I’m finally killing my lawn! Okay, now what?


by Susan
For a plant that stirs the bowels of ecogardeners and Torojockeys alike, turfgrass looks bland enough.  AndSpringfromdeck1 that’s part of the problem – the monoculture that is the great greensward of American lawndom.  Lord knows I’ve ranted about it enough, and not just because when it’s grown the way the folks at Scotts recommend, it wastes resources and pollutes waterways.  I just find lawn care so tedious I can barely force myself to do it.  Honestly, I suck at lawn care and mine looks like crap by about mid-June.  Just take this spring photo and substitute the color brown for the color green and you get the idea.

But this year my garden and I have embarked on a journey together out of that sea of sameness to a place that’s unknown, a little scary and exciting, too. The goal is to cover this 1,000-square-foot, sloping, mostly sunny space with something that will, like lawn, prevent run-off, be reasonably evergreen, and withstand both a little foot traffic and having the garden hose lugged across it from side to side.  Oh, and be drought-tolerant and prevent weeds. Tall order, I know, but if, like me, you’re even a bit of an anti-lawn crusader, you want those magic replacement plants to succeed.  Go, team!  And what might they be?

In all ignorance, I thought I could turn it into a meadow, as you may remember.  Enough said.  Next I’ll try a mixture of walk-on-able groundcovers, starting with what I have or what’s super-cheap:


  • An unintended but delightful consequence of growing clover deliberately is shocking the pants off people who haven’t heard the good news about clover but still believe the bad press it’s gotten for the last 50 years or so.  I already have lots of it growing around the edges and I’ll add more, especially some of the taller and red-blooming type.Creepingsedum200_2
  • One of the better-looking plants that’s ever blown into my garden is what I call creeping sedum.  It meets all my requirements and even has nice gold flowers in early summer.  I have lots to spread around.
  • And I’ll use some of my smartweed.  It has good-looking foliage and long-lasting fuschia blooms but it’s not evergreen, so it’ll be used sparingly.

I’m always terribly impressed when actual plantspeople like Graham Rice write up the results of their experiments.  So now, in my best horticulturist-wannabe mode, I’ll be growing some choice selections from a most intriguing plant group, sold by a most intriguing company – Stepables in Oregon – as many of them as the budget allows or they have samples to spare.  Step_1_2 Here’s what’s appealing about them, in the words of spokeswoman Sally Credille:

  • Using
    creeping perennials as lawn substitutes is an alternative that is ornamental,
    functional and eco-friendly.
  • Unlike traditional groundcovers, which grow to
    12-24 inches and don’t make for a pleasant walking surface, these creepers are only  2-4 inches tall and thus create that low
    visual plane typically associated with a lawn. Plus, they’re sturdy enough to
    handle foot traffic.
  • Creeping perennials haveStep_5 thousands of tiny,
    compact root nodes that firmly grasp the soil.
    As often as you step on them
    with the soles of your feet, they will vigorously take root and
    begin to creep
    across the landscape.
  • They succeed in such diverse spots as under trees, muddy paths that sinks in bad weather, busy garden
    walkways, steep banks, around pools, etc.
  • There are choices for varying amounts of foot traffic: light, medium or heavy (heavy is defined as 3 or more times
    per day).
  • Almost every variety is hardy for USDA Zones 3-9.

Lest you worry I’m on their payroll or a total whore for swag, this will be the "Survivor!" of the hort world, with plants potentially voted off the garden at any time.  So readers, we’ll just see if these little beauties can dStep13eliver on all those promises.  Updates to follow.  But first…

Now, how to remove the lawn that’s there.  I’ve rejected herbicides, rototilling and baking under black plastic, the latter just because I don’t want to buy all that plastic I’d never use again.  So I’ll be going the cheap-and-organic route – 6 or more layers of newspaper covered with a couple of inches of leafmold mulch, watered and watched for a few weeks until it all breaks down.  But will it break down fast enough for me to do all the planting by mid-October?  Tension mounts.

Photos:  My lawn in spring, then the existing creeping sedum.  Next, from Stepables, Cerastium tomentosum aka Snow in Summer; Isotoma
fluviatilis ‘Blue Star Creeper’ (predominantly); and Sagina sabulata ‘Aurea’. Click to enlarge.


