Lawn replacement and government action



It was just 2 months ago that I snapped this wide-angle shot of my back garden, and notice all that bare dirt?  It’s there because just last fall I’d ripped out the lawn on this hillside and began my quest for a lawn-like
replacement that’s both super-drought-tolerant and requires no mowing.

And the contrast with the next photo illustrates just how FAST sedum acre is filling in to do its lawn-replacement job, after arriving here as a weed and costing me not one cent. (The not-quite-filled-in area in the lower right was planteSedumacre2aug10400d 2 weeks ago.)

As I wrote last month, there’s also some clover here, both white and red, that I actually purchased for a buck or two but the rest of the plants here are freebies, courtesy of the birds or the breeze – the edible purslane and the lovely (to my eyes) smartweed.  In October I’ll plant a bunch of crocuses in this area, and next spring, more red clover.

Now here’s where government comes into the picture.  My county has launched a RainScapes Natural Drainage Project that offers rebates to homeowners who engage in all sorts of water-smart projects, like rain barrels and green roofs.  And according to their instructions [pdf]: "These projects are designed to slow rainwater entering local streams, increase groundwater supply, and reduce chemical and nutrient pollutants entering waterways."  And one of the home gardening projects worthy of a $500 rebate is the removal of at least 500 square feet of lawn. 

Now I garden on a hillside, where practically everything I do is about controlling runoff.  Water and gravity RULE.  And I can report that turfgrass actually did a terrific job of preventing erosion here.  Anti-lawn crusaders say otherwise but will usually admit that that’s only where the topsoil is either missing or severely compacted.  So turfgrass removal isn’t necessarily the best way to "slow rainwater entering local streams."

And if the goal is to "reduce chemical and nutrient pollutants entering waterways", one need only follow Paul Tukey’s instructions or read the Yardener’s equally nonpolluting advice.  Their kind of lawn care is about as far from the multiply polluting steps of Scotts as you can get.

But okay, there’s no argument that conventional, commercial lawn care is super-bad for our waterways, and alternatives to lawns are usually a big improvement.  But under my county’s program that $500 is earned only if 75 percent of the replacement plants are "native to the ecoregion or cultivars thereof."  When I asked the program administrator why, the answer was: to increase biodiversity.  Okay, but when I then asked what natives would work on a sunny hillside, she simply didn’t answer.  So I asked my friends in the local native plant society to recommend a native drought-tolerant groundcover for sunny spots and did get an answer: there isn’t one. 

Now if it turns out there IS a suitable native plant for this site I’d love to recommend it to my readers and clients but it would take a lot more than $500 to buy enough of it to cover the ground fast enough to actually prevent erosion.  Replacing lawn with nonnative plants that arrive as weeds, like sedum acre, purslane, or clover, will just have to be its own reward, I guess.

But readers, any thoughts on how government could best encourage or reward homeowners who get off the Scotts many-stepped treadmill of pollution?


  1. Hey, I wasn’t done and didn’t mean to hit post. The phlox is Phlox subulata , and yes, you have to buy it. Another site ( ) lists Mitchella repens, or Partridge Berry, and Uvularia sessilifolia, or Straw Lily. Never heard of them, have you? Frankly, Susan, I like your approach better than spending massive amounts of $$ to get monoculture. And if you are happy with your garden, then all is right with the world.

  2. I have partridge berry (Mitchella repens) under tall pines. I believe the birds brought it–it is a great groundcover, evergreen, very low, tolerates some traffic (small children and dogs) with white flowers in the spring and red berries. Also known as twinberry. Mine is in partial shade–I don’t know how it would do in full sun. A wildflower guide for North Carolina (by Jan Midgley) states that it likes shadier spots and that the leaves will yellow if in the full afternoon sun. It is a slow spreader for me.

  3. I don’t think the gov should do anything of the sort since everything they do they screw up.

    Grass roots (lol) education is far more effective. There should be little trouble getting people off the lawn pesticide kick esp. since Scotts prices just went up 31% for next year………….

    The (love my green lawn) TROLL

  4. Arctostaphylus uva ursi comes to mind as a native, evergreen, sun loving groundcover. I am not sure how it fares in the D.C. area but I have seen it growing along the sandy roadsides of Cape Cod with attractive, wild abandon.

  5. One approach it seems to me is to consider the current “weeds” as the first generation of you non-lawn. Then over the next five years as you hit plant sales, steal seeds from other people’s gardens, and maybe even buy some plants (ugh!) at retail, you slowly create whatever look you desire, but the hill stayed green and did not erode the whole time.

  6. I can understand a government program having very narrow criteria to make sure they don’t commit themselves to too many of those $500 checks! They decide that the 100% native requirement is beyond reproach, unlikely to get them in trouble with any groups, etc. But it is surprising that they didn’t have a list of plants for an area like yours.

  7. I dunno, the green stuff we mow is full of weeds. I don’t know what they all are. The birds plant most of them. Occaisionally, we talk about buying a bag of grass seed and planting out some of the bare spots.

    If I had a $500 check, I could hire someone to come over, aerate my lawn, spread some compost, plant some grass seed and cover it up with straw.

    As for groundcover on a sunny slope, I really like sedums and other succulents. Yes, you have to buy them, but they fill in nicely. And where they don’t, the portulaca (edible!) takes over. Eat it while weeding. It’s a good source of vitamins.

  8. I wish Arlington county had that kind of program – if you weren’t limited to ground covers, it should be pretty easy.

    I’ve used Phlox subulata as a groundcover even before I found out it was native, although it won’t take foot traffic. I doubt partridge berry would hold up against weeds in full sun – its really a shade plant.

    Another sunny native groundcover I’ve user is Chrysogonum virginianum, although it takes a little effort to get established and doesn’t seem to be that drought-tolerant.

  9. Amy, you’ve opened my eyes. I just assumed the point was to get as many people as possible to mend their ways, lawn-wise, but of course they have only so much money to hand out.

  10. I think it’s amazing that your county even has an incentive to replace lawn with anything else. Good for them!

    There are few native groundcovers that like sun, alas, because our Eastern climate favors forest and woodland species (as a general rule), so there hasn’t been much selective pressure towards native, sunny habitat species, aside from temporal grassland species. (Just putting on my plant ecologist hat, for a moment!)

    Love your posts!

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