanced moisture" from Maine to Alabama.  It’s evergreen where winters are milder, otherwise only partly so.  Chuck gives it a haircut in late winter.  If winter is mild, evergreen.  Part sun to light shade to shade.  Also available at Plant Delights.

Carex morrowii ‘Silk Tassel" (photo above) is a Japanese sedge that’s evergreen and happy in full sun or shade.  I’ve been growing the variety ‘Ice Dance’ for years with great success.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) (photo above) is native to prairies of the Midwest and eastward, so best in full sun.   Mounding, deciduous and VERY drought-tolerant.  Amazing thing: its bloom is fragrant.  Chuck cuts it back in spring (and says it’s a real pain to do, that burning is better but illegal). It’s also deer-resistant.  Zones 3-9.  I see that they cost $22 each, so wonder if it can be grown from seed or reproduced by division. 

juncus

Juncus tenuis (photo above) is also known as poverty rush, winegrass or slender rush.  It’s native to all of N. America.  Goes dormant in winter.  Likes full sun to part shade, and Chuck mentioned they paid $1/square foot for it.  Likes full sun to part shade.

Dwarf mondo (Ophiopogon japonicus) is Japanese (duh).  This short evergreen groundcover is slow to spread, so buy enough to fill up the area immediately (I notice on eBay they’re selling for $90 for 24 of them or 500 for $190) Chuck just divides them often.  Best in shade.

festuca longifolia, hard fescue, no-mow grass

Hard fescue (festuca longifolia) (photo above) is a "no-mow" grass that looked scrumptuous in November.   It has good pest tolerance, can tolerate some shade, and doesn’t need fertilizer at all.  Chuck mows it once in the spring.  On the negative side, it doesn’t tolerate foot traffic and it’s slow to establish from seed.  I can’t find info on where hard fescue comes from, except that it’s listed on this compendium of weeds.

Charles Hinkle, Gardener, joined the staff full-time in 1998. Previously, he was a gardener at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia. He holds a B.S. in horticulture from Temple University, and has completed Longwood Gardens series I and II in Ornamental Plants. He is also an instructor at Temple University.

{ 20 comments }

1 Susan(garden-chick) November 13, 2008 at 9:11 pm

Carex as lawn substitutes – a topic after my own heart! I’m particularly impressed with the prarie dropseed, as it is covering such a large area – most of my experience so far have been with small areas making it less scary to try something new.

One option with carex sp. that isn’t possible with turf grass is seeding the gaps with native wildflowers while waiting for the mounds to fill in. Of course, this isn’t a traditional lawn look, but anyone willing to consider something other than turfgrass might be open to even more experimentation. Regardless, you need to be vigilant about weeding while your lawn sub fills in.

2 Joe Lamp'l November 14, 2008 at 5:37 am

My big “ah-hah” moment came when I pulled up to a couple’s house in February one year and was amazed at their large, lush green lawn, at a time of year where that just wasn’t what you see. Upon closer inspection I saw that her entire yard was comprised of dwarf mondo grass. It was beautiful. Four years prior, she and her husband plugged the entire area with it. A simple cordless drill with an augur bit made quick work of the digging and the husband came in behind her and plunked a plug (divided from the six pack to economize) and done! As you said, its slow to fil in, but once it does, you can’t beat it. Drought tolerant, not picky about sun or shade, no fertilizer, sand or clay and only needs mowing once a year? I’ll take it!

3 Susan Tomlinson November 14, 2008 at 7:45 am

You can grow prairie dropseed from seed, and there are much less expensive potted plus available as well. Here is a link for both : http://www.agrecol.com/shopping/Departments/Shop-By-Grass-Species-/Prairie-Dropseed.aspx

Also, High Country Gardens has less expensive pots.

Imagine how beautiful that would look under a cover of snow! I love my prairie grass “lawn,” though mine is composed of buffalo grass and blue grama…

4 Susan Tomlinson November 14, 2008 at 7:48 am

I thought I might also mention that my favorite place to shop for for prairie lawn alternatives is http://www.plantsofthesouthwest.com/

There are a lot of fairly inexpensive options there.

5 Carolyn November 14, 2008 at 12:24 pm
6 M. D. Vaden of Oregon November 15, 2008 at 3:39 am

We removed our puny front lawn, and ornamental grass seems to be the right choice.

Carex is the most common genus appearing in front of our home right now.

I’m rather fond of Blue Fescue, and will probably add Mondo Grass near the water feature.

Turfgrass is unbeatable for a field of emerald green, but the substitute plantings provide an interesting appearance that ryegrass lawns lack.

Cheers,

MDV
The Stonework was my favorite part about that garden.

