Ground Covers That Replace Grass and Take Foot Traffic

An Interview with Pam Penick, Author of "Lawn Gone!"

Sedum-lydium.jpg
Stonecrop lives up to its name, living happily in dry, rocky spaces. Dorling Kindersley, Getty Images

Grass is a great ground cover. Yet, grass replacements are widely sought for a number of reasons—not least among them the fact that some low-growing plants can survive with much less water and require no mowing.

Pam Penick is an Austin, TX, gardener and designer who is no stranger to the lawn perils posed by extended droughts. Her experience inspired her to write the book Lawn Gone! (Ten Speed Press, 2013). Ms. Penick is also author of the book The Water-Saving Garden: How to Grow a Gorgeous Garden with a Lot Less Water (Ten Speed Press, 2016).

In this interview, she shares some of her top ground cover and grass replacement recommendations.

What are the top three low-growing ground covers for people facing water restrictions?​

First, I recommend sedge, whatever kind is native to or adapted to your region. Berkeley sedge (Carex divulsa) does well in California. Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) works well in the Midwest and Northeast. Texas sedge (Carex texensis) works for the Southern Plains. Sedge gives the look of lawn without the constant mowing or watering.
Second, I like silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae) for frost-free climates. It makes a silvery, low-growing mat.
Third, the low-growing succulents of the Echeveria genus and Sedum genus can fill spaces very effectively. Echeverias are rarely hardy north of zone 9, but plants like ‘Angelina’ stonecrop (S. rupestre) can fill space in a wide range of weather zones. I like blue chalksticks (Senecio serpens) for the frost-free regions like Southern California. The Sempervivums include several low-growing species that are northern-hardy, such as hens-and-chicks or houseleeks.

What are the most “step-able” ground covers?​

Unfortunately, most non-lawn ground covers don't appreciate foot traffic, though thyme and the sedges mentioned before will accept occasional walking. In the book, I recommend red creeping thyme (Thymus praecox spp. Articus ‘Coccineus’) and wooly thyme (T. lanuginosis), both of which are winter hardy. There’s also miniature speedwell (Veronica oltensis) for zones 4 to 9, creeping raspberry (Rubus pentalobus) for zones 6 to 11, and silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae) for zones 9 to 11.

What options are there for very drought-tolerant grass?​

There's Habiturf for the Southwest. There are fine-fescue mixes for California and the upper Midwest, such as Prairie Nursery's No-Mow Lawn and Wildflower Farm's Eco-Lawn.

Do any ground covers tolerate mowing, whether mixed or unmixed with grasses?​

Yes, sedges can be mowed once a month, if you like, or left unmowed for a “meadow” look. Liriope, which does well in the Southeast, can be mown once a year in early spring to remove winter-damaged leaves. In general, though, one of the good things about going lawn-free is not having to mow!

Editor’s Note: 

Many of these low-growing flowering ground covers are available through local garden centers. But if you are having trouble finding what you need, a bit of internet searching reveals several mail-order sources for low-growing “walk-on” ground covers: