Garden Designers Roundtable: From lawn to Sedum, clover, bare soil and erosion!


The Garden Designers Roundtable invited the Lawn Reform Coalition to be their guest blogger(s) this month, combining forces to publish 19 articles about Lawn Replacement on the same day, and linking to each other. Great idea, designers!  Scroll down for the links to those 18 other blog posts, including one on my other blog, showing off the much more successful lawn replacement project in my front garden.

This is the still-in-progress lawn replacement saga in my back garden, a hillside with about 6 hours of sun.  I’m here to tell you that finding the right plant or mix of plants that’ll meet these requirements is anything but easy:

  • Require NO maintenance after they’ve settled in.
  • Be short enough to, like a lawn does, let me see over it into the borders and woods beyond, and let me drag the garden hose over it, too.
  • Cover the ground quickly and with enough thickness to keep the soil from running downhill during downpours.
  • If more than one species, they have to play well together – not kill any neighboring plants.

Okay, those are the goals.  Here’s what’s really happened, in a nutshell.  I dug up the turf, enlarged the borders, and replaced what was left of the lawn area with a Sedum that grows here as a weed and spreads quickly (S. sarmentosum, sometimes identified as S. acre) – which it did in one season.  I underplanted it with early-spring bulbs, tossed self-sowing Alyssum here and there, and allowed just a few annual wildflowers to remain – like Pennsylvania smartweed and wild violet.  Loved it!

Then I got the brilliant idea of seeding some Dutch white clover here and there across the space, which had some unintended consequences (reported in My Falling out with Clover). To wit: unmowed, it got so tall it shaded and then killed the Sedum.

I considered ditching the Sedum and having an all-clover lawn – it looks gorgeous, blooms all season, and the bees LOVE the stuff.  But here’s the problem with that: the smell of clover attracts deer from seemingly miles away (I later learned that hunters use it to lure them).  So thanks to clover, my minor deer problem became a major one.

 Today, some Sedum, but lots of bare soil and erosion damage.  UGLY!

So starting last fall, I began removing (by hand, mind you) all the clover, which seemed like a whole lotta work, ’til this season I realized I had at least twice that much clover to remove still, thanks to its generous seeding qualities.  Oh, my aching back.

But no problem – I filled in the where the clover once grew with extra bits of the Sedum I found growing here and there on the property, and told myself and my doubting visitors that the whole space would fill in, I was betting, by mid-summer – coz this plant is so vigorous, you know.  Except that apparently in the 95-to-100-degree heat we experienced here from early June through mid-August, the Sedum not only didn’t spread; it retreated!

So all summer I’ve been anxiously looking at mostly bare soil, which is A, ugly, and B, erosion damage just waiting to happen, which finally did happen a few days ago when a crashing downpour sent large quantities of soil sliding down the hill.  And the storm season us far from over.


I haven’t given up on this particular Sedum covering the area and once again performing splendidly, as it did pre-clover. Just look at how well it’s covered ground here on either side of the sidewalk.  That little strip of soil between the sidewalk and the fence was all-weeds-all-the-time until the Sedum took over.  Then across the sidewalk, it’s the perfect groundcover in the hell strip.

But back to the hillside that’s washing away.  Even with milder, more encouraging temperatures over the next few weeks, there’s just not enough of the Sedum left to cover all that bare soil any time soon.  A friend suggested terracing – a big job – and I’m considering planting a cover crop.  Another option is to cover the space temporarily with Liriope spicata, which I have access to plenty of, for free.  It’s soooo boring, I know, but damn, it holds a hillside like nothing else.

Your suggestions, please?

(A more complete history of this lawn replacement conversion is here – scroll down to the back yard.)

Now check out posts about lawn replacement from these Lawn Reform Coalition members:

And these members of the Garden Designers Roundtable:



  1. I always appreciate your real-life, tell-it-like-it-is posts about your lawn-replacement efforts. I have a learned a lot from them. What about a dwarf mondo grass, or is it too sunny for that? Maybe a sedge lawn? Texas and Berkeley sedges work well in Austin. Not sure what sedges would work for you in D.C.

  2. What about enlarging your stone path to 2′ – 3′ wide and then letting the lambs ear spread out from the beds to meet it? It would probably coexist with swaths of sedum if you knocked each back into line a couple times a year (both pull up pretty easily). Lambs ear is low and doesn’t mind a little hose dragging from time to time.

