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

Lawn Substitutes


Well, I’m home from the IGC Show in Chicago and diving into fine-tuning a magazine article on a familiar topic but with an interesting twist – it’s about LAWN and it’s for the MEN.  Homebuilders of all types, Handy Harry the Homeowner and professional builders, too.

My assignment? To write about lawns, particularly how much water they waste  but about their other problems, too, then to suggest alternatives to the manly traditions of Toro-riding and mow-and-blowing altogether.  The editor suggested I use a tone that’s “provocative and edgy”.  Yep, he wants a rant about lawns and I yep, I can do that.

Seems that the magazine, a partner publication at Taunton Press to Fine Gardening, recently covered water-saving devices in the home but they knew they needed to cover water-saving in the landscape, too.   How much of the water used by homeowners is for outdoor uses, like watering the lawn?   Estimates range from 30 to 60 percent, depending on the climate and the season.  So it’s a big deal, especially in an era of worsening droughts, state-against-state water battles, and population increases especially in the arid Southwest.

But back to the magazine.  I was interested to find such a total gender breakdown between “homebuilding” and “gardening”, with the Homebuilding Facebook page fans being a completely different group from the gardeners, as evidenced by the utter lack of overlap between my “friends” and their almost 1,000 fans.  And on their website I see lots of great information but the topics covered are almost all outdoors.  Their only outdoor video is about how to build a deck.  Ah, but over on the Fine Gardening website I see, among the design ideas and plant profiles, plenty of manly stuff – hardscaping and outdoor structures, paths.  So wouldn’t it be great if they linked to all THAT good stuff right there for the “homebuilders” to see?

Okay, I know nothing about the financial side of their relationship but as a consumer, some cross-over or link-directing could be really helpful.  And who KNOWS how many builder-type guys might find themselves enjoying that new gazebo, patio or deck SO MUCH, they end up wanting to plant some, you know, greenery to look at.  And pretty soon they’re calling plants by their names and looking at more than just the supplies section of the garden center and – who knows? – maybe even admitting that they like gardening.

They can call it yardwork but once you start buying whole plants, that’s gardening.  And welcome to the club, guys.

Photo by Tony the Bald Eagle.

Clover and creeping sedum in happier times

Well, this Lawn Reformer has a confession to make.  At first I swooned about clover -  in this post and then in this post, and frankly all over the damn Web.  I bragged (I confess) about having replaced my tall fescue+weeds with glorious White Dutch Clover mixed with the vigorously spreading Sedum acre.  And from the looks of these photo taken in the second year for this plant combo in my back yard, they’re a match made in heaven.

Until they stopped getting along.  And that’s a euphemism for: Until one of them killed the other one, and guess who turned out to be a companion-killer?   This eco-savvy gardener’s favorite plant of late – Dutch white clover.   And sad to say – get ready for another confession – I didn’t even notice the killing until the poor Sedum was almost all gone.  (Bad gardener!)

My Problems with Clover

  • On its own, clover looks great, as you can see in this video made by a permaculturist who made the transition from tall fescue to all-clover.  But we’re all for biodiversity these days and I thought clover would be even better mixed with another plant loved by pollinators – the unlucky Sedum in question.  And as terrific as they looked together, now in year three the clover towered over the sedum, shaded it completely, and killed it.
  • Not only did the clover kill the Sedum, but in the absence of supplemental watering most of it proceeded to die over the last month or so.   So while clover certainly needs less water than tall fescue, it’s not a succulent and it does need watering eventually, or it shrivels up and dies.
  • As if that weren’t enough, my garden is now deer-damaged as never before because the hungry mammals are lured into my garden by the clover.  Who knew?  Not me, but obviously lots of hunters know the way to attract deer is to grow some clover because Googling “clover” turns up a few hunting websites, like this one.

How to Remove?
Oh, you’re not going to believe I’m actually doing this – removing it by hand, so I’m spending lots of time on my kneeling pad, cursing the stuff.  Plus the kneeling-pad time spent digging up little clumps of Sedum from other parts of the garden to replace the clover.  I figure it’ll take me a couple of months to accomplish all this, and maybe until next summer for the Sedum to cover all the bare patches.