The plants were excellent too.

It’s nice when a concrete jungle of a city can have something green like this.

MDV
Beaverton
http://www.mdvaden.com

7 SJ November 15, 2008 at 5:29 pm

Prairie Dropseed does reseed but sporatically. The odd seedling I get I nuture into the equivalent of a quart size plant and then either move some where else in the garden or dig up and sell to a client. It doesn’t transplant too well when it’s small. And often times if I have to move before its time I put in a pot to help it along.

They’re a bit slow to start but they can be dug up and divided into halves or thirds as long the plant is fully mature – usually by the end of the third or fourth growing season it can be divided. This is best done in the spring since this is a warm season grass.

Love the sedges – you can never have enough of them. I use alot of native sedges in my garden installations. Another nice sedge for dry shade besides C. pennsylvanica is Carex brevior. They’re so hard to purchase though, I end digging up extra seedlings from my place and clients to install in new installations. They’re so under appreciated.

I wish I could get ahold of those cool rushes though. My old employer used to occasionally carry one called Path Rush – it could be the one and same.

8 Blackswampgirl Kim November 16, 2008 at 12:58 pm

Interesting list! I wanted to try the Pennsylvania sedge here at my house, but with the dry, well-drained soil I have, I was persuaded not to.

I do have a carex platyphylla (mine was from High Country Gardens, but I see that it isn’t currently available form them) in the shade garden, and it is a fun little accent plant but I don’t know whether I would like a whole “lawn” of it, to be honest. The leaves are so thick that it doesn’t say “lawn” to me. My black dwarf mondo grass is a nice little accent plant, but it definitely does not spread enough–maybe the regular green would be better?

The one carex you didn’t mention that I always thought would be cool to incorporate into a wild lawn area is Gray’s Sedge. Carex grayii. I love those little mace- or morningstar-shaped “flowers” it gets, and the fact that they seem to say “stay off the grass!” with their unfriendly sharpness gives me a little kick. :)

9 Blackswampgirl Kim November 16, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Oh, I forgot: I looked into prairie dropseed seeds, and also inquired about it on several forums, etc. Apparently the reason that those plants are so expensive is that it is a very slow grower from seed… argh.

10 andrea November 16, 2008 at 1:48 pm

I could go on for days about this subject, but I won’t. One good lawn alternative for shade is moss especially sphagnum moss which does well in compact, acid soil. Speaking of compact soil, SJ mentioned path rush (juncus tenuis) which occurs naturally in my yard and thrives in the compacted soil around my driveway, apparently niche gardens sells it, who would’a thunk it. I have some native sedges that have colonized some shady patches the lawn mower can’t reach (those areas get bigger every year) they are very pretty. I don’t know why prairie dropseed hasn’t caught on more, it is beautiful, I used to work in a retail nursery in central Maine and to say people are cautious and conservative in their plant purchases is a huge understatement, but I couldn’t keep sporobolus in stock; it’s a beautiful emerald green and fine textured and hardy. A couple of excellent sources for grass and sedge seed are prairie nursery and prairie moon nursery, the former also has some alternative lawn mixes available and offers excellent quality plugs, I haven’t purchased plant material from prairie moon but they have a huge selection of native grass seed and their prices are a little lower, they both offer a lot of cultural information. I guess I did go on for days after all, sorry, I can get worked up about grasses.

11 Benjamin November 16, 2008 at 8:53 pm

I’ve just started a priarie dropseed corner, testing how it will do–they’re in a non-irrigated bed between the garage and sidewalk. And BOY do they smell when in bloom. I can’t describe the smell, sweet yet disgusting. I bought mine $12 in 1 gallon containers, in bloom, and my car smelled for a week like iced tea, wheat, corn, manure, urine… perfect for the plains I suppose.

12 Gloria November 16, 2008 at 9:26 pm

Those are some great greenway plantings
I am currently growing prairie dropseed that I started from seed. An entire year and the clumps are still very small. One clump did get a short single flowering stalk. Several were eaten to the ground repeatedly and one was dug out completely. The more established plants have not been bothered.
I intend to start many more this year by wintersowing. Such a fine textured grass. I have seen it self sow abundantly after a couple of years when there is plenty of rainfall at the Lurie.

The Carex platyphylla looks interesting with its broad leaves. If it stays really short that would be useful.

13 SJ November 16, 2008 at 11:10 pm

Andrea,

I am like you – I can’t get enough of the sedges or grasses. My old employer used to order quite a bit from PMN & PN for the aforementioned sedges & grasses. Someone else mentioned Agrecol in IN another great place that specializes in it.

