Every summer in yards throughout North America, neighbours compete over whose lawn looks greener and whose has less dandelions dotted among the blades of perfectly mowed grass. Every summer, these same people use gallons of water and often powerful chemical fertilizers and herbicides to try and create and keep the perfect lawn. The reality is we are fighting a losing battle when we try and keep our grass lawns looking green and feeling soft under foot. In 2017, 55% of the US was in moderate to extreme drought according to the National Climatic Data Center and large portion of western Canada had the driest summer in 70 years according to Agriculture Canada. It seems then that we should look to some alternatives to the traditional grass lawn. So lets look at some herbs that could work better than grass!
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow’s soft, feathery leaves make it an excellent alternative to grass and it is what I currently have in my yard. It is super soft under foot and has the added benefit of being a dynamic accumulator which means it is excellent for building nutrients in areas with poor soil. It is also drought tolerant, easy to mow and hardy in zones 3-10. From personal experience stands up to high traffic (I have 2 kids and 3 dogs running round on it!) and comes back well from BC southern interior winters. I like to mow the yarrow lawn and let the plants grow around the edges of my yard. This allows the beautifully fragrant, tiny flowers to bloom throughout the summer, attracting bees and other beneficial bugs. It is a bitter, astringent, a styptic, a diaphoretic and the flowers make an excellent mosquito repellant making it an extremely useful plant to have on hand. Yarrow grows well from seed but the easiest way to propagate is by division.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus sp.)
Creeping thyme has many different varieties from slow and fast growing cultivars to varieties with carpets of stunning flowers in varying colours from deep purples to whites and rose coloured blooms. It is hardy from zones 4-9, although this depends on the variety, and it grows to around 2″ in height making this an excellent no-mow, low maintenance option for your lawn. Creeping thyme is interchangeable with English Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and therefore can be used for both culinary and medicinal purposes, however harvesting the tiny stems is way more time consuming. The beautiful fragrance depends on the variety and ranges from lemon to orange, lime, caraway, lavender and even nutmeg scented leaves. It can handle light traffic and is drought resistant. It prefers a sunny, well drained location and can be propagated by division or layering.
White Clover (Trifolium repens)
Clover is a nitrogen fixer that helps improve soil fertility over time so is excellent for areas with poor soil. White clover, also known as Dutch clover, has been seen as a weed to remove from grass lawns for many years but has now become a popular solution for those folks who are looking to move away from grass. It is drought and shade tolerant making it a good choice for shady areas under trees where grass doesn’t grow so well. The leaves are edible and can be harvested before flowering and eaten raw or cooked like spinach. It can handle medium traffic and it grows to around 4 inches in height and mows well. If you don’t mow, the flowers will attract bees and butterflies to your yard. Clover grows well from seed however to keep your clover lawn looking really good you may need to reseed every few years. In the last few years micro clover, which is a cultivar of white clover, has become a very popular choice for lawns. Micro clover can be mowed shorter than most grasses and stands up to repeated traffic better than standard white clover. It is also a much more affordable plant to use for larger areas as it grows easily from seed. Clover is hardy from zones 4-9.
Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Unlike the annual German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), Roman chamomile is a low growing perennial that produces daisy like flowers that can be used in the same manner. It grows 3-4 inches in height making this a good no-mow alternative to grass. When walked upon, each step imparts the distinguishable chamomile aroma but it can only handle light foot traffic. It looks beautiful planted around the edges of paths and in between flagstones in walkways. It is hardy in zones 4-9 and likes full sun, except in hotter climates where part shade is preferable. Chamomile is one of my favourites for soothing the digestive system and calming crazy kiddos, the flowers can be harvested and dried or used fresh for infusions and other concoctions. Chamomile is in the asteraceae and people who are allergic to other members of the daisy family may also be sensitive to chamomile so this should be taken into account when deciding on your grass alternative. Roman chamomile can be grown from seed or propagated by division.
Do you have a non-grass lawn? Tell me in the comments how it has worked out for you!