Why am I Doing This?
Yes, I’ve asked myself that and my answer usually involves some pretense at science  – I’m “trialing” this plant combination – and my mission to find as many low-maintenance alternative lawn types as possible.   After decades of gardening on the same one-third acre it’s good to have a mission.  And seriously, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read about how easy it is to replace lawn with such-and-such and I’m hoping to give readers a bit more guidance than that.   Some more helpful anti-lawn articles do make a point of telling readers to choose plants that mix well together but I’m concrete proof that following that advice is easier said than done.

Big news from the Lawn Reform Coalition!

First, we have a Facebook Page – please “Like” it to follow news of the hottest issue in gardening today!   True, we initially set up a Group on Facebook but as many users have discovered, Pages are better for campaigns like this one, so we’ll be asking Groupies to move on over to the page.

And to keep even MORE folks up to date about lawn-related happenings – even people who are Facebook-averse – we also have a newsletter we’ll be publishing at least quarterly, and you can sign up right here.

Lawn Reform Newsletter


Email Marketing by VerticalResponse

Now while we’re collecting subscribers for our first e-newsletter to be sent in September, here’s the sort of news we’ll be stuffing into our newsletters, and of course updating to our Facebook page.

Saxon Holt Joins UsSaxon

Welcome, Saxon!  Here’s why we thought he’d be a valuable partner in this campaign, from our About pageSaxon Holt is a professional garden photographer whose images are well recognized  in hundreds of magazine and book credits. In his work he seeks to change the aesthetic of what we expect to see in a garden photograph so that the media portrays authentic and sustainable gardens. ”The American Meadow Garden” and his two most previous books, Hardy Succulents, and Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates, were all awarded prizes by the Garden Writers of America as “outstanding books”. He owns the stock photography library PhotoBotanic and blogs regularly at Gardening Gone Wild.

Coalition Members doing Lawn Work

  • Evelyn Hadden and Saxon Holt have contracted with Timber Press to write and photograph the upcoming Lose Your Lawn.   We can’t wait to see it.
  • Paul Tukey sends us this news of SafeLawns.org:  “The film, A Chemical Reaction, has now been shown in more than 150 locations and we’re working on distribution on Netflix and Amazon.  We are hosting SafeLawns Organics Night Sept. 10 at GWA in Dallas: a reception that will include a screening of the film, a moderated panel and drinks etc.  We’re developing a children’s book about lawns.  We’re celebrating the one-year anniversary of our blog, and there’s a project too big to even talk about yet, but it will be the BIGGEST thing I’ve ever done in my career”.  Okay, we’re curious.
  • Tom Christopher has also been busy working to reform the American Lawn.  He edited a book for Timber Press about sustainable gardening which will be published next spring.  It includes a chapter about lawn alternatives by John Greenlee and an introduction to no-mow lawns by Neil Diboll.   Tom’s been working with fine fescues himself, planting a couple of lawns for friends and neighbors and a demonstration plot at his town hall, and will be reporting his findings soon.
  • Tom Engleman writes:  “The Grass Roots Program has just now launched on a grant study with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. We are comparing Tall Fescue, Bermuda Grass and Buffalograss lawns using various irrigation practices. The study runs for 1 year — after which we are hearing that MWD will likely recommend and adopt widespread change for traditional lawns in their HUGE service area!! Moreover, other Western water supplies will likely follow MWD’s lead on such innovation.  
    When the study is completed next summer, I’ll pass on our conclusions and MWD recommendations. “  Good work, Tom!
  • Susan Morrison is leading workshops as part of a statewide California Master Gardener public outreach program that teaches actionable, sustainable gardening practices, including the benefits of reducing turfgrass.  Susan tells us that “in California, many gardeners understand the need to conserve water, but they’re shocked to learn that run-off from irrigated lawns often contains fertilizers and pesticides that flow directly into local watersheds.  We’re so used to pointing the finger at corporations, we don’t realize that we homeowners are a bigger source of water pollution.”
  • And I (Susan Harris, if this link makes the rounds), posted a video about the mosaic of groundcovers that replaced my front lawn.  My ex-lawns, both front and back, were recently photographed by Saxon Holt for Lose Your Lawn. And I’ve been invited to join the Lawn for Pollinators Task Force of the North American Pollinator Campaign when they meet in D.C. this fall.   More conspiring for the cause!

Lawn Reform Coalition in the Media

The Anti-Lawn Message

Balanced Reports of Lawn Problems

On the Legislative Front

  • Natural lawncare advocates are celebrating the signing of a tough anti-pesticide bill by New York Governor David Paterson. The Child Safe Playing Fields Act, which bans the use of chemical pesticides on school playing fields and playgrounds, is being called “historic” by our Paul Tukey.