  3. Having good luck with dymondia and rupturewort. They’re melding together nicely and I think the silvery tones in the dymondia look cool with the bright green, lumpy mounds of the rupturewort. Rupturewort is slow growing, but seems to be pretty stout as it fills in. Both can take some foot traffic.

  4. If you’re serious about erosion than you’re choosing the wrong plants. It’s not about what’s above the soil, it’s about the depth of the roots. Nothing has deeper roots than clumping grasses. Nothing will stabilize soil faster but they don’t give you the look you’re wanting and they prefer more sun. Also keep in mind that most of the plants with long roots only have that advantage while in their active growing season, while dormant even turf grasses’ roots shrink back.

  5. Susan, it looked so beautiful in the first photo, sorry to hear of your travails. I didn’t realize the deer attracting qualities of white clover either until a friend asked me to seed a wooded area in his back yard for just that purpose.

    Perhaps you can find the plants you need in either the Stepables or Jeepers Creepers collection. A google search should get you there. Feel free to contact me offline if you need help in your search.

  6. As a maintenance gardener I have become very skeptical of many ground covers used as lawn replacements. Thyme, for example, looks good about a month out of the year then it gets weedy and ratty looking.

    I’d get some ground up trees from a tree trimmer and put out several inches of mulch.

  7. Susan, you are on the right track using the native sedum and small bulbs for your Lawnlet. (I might add some fall and winter blooming small bulbs too–check Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in tidewater VA)

    Once the sedum fills back in, the foliage will absorb the momentum of the rainfall and eliminate the erosion. Your site isn’t a steep slope. It isn’t deep roots under the soil that stops erosion–it’s whatever is above the soil that can absorb/diminish the speed of the rain and runoff.

    An optimal erosion control/replanting process would be:

    a) fill in any eroded areas with topsoil,
    b) on bare spots put down a 2″ layer of mulch now, that you can plant the sedum through in the early fall. Shredded leaves would be the absolute best, but probably not available right now. Second best would be a layer of triple-shredded hardwood bark mulch–the fibers knit together and hold even a near-vertical slope from eroding. It decomposes into a beautiful topsoil.
    c) replant sedum plants or stem cuttings as densely as you can afford–18″ on center spacing? 12″ o.c.? 6″ o.c.!? Wiggle/push a trowel through the mulch and soil and plant the sedum into the slit.
    d) if you’re like me, at this point you realize you forgot to take pics of the early steps in your process ! 🙂
    e) pull out a Lawnlet chair, fix yourself an adult beverage and enjoy the view of your sedums waving at you in the breeze. 🙂

    Good luck!

  8. Your post highlights one of the best reasons why some gardeners feel hesitant about replacing their lawn. They don’t know what will work to replace all the jobs that the lawn does. It is easier when the space will not be walked on at all is ornamental. When it needs to be low growing, able to sustain some traffic, and if it’s in shade, heaven help you. Have you considered looking into the repertoire of native forest plants for ideas? There might be something growing in there that would do the job without making it a deer magnet. Whatever you do, keep fighting.

  9. Susan,
    It’s good to see you are “still at it” and have not given up on your lawn replacement. I remember the saga from a couple of years back and the area has come a long way. Looking great!
    Shirley Bovshow “EdenMaker”

  10. I have to go with Susan in the pink hat. It isn’t not in any way practical for me to replace my lawn right now because who knows what will grow. My neighbor just tried to do that and she’s also looking at a bunch of dirt, only our yards slope down toward the street, so she has major erosion problems.

    Until there are some truly tested things to do, and it becomes more mainstream, people who need to be able to sell their houses easily can’t do this.

    Right now, I just mow whatever grows in the yard, and that’s about it. (Or my lawn guy mows it.) No foot, no herbicide, no extra irrigation. Consequently, half the lawn is VERY VERY VERY dormant, possibly even dead, after the summer heat/drought we had.

    I’ll wait for y’all to be adventurous and test.