Some other nice sedges besides C. grayii are:

Carex glauca: Steel blue foliage – great to mix with the an all green sedge an a striped one like C. morrowii ‘Ice Dance’. Hey, I’ve mixed all three with good effect.

Carex bicknelli: Long graceful leaves – a good sedge for full sun. I have lots of these and self-seed readily.

Carex rosea: A woodland gem, even more finer texturer then the Pennsylvania Sedge.

Carex blanda (Common Wood Sedge): More coarse textured and not as pretty but this sedge grows in the worst areas – in the woods along roadsides, tough as nails as will take some foot traffic. I’ve aquired a stash of it just by digging it up in a waste area.

Carex plantaingea (Plantain Sedge): This resembles the C. platyphylla. I think it’s more hardy to our neck of the woods here in Chicago. But it has the same ribbon like leaves which I really love.

Gloria: Don’t give up in the P. Dropseed. It takes a few years to get going. I too have noticed the critters like squirrels, chipmunks & voles like dig this newer ones up and sometimes burrow into the crowns of more mature plants and it’s very frustrating. But if you can get a couple going they will slowly start to seed amongnst themselves and you’ll have a colony of them.

14 Bob Vaiden November 17, 2008 at 11:17 am

I have found Prairie Dropseed to be easy to grow from seed, or just ripping a piece out of a clump. It grows into nice sized clumps in 2-3 years. It likes hot, dry areas.

It smells good! “Buttered Popcorn” is the usual comment! :)

Bob Vaiden

15 Suzy C. November 17, 2008 at 1:15 pm

Is the objection to traditional lawns the look or the upkeep? My husband was a bit nervous when I wanted to make my (well, ‘our’) whole front yard into garden. As a concession to him I allowed about 1/3 of the space to be not-garden. I searched out and planted (from seed) one of the many ‘Low Mow’ grass mixes available (I recall I ordered mine from Prairie Moon). It’s a mix of slow growing fescues and was very non-fussy to get started. Our soil here ( central Minnesota) is basically a giant sandbox, so very dry. I didn’t amend the soil, NEVER water & NEVER fertilize (don’t feed the beast!) and I mow it literally once a year in the spring. I have some in full sun & partial shade, it competes with the evil roots of my neighbors evil Silver Maple and during drought, while it is not as bright a green as when there is ample rain, it still is green.

16 Mr. McGregor's Daughter November 18, 2008 at 2:25 pm

Okay, now I’m kicking myself for yanking & composting the Prairiedropseed seedlings that pop up in my garden & in my brick walkway. $15 a plant I’ve been throwing away. Makes me want to cry.

17 Eric November 19, 2008 at 3:40 pm

Maybe it’s just me, but in some of the photos shown here and in other installations I’ve seen, few of these alternatives really replicate the look and feel of grass. Grass has a thickness and density of blade-per-square foot that’s flat and even and uniform, and many of these alternatives, even after many years, still look like artfully, or not so artfully, arranged plugs and remind me of a really bad bald man’s hair transplant. I garden on a 7,500 square foot plot in suburban Maryland, and of that only about a 500 square foot area is devoted to lawn; the rest are planting beds and mulched pathways. But my 500 foot oval of lawn is just big enough to spread out a blanket and lay in the sun or frolic in bare feet in the grass or play a little round of croquet, something I can’t imagine doing with any of these alternatives – because it’s kept small, my little patch of lawn can be easily mowed using an non-electric push reel mower, and without chemical feeding I only have to mow it about 12 to 13 times a year, and it’s good, brief excerise. Small plots are easy to weed by hand when necessary. I think many homeowners should consider drastically reducing the amount of lawn they have but there’s nothing wrong with keeping a small patch that can be easily sustained using non-chemical non-pollutiong reel mowing practices. I think larger areas covered in these alterantives looking a bit boring and lumpy.

18 Megan May 4, 2009 at 1:35 pm

My parents have a very active dog and as much as we’d like to replace some or all of the grass with an alternative groundcover, we’re afraid the dog will rip up the new groundcover. The other fear is that the spaces between the groundcover as it grows together will become mud puddles. Is there a particular groundcover that’s really well suited for this situation?

19 susan harris May 4, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Megan, I don’t know of any groundcover that can handle a very active dog as well as turfgrass can, especially when it’s just getting established. As we try to find replacements we’re reminded of some of the reasons that turfgrasses became so popular – they’re tough, and grass seed is cheap.

20 Megan May 4, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Thanks Susan! That’s what we were afraid of. They we have a large enough yard that maybe they can get a section well established before letting the dog on it, but the dog really likes to sprint around the house repeatedly, and that does not help the situation.

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