This Week in California Gardening


It’s been a thought-provoking and newsy week in the garden pages of my nearest big-city newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle.  Check out:

A great story about tenant farmers on urban land owned by the Public Utilities Commission. An urban agricultural park:  what a concept!  Read more about it here.

A thoughtful piece from Ron & Joe
about the replacement of street trees in San Francisco.

Questions from readers about going lawnless. Once you rip out the grass, what next?  The answer raises lots of questions, but doesn’t get into specific plants.  It got me wondering:  if someone asked you to recommend five plants that could serve as lawn substitute in your climate, what would they be?  And by lawn substitute, I mean that rather than plant a garden, you’re going to pick one plant and cover the ground with it.  My picks? 

  • Lamium, assuming the lawn is surrounded by some kind of edging to keep it from creeping over to the neighbor’s yard.
  • Golden oregano, which spreads fairly quickly and looks great all year–but with the caveat that one really should plant SOMETHING dramatic alongside gold foliage.  A few red New Zealand flax?  Something!
  • One ornamental grass, planted over and over.  I’m loving my blue fescues (Festuca glauca).
  • A very low-growing ceanothus.  Native, tough, bug and bird-friendly.
  • A very low-growing manzanita.  Same deal.



  1. In a word: vinca and Ceratostigma plumbaginoides.

    I have a bed on the side of my house that is all clay soil and root systems from a nearby tree and an old wild grape vine that won’t die. It’s shade to part shade. I tried to turn it into a flower bed but it’ s a nightmare. I finally have decided to loosen the soil a bit, remove what roots I can, stir in some peat moss, and plant vinca all over that sucka.
    I also planted a few hosta along the house itself, a sedum (which seems to love crappy soil), some baptisia (we’ll see if it thrives there) and a buddleia.
    There’s a portion of this bed that gets more sun and so far a purple smoke bush I planted there and some peacock blue plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) are doing well. I want to get some more of this ground cover, I love the blue flowers and it’s spreading nicely, so I’l get several more plants in the spring.
    My dream of a blue and white flower bed is not going to happen but I’m happy there will finally be something there besides rocky clay.

    I also planted sweet woodruff along our fence amid some hosta and daffodils. I love this one, its dainty white flowers and its intricate leaves.

  2. I’ve been lawnless for a while, and find it depends entirely on the site situation and the look you want.

    If you have it on the shady side, redwood sorrel might do the trick. It spreads and blooms. Needs a little water, though.

    If it’s sunny, how about dwarf coyote brush? Not precisely a lawn look, but green all year, blooms in winter(!), great for wildlife, and no water.

    Low-growing salvia such as leukophilia Pt Sal Spreader also cover large areas (8×8). Mine blooms in the spring, then changes to its grayish summer leaves. There are greener sages, though some are fussy about drainage.

    Low-growning california fuchsia will bloom beautifully August – December and look good green starting in the spring. I cut mine down to an inch in December, so nothing much for a few months.

    Curious what others have to say. Obviously, I favor natives for their wildlife value.

  3. Horseherb(Calyptocarpus vialis), once established, is drought tolerant, spreads fairly quickly and can even be mowed over. It doesn’t do quite as well in all-day full sun.

    Our xeric front yard garden has no lawn and our main groundcover is horseherb. Some of it is brown and crunchy right now from our drought, but most of that will bounce back with a decent rainstorm.

  4. Liriope, or monkey grass, or whatever you call it. I’ve used it in an erosion situation, and where cars may drive over it, and by sidewalks. Once established, it’s almost care-free. Though initially I thought the flooding here killed the planting in front of my house, and I put Mondo grass in, now plants are coming up, pushing that Mondo out a bit. Three years later, still tenacious. When a kid, we had it on the banks of our house, and it was so tall I could lie in it and not been seen, sometimes falling asleep,

  5. I think this question is impossible to answer without addressing function. What do you use your lawn for?

    If it functions as a decorative swath of green, then go lawnless. Lately, I’ve been loving Yerba Buena, Satureja douglasii. Needs some shade, but it forms a nice green mat a few inches high. Smells amazing and will give you an infinite source of herbal tea.