    Meantime, I’ll probably have a problem selling the house anyway, because I keep digging up more flower beds. 🙂

  11. Great comments!
    – About Dichondra, that link to the UC Davis says it’s for “cool-coastal conditions” and even there, calls it “high maintenance.”
    – Buffalo grass, thyme and probably veronica, too, aren’t successful here in the humid Mid-Atlantic.
    -About “clumping grass”, which ones? Let’s get specific about plants here.
    – About trying groundcovers from Stepables, etc, one of the links in this post covers my Stepables samples (mostly thymes) that have all died.
    – I’m with Susan in Pink Hat and Katie in skepticism about many of the groundcovers suggested as lawn alternatives.
    – And Katie, you’re so right about people needing a lot more specific info and examples of plants succeeding in similar site conditions and climates. But this is my project, and I don’t really mind so much making a huge, labor-sucking mistake like planting clover with Sedum, as long as I can keep somebody else from doing what I did.
    – And Frank, thanks so much for the great how-to info, and the tip about taking photos and sitting in a chair to enjoy your Lawnlet. You’re the MAN when it comes to lawnlets! Quick correction about this Sedum, though – S. sarmentosum – it’s not native. Like on a green roof, this sunny site isn’t amenable to Sedums native to this region, which are woodland plants.

  12. Hmmm – In your follow up comments you failed to say anything about John’s observation that nothing is better than clumping grass. This does not mead turf. Maybe a local Carex. Ya gotta get over your bias about trying a meadow :)my friend…

  13. I was talking about huge clumping grasses like switch grass or bluestem grass – those grasses won’t work in this situation. The reason they are used as erosion control is because they have roots that travel deeper than even tree roots. If the site has any slope to it then very little will work after a downpour except deep rooted plants.

    Common turf grasses and lawn weeds are very good at out competing just about anything you will plant.

  14. Interesting discussion about whether long roots (of clumping grasses or trees) are the most important quality in holding back erosion – and doing it quickly.
    From John:
    “Nothing will stabilize soil faster [than clumping grasses] but they don’t give you the look you’re wanting and they prefer more sun. Also keep in mind that most of the plants with long roots only have that advantage while in their active growing season, while dormant even turf grasses’ roots shrink back.
    And: “I was talking about huge clumping grasses like switch grass or bluestem grass – those grasses won’t work in this situation. The reason they are used as erosion control is because they have roots that travel deeper than even tree roots. If the site has any slope to it then very little will work after a downpour except deep rooted plants.”

    But from Frank in NC: “Once the sedum fills back in, the foliage will absorb the momentum of the rainfall and eliminate the erosion. Your site isn’t a steep slope. It isn’t deep roots under the soil that stops erosion–it’s whatever is above the soil that can absorb/diminish the speed of the rain and runoff.”

    Based on my 26 years gardening on this slope, I have to agree with Frank – because the very shallow-rooted sedum did a fine job of keeping the soil from washing down the hill – as long as it covers every inch. Also, turfgrass did a great job of catching and holding the rain – there wasn’t even a sheeting effect here on top of the turfgrass during downpours.
    Maybe a steeper slope would need something else, but then it would probably be terraced, and French drains used, and so on.
    If deep roots were the way to keep soil from washing downhill, then trees would work really well here but I think not – the soil between the trees would all erode away – because the trees do a poor job of covering the top of the ground.
    And of course Switch grass is 6-8 feet tall – great for a meadow, but that’s totally different from what I’m going for here – low and open.

  15. Great post! I have experimented with some lawn replacement here in Seattle. I am starting with my sunniest sections, where the lawn looks the worst in mid-summer. Last year, I planted pratia (blue star creeper) and creeping thyme. Unfortunately, the thyme died over the winter, but the pratia came back strong in the sunniest spots. This year, I interplanted scotch moss and sedum angelina. Throughout the summer, they have done beautifully, but I am anxious what the wet winters will do to them. Has anyone had any experience with these?

  16. Nora, I posted here about Blue Star Creeper in a Seattle garden – doing very well.
    Thymes all died for me, too, and I’ve never tried scotch moss, but the Sedum Angelina came through our very bad winter last year like a champ. Check my other post today to see lots more sedums that do well for me:

  17. @ Nora

    The sedum should do well–sedums are used heavily on green roofs because they can handle intense drought (like you may have in summer) and flooding (like you may have in winter) without going toes up. No experience with scotch moss.

  18. Sigh. I love a good discussion about lawn replacement plants. Susan, thank you for fueling it with this post.

    I fell in love with that variegated sedge of yours (Carex Morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ if I remember right), and I’m imagining a meadow of that would be so lovely, as it seems to grow thickly and happily elsewhere in your yard. You’ve probably considered and discarded the idea… but will you share what wasn’t suitable about it? Too tall? Hard to propagate? Too boring for you? Provides cover for snakes?

    Also, one great thing you have done with both your front and back yards is to make large, 4-season borders around them. Even while you are experimenting with the low central areas, gotta say that your borders still look really nice. Makes it easier (though clearly not *easy*!) to play around with part of the yard if another part has lots of happy, healthy plants to keep up your spirits.

