Re: Grass Substitutes
From: Kay Argyle (
Date: Wed, 31 May 2000 17:01:06 -0600 (MDT)
> One of the things I have always wanted was to not have grass in open
> spaces at all, but instead to rely on low-growing ground covers ....  My
> reason for this is that I HATE GRASS (partly for reasons that probably
> won't affect Cascadia to such a great extent, such as fertilization and
> watering, but also because it requires mowing and lots of care if you
> don't want weeds like the prickly false dandelion to take over).  
> I remember reading something on the list recently about (Wasatch
> using creeping herbs in their grass pavers bordering the paved pathways,

That's us.

There are low-maintenance grasses.  Buffalo grass,  for instance, requires
little mowing, fertilization, or watering.  The trade-off is durability --
bluegrass's fast growth means it repairs itself quickly.  Mixing white
clover into grass will increase a lawn's drought-tolerance and provide

I can at least advise on cost and labor for thyme, if not yet durability. 
Other groundcovers would be similar in many respects.

Keep in mind when I say "groundcover" I'm lumping very different species
together, so there will be exceptions to any generality.

> * Other plantings will be more expensive to put in.

Yes, but not overwhelmingly.  The biggest factor is whether you are
starting from seed or from plants.

Buy seed in bulk.  They're usually tiny -- While the price per pound is
enough to make you dizzy, a little goes a long way.  I planned to seed
3,750 square feet.  The company, Earthly Goods, assured me two ounces (1/4
cup) of creeping thyme seed at $35 was plenty.  Say a penny per square foot
-- negligible.  For comparison, sod is $.20-.25/sq ft.  

Chamomile seed was a little higher.  The companies with chamomile seed by
the ounce were Smith & Hawken (pricey) and Johnny Seed (not bad).   (You
want *roman* chamomile, Anthemis nobilis [a.k.a. Chamomaelum nobilis] --
german chamomile is a tall annual.)

We also purchased woolly thyme in pony packs for $2 ($.33/sq ft).  I don't
remember seeing chamomile in pony packs, but call local nurseries and
inquire.  A nursery might be willing to special order it.

We both seeded and planted since (a) it was late in the year and we weren't
sure the seed would germinate, and (b) members expressed a preference for
woolly thyme, after observing mature plants of both, and I couldn't find
woolly thyme seed in bulk quantities.

We got far better germination under a floating row cover than in a nearby
area receiving the same watering (daytime high 70F, misting twice a day --
the cover raised both humidity and temperature).  The seedlings form a
solid mass of green.

The areas planted from pony packs last fall still have big gaps between

> * Other plantings mostly likely will need to be mowed.

If the concern is the amount of work, mowing is the wrong thing to worry
about, and weeds are the wrong reason to oppose grass.

You can divide the work into three stages:  installation, establishment,
and on-going maintenance.


Soil preparation is much the same no matter what.  Bring in dumptruck loads
of compost, spread it, till, rake smooth.  Possibly install a sprinkler

For grass, flop squares or rolls of sod into place, water, and roll.  It's
tiring sweaty labor, but it transforms the place in hours.   Instant
gratification -- very bourgeois.  Makes city inspectors happy.

Grass seed can be spread by hand, by hand spreader, or by rolling spreader.

I mixed thyme seed and sand, a teaspoon of seed per cup of sand per 400 sq
ft, and sprinkled from a salt shaker.  It requires patience, or an adult to
fill shakers and several children who think it's a game (getting the kids
involved encourages them to be protective of the young plants), but no
physical strength.

With groundcover starts, dig a hole and tuck the plant into place.  That
gets old after the first several dozen, and grim after several thousand
(figure one per square foot).

* Workload

Measuring work either in hours or in tablets of painkiller, grass seed is
easiest, groundcover seed a close second, then (a long way behind) sod and
groundcover starts.


* Watering

Sod and plant starts both need to be watered more often in the beginning
than once established.  Seed (grass or groundcover) needs to be watered
MUCH more often in the beginning, even several times a day.  This is
critical.  A floating row cover can help maintain humidity.

* Weeding

Sod (purchased from a reputable farm) doesn't need to be weeded the first
year or two.  Seed and plant starts must be weeded a great deal, until the
soil has exhausted its store of weed seeds and/or the young plants have
filled in enough to suppress germination of anything else.

* Workload 

This stage is more work than the last, maintenance.  To progress, the
plants must have a healthy root system and have achieved full coverage.

Because of their headstart, sod and groundcover starts are quickest to form
a good root system.  

Sod achieves full coverage instantaneously, although usage of the lawn must
wait several weeks for rooting to occur; then grass seed (a couple of
months or longer), thickly sowed groundcover seed (several more months or
longer), groundcover starts spaced at twelve inches (a year or more).  Some
groundcovers grow faster than others, even within the same genus (for
instance, Thymus serpyllum is much faster than T. praecox).

In order of day-to-day work load:  sod is easiest, then groundcover starts,
then (tied for pain-in-the-neck) grass and groundcover seed.  Taking time
into account, grass seed moves up.


Once the plants are well established and you have achieved full coverage,
it doesn't matter whether you used seed or sod/starts.