  1. I have to add that lawns have their place – I’m keeping mine in the front. And when grown organically, they can be the best solution for our yards and athletic fields. See Safelawns.org.

  2. What great pictures… I can’t wait until some of my groundcovers start to fill in like that.

    In regards to lawn, High Country Gardens has some turfgrass alternatives. The Buffalo and Grama grasses they promote can be mowed once per month if you want to maintain a more lawn-y look, and they take less water than the bluegrass and fescue mixes that are common here. I’m in the midst of a project to redo the lawn area in my sunny backyard and am going to seed the grama grass next year–I’ll give a full report at some point after I see how it grows. In the shadier front yard I will probably need to stick with groundcovers as lawn replacement, though.

  3. Susan, I am surprised that you have not included some of the low growing thymnes in your lawn. They are incredibly tough, look lovely in leaf or flower, spread a really dense carpet, stand quite a lot of traffic and smell delicious. If they can survive and flourish in my garden through heavy snow in winter and temperatures above 30C in summer, I am sure that they can survive in yours. And how about planting species bulbs – crocuses, daffodils and tulips – in your new ‘lawn’. I think this area could quickly become one of the most beautiful parts of your garden.

  4. THanks for the ideas, Sandra, and I imagine thyme will be something I’ll try. At one point I planted a few hundred crocuses in the lawn but the squirrels don’t leave me many. Know of a early bulb they don’t like?
    And anybody else, the more suggestions the better.

  5. Finally killing your lawn ?
    Wanna know what’s up ?

    For starters lots of weeding if you don’t plan properly and just as much water usage too if that planning isn’t well researched.

    We’ve been replacing lawns and starting new landscapes off without any lawns for 30 years and I gotta tell you, if you haven’t done your homework and analyzed your personal gardening maintenance time vs. the environmental structure of your site ( water availability, slope, drainage, erosion, neighboring weed population ) your lawn substitute is not going to make the long haul .

    Most successes come from being well informed, good planning and accepting the long term maintenance responsibilites.

    Many people choose a lawn over other ground cover options for a variety of reasons.
    The most common reason is ease of care . In the scheme of gardening it is a relatively low maintenance plant that anyone without any horticultural knowledge can adequately manage well with good results.
    Another reason for ‘its use’, is the benefit of flat usable space that creates a unique ‘negative’ space that shows off your garden beds beautifully.
    The first photo above in Susan’s garden illustrates this perfectly.
    The ‘flat’ expanse of monochromatic green lawn perfectly frames the surrounding garden.
    It provides both a visual and physical platform to view the surrounding three dimensional garden.

    Lawns, ornamental grasses, turf grass,meadows, and low growing perennial groundcovers all have their place.
    Choose wisely for your particular individual site.

  6. Squirrels don’t like Galanthus or Scilla siberica. I have to agree with Michelle Derviss’s point about the function of a lawn as a counterpoint to a garden. If kept small, the lawn can be cut with an old fashioned reel mower (one that doesn’t have an engine). If the lawn is in partial shade, it will stay greener than 1 in full sun. On the whole, though, I too hate the monoculture of a sea of greensward inappropriately plopped into a climate where it will not naturally thrive. The great sweep of green grass lawn belongs on an English estate, where it can be cropped by sheep & not subjected to the extremes of heat & drought that plague a good chunk of North America.

  7. Below is a link that ( hopefully .. fingers crossed ) depicts a quick little slide show of some mostly lawn -less gardens planted N. California, where we do not receive any rainfall from late April through November.

    Most of the time we choose not to plant a blue fescue sod lawn because of its high water useage, but in small quantities it can be conservationally correct.

    The link shows several gardens that use heathers as groundcovers, stonework, herbs , gravel, succulents and other groundwork substitutes.


  8. Michelle – OMIGOD. Thanks for the inspiring photos and all your good ideas, with which I totally agree. It’s not low-maintenance I’m after; just maintenance I enjoy with plants that interest me.

  9. Susan, this is a very interesting post! I have for several years been reducing the amount of lawn in my suburban yard. I actually have a manual sod-stripper, which is hard work, but a good way to get the grass fast, if you strip deep enough. I have a couple of types of “creeping sedum” but am not sure how they will tolerate foot traffic. I am eager to hear how the “stepables” work. Great post!