Nice Examples of Alternatives

  • Gardening Gone Wild tackled groundcovers, and here’s their roundup of blog posts on the subject.   Great stuff!
  • Designer Rochelle Greayer showed us a lovely front yard in Seattle.
  • One blogger wrote to tell he he’s “the caretaker of what is apparently the first homeowner buffalo grass lawn in Phoenix – it’s the new variety UC Verde, with its exceptional heat tolerance and modest water needs).   He blogged about the entire process and reports that “even as a startup lawn it was using less water starting plugs than established Bermuda grass takes.”
  • Paul Tukey is featuring a different groundcover (and alternative lawn) every Wednesdays, starting with lemon thyme and Goldmoss sedum.

Research Findings

New Resources

For years now I’ve been identifying my primary lawn-replacement plant as Sedum acre – on good authority, though I’ve long go forgotten which one.   Now I’m not so sure about the authority and definitely in doubt about this plant name since I perused Margaret Roach’s web page about sedums and discovered a photo of what I surely have, with a totally different name – Sedum linare ‘Golden Teardrop’.   (It’s the 12th in her slide show.)  See, not just the wrong variety but a wholly different species.

Then some Googling around reveals these OTHER folks who seem to agree with Margaret:

But I’m not giving up yet.   I Googled Sedum acre and found:

  • The USDA (good one!)  And they have no listing at all for this so-called S. linare.
  • Jeepers Creepers sells a S. acre ‘Aureum’ but it doesn’t really look like what I grow.
  • Ditto White Flower Farm.
  • Wikipedia has an entry for S. acre but the photo’s so bad, I can’t tell.
  • A whole different bunch on  Dave’s Garden seem to be calling what I grow S. acre.
  • A Polish (I’m assuming) photographer shows off a S. acre ‘Aureum’ that’s definitely what I grow.
  • Bluestone Perennials sells something they call S. acre and it could be the one.
  • And I’ll admit that Google is notorious for combining photos with the wrong names but here’s what they show for S. acre “Aureum” – it’s all over the place.

Now I’m more confused than ever.   To get to the bottom of this conundrum I’m emailing this post to Sandy at Sandy’s Plants and to that well-known troublemaker, Margaret Roach.

On a cool, drizzling morning in May, I check in with the ever-changing mosaic of groundcovers and think:  Me likey!  Especially compared to the thoroughly boring turfgrass it replaced.  Much prettier, more interesting, and it even offers up blossoms to the local pollinators.

Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s less work because it most definitely is not.  Lawn care in this little oval meant a five-minute mowing about 10 times a year, and that’s all.  Now I weed and I fiddle and if I’m adding anything new, I water.   But you know, it’s gardening -  hands-on and creative – and I love doing it.  Lawn care?  Not so much.

Here’s lots more more about this lawn-to-garden makeover.  The dominant groundcovers in this video are Creeping Jenny, Creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla), Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Flood’, Sedum acre, assorted creeping thymes and some Alyssum self-seeded from last year.  The main shrubs on view are the low Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaity’ and filling out the corner, Spirea nipponica ‘Snowmound’ blooming in white.


The Takoma House and  Garden Tour is one of my favorites, partly because I know so many people either touring or proudly exhibiting their house and garden, it’s actually a social event.  For many years I also enjoyed getting ideas for renovating and decorating my home but these days, I really don’t care.  (Is this a bad sign?  I DO worry.)  Honestly, the houses on this year’s tour were nice but I kept wondering, “Where’s the garden?”  Yep, not much to see in the garden department.

Except for this one, the home and garden of an outstanding contractor I hired years ago to do the renovations I used to care about (only because my 1925 house really needed them).  And though not a garden designer himself, Neil Mozer had the good sense to consult with one (Colleen Bugler), and it paid off.  And best of all, it’s a lawnless beauty that’s right up my alley.

Seating in the Front Yard!

In the front (above and right) Neil solved the slope problem with some stunning stone walls, and created a central seating area in the now-level, shady spot.  It looks so natural and inviting, it didn’t occur to me til later that we hardly ever see this done but man, what a great idea.   With the help of the existing trees and some modest shrubs, it feels pretty darn private.

Then in the back yard most of the space is taken up with a large out-building (Neil’s studio) but connecting everything is an interesting mix of fieldstone paths and well designed pocket gardens.  Plenty of evergreens, I see.