    Thanks to you and to all those who commented for sharing your experiences.

  19. Evelyn, I agree that a short “meadow” OF Ice Dance carex would be gorgeous and my only objection is that I’d have to buy almost all of it – I just don’t have enough of the stuff. Liriope, which looks very similar except that it’s plain dark green rather than variegated, also does the job, and I have plenty of it available to me for free. I’ll report back soon on the results.

  20. I’m still looking for something that will grow in shade! Plus is low-growing, can tolerate a little foot traffic, and preferably can take dry conditions as well. This is for Southern Cal. Any ideas? I haven’t come across anything that seems ideal and am considering decomposed granite.

  21. “Lawn” can have many different definitions, and a weed is just a flower in disguise.
    Digitaria (AKA Crabgrass) grows especially well in lawns that are watered lightly, underfertilized, poorly drained, and growing thinly. Dandelion is also hardy, lush, and has beautiful yellow flowers in the Spring!
    As they say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” -especially after a couple of of Frank’s “adult beverages”. . .

  22. Well, growing up our front yard was about a 45-60º hill and Mom filled it in with Liriope (or Monkey Grass or whatever it’s called). Initially, I thought it was boring. But standing at the bottom of the driveway, waiting for school carpool, I watched breezes flow over it, moving it like waves. I’d lie in it, pretending I was in the ocean, hidden from cars and people passing by. My brothers tore across it, playing War, slipping as they ran, the game changing to diving and sliding down the bank of green. Mom would tell us to stop, that we were going to kill it, but the last time I was up in Atlanta I drove by and it was still there. It’s not native, it can be invasive, it’s boring (unless you’re sliding down it), but it grows on you.

  23. LOL at high maintenance dichondra. I don’t know about all that.

    Mine was totally not planted (a stray weed?), lives in limestone soil with pH10 water, in 100*F heat for over 70 days now, and gets watered shallowly maybe 3x per week. Zero signs of pest damage or disease. And I’m far from a coastal climate. We’re like a savannah where I live.

    If that’s not low maintenance, I don’t know what is.

  24. Have you considered a hard fescue? This is a fine fescue which is drought and shade tolerant. Mowing once or twice a year, over the top at about 6″, with a string trimmer to keep it neater looking. Inexpensive because you seed. Grass, but not a lawn.

  25. Evelyn, I’m loving the idea of sprinkling some variegated carex in with the dark green liriope – though the liriope will want to destroy it, so they’ll need to be kept apart somewhat. Another feature of the Carex is that it doesn’t like to be moved, though – has weaker roots than the tougher liriope – so if I move any of them I’ll wait til it cools off some more.

    About Dichondra, y’all definitely have me interested – also curious as to why UC-Davis’s info about it is SO at odds with your own experiences growing it! I’m going to ask somebody in this region about it. Like maybe my new friend here in the DC area – Cheryl Corson (see comment above and her link to a terrific article!)

    And about the fine fescue mixes, they’re still unproven here in the Mid-Atlantic (the transition zone, grass-wise) but Pearl’s Premium is being tested at the U.Maryland, so we’ll know more soon. It IS cheaper than buying whole plants, but it costs about 4 times what turf-style fescues cost, so that will reduce its wide appeal.

  26. Maybe Phlox subulata? It is pretty widely adaptable, prefers more sun maybe, but might be ok with only 6 hours. Probably spreads much more slowly than your sedum though. I am in love with mine, it lines my front walkway. Many sloped banks here in the south are blanketed with it.

  27. Have you tried sedges already, such as Carex pensylvanica? Since it’s native to woodland edge/clearings, maybe it will fare better and will play well with the other plants.

    My ‘lawn’ (I’m in MoCo, MD) is mostly weed grasses from decades of neglect. I moved in two years ago and broadcasted some violet, clover, and fescue seeds, but that’s it (except for an ongoing crusade against Glechoma hederacea which smothers everything). Somehow the ‘lawn’ still survives–I don’t know why, there is maybe 1 inch of topsoil and I haven’t fertilized either.

    It’s not what others would find pretty but I love the violets in spring (although I suspect it’s not violets from the seed I put out), and it somehow survives routine games of fetch with an enthusiastic greyhound. I’m thinking of broadcasting Sisyrinchum seed as well for next year.

    Thanks for posting your ideas and your experiments, they are very helpful. Look forward to what’s next!


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