  10. that’s hilarious! and michelle’s pics are completely inspiring. i think your next step should be dancing on that sucker’s grave!

  11. Newspaper and mulch will not break down enough for you to plant by October, if my experience is anything to go by.

    I extended several beds outward into lawn areas by the newspaper and bark mulch method last autumn, and nearly one year later the newspaper is still mostly intact under the mulch except where I broke into it with a shovel to plant perennials.

    Mulched areas get watered/rained on regularly and my yard is teeming with earthworms. I found a white fungus growing around the paper in some places when I planted, so it is breaking down, but more slowly than I had hoped.

    Unfortunately also, witch grass (or quack grass or whatever it is) has no qualms about seeding right into the mulch and growing quite happily above the newspaper. Some weeding is required.

    For the most part the grass has been smothered, so I’m happy with the method. If you’re planning to just punch through the newspaper to plant, it should work, but it won’t be the same as digging in soil.

  12. Michelle, wonderful pictures!

    Susan, the grama grass is apparently hardy to zone 3, FYI. Also, I’m not planning to buy flats of plugs for $70 a pop. They also sell seed (and frankly, I’m going to look at other sources for seed as well) at a much more reasonable price. $18ish for enough to do a 10×10 area, if memory serves me. I think I may also seed in some chamomile in a few areas for scent.

  13. I know that itty-bitty patch of lawn doesn’t look very big in the picture. But it’s going to look huge if you don’t get a good kill on the sod. And even if you do, I think you’ll be amazed what will blow in.

    Have you thought about limiting your trial to maybe a quarter or an eigth of that space. That way, you can stay on top of any weeds and figure out which species are going to do best for you. Then you can propagate those yourself into the rest of the area.

    This coming from someone who habitually bites off more than he can chew.

  14. Like firefly above, I think you’ll need to give your covered lawn more time to die off. I smothered a section of my hell strip with mulch and left it alone for a full year before attempting to plant in it.

  15. I’ve been digging up a lot of sod since May. Not necessarily as a project but as a happenstance of other gardening changes. I slip a shovel under a big chunk of sod, just a couple of inches of soil, and lift it cleanly from the soil underneath. Then I add a thin mulch covering. Removing 10 sq ft is not a huge chore. It’s work, but it isn’t any more work than a half hr on a treadmill. If, for the next 50 days you dug up 10 sq ft every AM and another 10 sq ft every PM, you could have the entire 1,000 square feet removed by mid-Sept. Just watch your back…

  16. I live in Colorado, and it is freeze or fry out here on the prairie, and drought is our favorite word of late. I have experimented with many of the stepables brand ground covers, great stuff. They live up to their claims. I am partial to hernaria green carpet and nina potentilla but have lots of thyme, wooly & elfin. I love the clumping Baby’s breath, but that isn’t foot traffic tolerant, but very fetching under my roses! I have used High Country Gardens Nursery with great success.

  17. I am working on two simultaneous projects that will ostensibly reduce the amount of “grass” I have to mow. I have a habitat project for bees, birds and butterflies and I’m also turning part of my property into a meadow with clovers and other low-growing flowers. Along the edges I want meadow type plantings that can be mowed in the fall to distribute the seed for the following spring.

    I live in the boonies, so I don’t really have a lawn, but more of a yard. It’s a mixture of weeds, clover and crabgrass that has to be mowed to keep the snakes and ticks at bay.

    I like having a small expanse of green for impromptu Frisbee or softball games, and a place for my daughter and pets to romp. Other than that, I prefer riotous cottage garden style beds with paths between. This will include herb beds, perennial beds and a rock garden.

    It’s good to know I’m not the only one who thinks the amount of time and chemicals that go into lawn maintenance is ridiculous.

  18. I keep thinking of more!

    In re to the newspaper method: I did this last year when I made a bed on the end of the house. It worked really well and a year later it is really easy to weed. Not much has crept up from under the paper, but crabgrass has found its way into the bed. Anywhere the paper and mulch have been intact for the past year the soil is relatively weed free, moist, dark, and full of worms.

    I plan to use this method again soon for another perennial bed on the West end of my house.

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