Eight grass alternatives for your lawn

Reduce your reliance on the lawnmower and grow a greener lawn this No Mow May
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White clover attracts bees and stays green even in dry weather

Lawns created from grass aren’t right for every garden – and the more fertilised and fussed-over they are, the less beneficial they will be for the environment.

Grass lawns can be greedy. If you want perfect emerald turf, then it will probably need to be manicured, fed, and watered in dry weather. While lawns are much better for the environment than decking or concrete, large swathes of sward can quickly become a monoculture, and these green deserts won’t offer the benefits of more diverse planting schemes.

No Mow May encourages us stow the lawnmower in the shed each year to allow grass to grow and mingle with wildflower and weed seeds. But how about replacing grass altogether for a greener glade of resilient and diverse greens, which need less mowing all year round?

Creeping plants for creepy crawlies 🔗

Low-growing, mat-forming plants such as herbs and sedums can create lush, lawn-like turf in smaller areas – while also providing greater biodiversity, with more habitats and food for insects. Some may even provide edibles for you too!

While these plants are not suitable for large expanses of lawn, due to the cost, they’re the perfect fit for a small or urban garden and can grow in areas where grass might be difficult to maintain. Though they’re not as tough as conventional lawn grass, steppingstones can help avoid damage from heavy footfall.

Think about your location first before planting. The idea of right-plant-right-place still applies to lawns, so if you have a south-facing garden chamomile or thyme might be best, while brass buttons and creeping Jenny will tolerate shade.

The best time to plant will be in late spring. Clear the ground of weeds first, and rake until level. Plant in clumps 30cm apart so they will slowly spread and knit together. You can hand weed in between.

New plants will need to be watered well for the first six weeks but eventually they will require less maintenance than a lawn. They won’t need feeding and are low growing by nature. To get that ‘lawn-look’, they will need mowing or clipping with hand shears four to five times a year – but this is much less mowing than your average grass lawn.

Create a tapestry 🔗

To maximise diversity, you could mix-and-match your plants to create a ‘tapestry lawn’. This type of lawn was researched by Dr Lionel Smith, horticultural lecturer at Myerscough College, and is characterised by combining varied species of flowering ground cover plants rather than using just one type.

He suggests sowing in turf-sized seed trays and planting out the resulting turf or “tile” when it’s well rooted.

“Mown barely a handful of times a year and with no need for fertilisers or scarifying, tapestry lawns are substantially richer in their diversity of plant and animal life compared to traditional grass-only lawns,” says Dr Smith, writing in his book Tapestry Lawns: Freed from Grass and Full of Flowers. “Variety in leaf shape, size and colouration is as important as floral performance, and you can also consider leaf scent.”

Greener grass substitutes to try 🔗

1. Clover (Trifolium repens)

You might see small-leaved white clover popping up in your existing lawn – and we say, welcome it! Not only do the flowers attract bees but these quick-growing plants stay green in dry weather due to their deep root system. They might even fix a little nitrogen too. If you want to go for a wilderness lawn look – then red clover is very pretty but will grow taller. Clover can also tolerate moderate foot traffic.

2. Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum)

This mat forming herb makes a beautifully fragrant ground cover plant for sunny, well-drained areas. It tolerates light foot traffic (great for releasing that aroma), and in the summer, it’s purple/pink flowers attract a myriad of insects. You could also experiment with oregano and marjoram, with regular pruning.

3. Sedums

These drought-tolerant, fleshy plants can make a terrific textual turf – but not one you would want to walk on, so we recommend placing stepping-stones between the plants. Many sedums have flowers that are a magnet for pollinating insects. Try planting clumps of the following in full sun: Dwarf White Stonecrop (S.anglicum), Golden Queen (S.acre), Yellow Cushion (S. rupestre) or Widow's Cross (S.pulchellum).

4. Mind-your own-business (Soleirolia soleirolii)

Well-known for the way it cloaks grottos and rockeries of country houses in its gorgeous bright evergreen, this plant forms dense mats despite its tiny leaves, which grow to just 5cm and bear light foot traffic. It will tolerate shade and moist ground, but the downside is it can become invasive. It’s best planted in an area where it can be contained, and regular hoeing of unwanted plants should stop the spread. Its leaves are also killed by frost – though it regrows in the spring.

5. Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile ‘Treneague’)

Perhaps the most famous of all grass alternatives, chamomile is probably the trickiest to grow as a lawn. This plant can be fussy about soil type and requires a spot in full sun on light, sandy soil. Conversely, however, it may need some watering in dry spells. Plant a non-flowering dwarf cultivar in late spring and you won’t need to mow it, just trim with shears. It won’t like to be walked on but add a path down the middle and you can get up close to its appley, smoky aroma.

6. New Zealand brass buttons (Leptinella squalida)

These beautiful feathery plants are easy to maintain and will suit more shady locations, forming dense mats. ‘Platt’s Black’ has gorgeous, purple-tinged leaves and tiny yellow flowers in summer. They can tolerate being lightly walked on, but their shallow root systems make them vulnerable to drought.

7. Creeping Jenny

This UK-native is most at home along riverbanks and wet woodlands – so it’s ideal for lawns around a pond margin or bog garden in fertile soil. Its long, gold-green stems and heart-shaped leaves are evergreen and joined by bell-shaped yellow flowers in the summer. If it’s happy, it can become invasive so be careful where you plant it! It will bear some weight but works best planted between steppingstones.

8. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Often considered a weed in conventional lawns, this mat-forming perennial is a classic grassland plant and will survive dry, infertile soils. It’s also the toughest plant when it comes to foot traffic. The aromatic feathery foliage resembles grass - and will tolerate close mowing - but in the summer it also produces pinky-white daisy-like florets. These are extremely attractive to butterflies, hoverflies and bees.