    If your lawn is something that you like to lay out on it, run around and play on it, why not have a patch of grass? There are tons of new seed mixes out there that say pretty green all summer long with little or no water. Nice mixes of species, including flowers and clover that can take a lot of abuse. Keep an area the size of a croquet court mowed with a push mower. Get a no mow meadow mix for the rest.


    A voice of reason in the kill the lawn at costs world. I have a small lawn of 600 sq ft that is manicured and looks nice. My lawn used to be 1/2 acre.

    Even the smaller lawns coming into vogue the anti lawn crowd wants them eliminated or smaller altogether.

    They forget tthe fact that lawn replacements still need water, and care in thenlong run. Maybe not as much perhaps but still they are not immune to care

    The (mow baby mow) TROLL

  7. I love George’s suggestion. If you want a green space that you can walk across occasionally, here north of the border in zone 5b any of the carpet thymnes would be my choice. They grow fast in my sandy soil in full sun to partial shade, flower in season, come out green from under the snow and you can stick species bulbs under it. However any lawn substitute will need weeding in my experience.

  8. Ajuga. Some escaped from the previous regime into my city lawn, where it gets mowed and trampled and shows zero ill effects. But it does want to take over the world and has to be chopped back.

    P.S. Greg–I think small city yards ought to be devoted to more productive and exciting things than grass. But in the country, when the lawns are velvety and expansive and show off a dignified house, I love them.

  9. I’ve used yarrow (Achillea millefolium) with mixed results in my southern California, coastal zone, infrequently walked, lawn.

    Yarrow is often mentioned as a lawn substitute in articles on the topic, but it hasn’t been as dead simple as turf grass to maintain.

    The bottom line is that I like it enough to ll stick with it, but I will revamp a bit this fall.

  10. Not gonna get rid of my lawn, although I have cut it down quite a lot and every year I nibble away a bit more. So far I haven’t found anything which can substitute for lawn grass for ease of care (i.e., no weeding), but I have used a lot of ground covers where I can. I have lots of ajuga, vinca, pachysandra, mazus, lysimachia and liriope in various places, and lawn only where I feel I need something walkable/playable. But — I don’t water lawn, nor do I fertilize except for occasional applications of chickens**t (easy to get because I live near D.C.), and I am happy with clover and some weeds mixed in with the grass, and there are some lovely spongy beds of moss in the shadier places–I do handweed those because I find them charming.

  11. People in my arid area of the country are contemplating the current and future availability of water.
    It’s not a matter of ‘feel good enviromentalism’, or in vogue eco-radicalism, it’s a matter of intelligent forward thinking.

    The old mantra of form follows function comes into play when lawn restoration becomes a reality.
    Identify your use and then design with the appropriate solution(s).
    Decomposed granite, playground fiber or perhaps even a synthetic lawn may fit the solution.
    In some cases a hybrid of hard and soft materials planned into a specific pattern may meet the challenge.
    In regards to choosing a planted monoculture, there are so many wonderful and practical plant choices that it would be hard to choose just one.


  12. Hmmm … Most of these comments are pretty much worthless in absence of a known growing location and site conditions. (I’m in zone 5a, eastern Iowa with rich, black soil.)

    The one exception that I would make to suggested plants (lacking other information) is to question the recommended bunch grass, Festuca glauca. Typically what gets planted is ‘Elisha Blue’ — notoriously a short-lived perennial. Although quite a beautiful grass, it gets tiresome replacing the ones that have become toast. Perhaps more success is had with the straight species (?).

    Anyway … for many parts of the country, I think another bunchgrass (although a few inches taller) is far superior – Little Bluestem.


  13. We used ferns as ground cover replacing half our front lawn. I refuse to acknowledge the English ivy that keeps appearing.

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