* Mowing

Grass needs mowing once a week, or oftener if you object to it being 
shaggy, whereas, while some groundcovers benefit from occasional mowing,
few require it.

Even if you decide to mow groundcover for some reason (deadheading old
flowers, encouraging compactness), it won't need it often.  It grows slowly
in comparison to grass, and stops at a preset height, which may be short
enough to suit your needs.  A couple of mowings the whole summer (or none
at all) will keep it tidy.

A number of thymes stay under four inches, for instance creeping and
coconut thyme, and in some cases under two -- woolly, minus, praecox,
prostrate varieties of lemon thyme.  The neighbor's patch of roman
chamomile is three to four inches high.  White clover gets about six inches
tall, or shorter with occasional mowing.  Bugleweed (ajuga) is two to three
inches high.

I don't have personal experience with woolly yarrow or the traffic-tolerant
groundcovers that require moist soil, which we have trouble providing --
creeping veronica, Mazus reptans, corsican mint, etc.

* Weeding

For people with no objection to broadleaf herbicides (which ain't us),
grass is easier, hands down.

Assuming you indeed object to poisoning earthworms, polluting the water
table, giving yourself estrogen-mimic problems and your grass-nibbling cats
kidney failure, etc. etc., the key to not having weeds is (a) not growing
weed seeds, (b) having no place for weed seeds from elsewhere to germinate,
and (c) the seedlings having no light if they do.  Healthy grass doesn't
provide invaders much of a toehold.  Some groundcovers grow that densely,
many do not; some will shade out weeds, some won't.  Weed-free sod gives
you a headstart.  Broadleaf weeds are more obvious in a manicured lawn --
bad for appearances, good for weedhunting.

* Fertilizing

Grass needs fertilizer for optimal health.  A mulching mower can help.  

Some groundcovers want rich soil.  Some prefer poor soil and don't want to
be fertilized.  

Fertilizing isn't as major a chore as others, and if you prefer to avoid
synthetic fertilizer you can screen compost and use it instead.

* Watering

You can control this by your choice of groundcover.  Some groundcovers
require less water than grass (thyme, yarrow, clover), some require more
(corsican mint, irish moss).  With an automatic sprinkler system, the
amount of labor is equal, but the water bill is still worth considering,
and the environmental impact of the massive water projects necessary to
sustain Utahns' iron-willed determination to "make the desert bloom like a
rose," instead of something more suitable such as agave or oriental poppy.

* Workload

Considering each maintenance step separately,
-- weeding:  possibly close, but I'd give grass a slight edge here.
-- mowing:  groundcover, saves major amount of labor.
-- watering:  groundcover, saves slightly on water bill.
-- fertilizing:  groundcover, saves small amount of labor.

Overall:  groundcover.


I weighed the greater initial work of groundcover (starts or seeds) against
the greater longterm maintenance of grass, a year of weeding (and weeding
and weeding, don't underestimate this) vs. decades of mowing, and
campaigned for groundcover in the areas we require some traffic tolerance
but don't expect high use.  For our two designated play areas, we put
Kentucky bluegrass sod on one and buffalo grass seed on the other.

> * Other plantings will likely draw bees that may sting us when we walk 
>       through.

I'd much rather tangle with a bee than a lawn mower.

Compare the dangers.  For most people and most insect attacks, getting
stung is an inconvenience -- It hurts and you have a welt afterwards.
However, even in the case of severe reactions recovery is usually complete.
 Nonfatal mower injuries require stitches if you're lucky and amputation if
you're not.  People who are at risk from insect stings are frequently aware
of their vulnerability and take it seriously.  Not regarding a mower as
dangerous is exactly what puts someone at risk.

Results of a web search:  

Estimates ranged from 25 deaths per year from insect stings (about 1 per
year from africanized honey bees) to a high of 100 with the caveat that
many are probably misdiagnosed.

Articles on africanized bees indicated attacks mostly occur around hives --
buildings, trees, etc.


"It is estimated that between one and two million people in the United
States are severely allergic to stinging insect venom....  For one person
in 100, the sting of an insect can be fatal."

Lawn mower injuries per year were in the 75,000-85,000 range (25,000 from
riding mowers).  Deaths from riding lawn mowers were 75 per year.  If (big
if) walk-behind mowers have the same injury-to-death ratio as riding
mowers, that would be 225 deaths annually.


"More than 2,000 children are permanently disabled each year by power lawn
mowers ...."

It sounds to me like it's a toss-up which is more deadly.

If someone in the group is violently allergic, you can take steps.  A
friendly solution is to mow during the flowering season (sometimes just a
few weeks), since flowers typically grow above the foliage.  And no
picnics, since bees will take fried chicken over flowers any day.  
(Despite growing up with a yard full of clover and buttercups, the only
bee-sting I got was at the municipal swimming pool.)

Sorry, another of my responses that goes on forever ....  I'll send it now,
before I remember one more thing I need to add.

Wasatch Commons
Salt Lake

  • Grass Substitutes Gretchen Westlight, May 24 2000
    • Re: Grass Substitutes Kay Argyle, May 31 2000

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