Alternatives To Grass: Learn About Lawn Alternatives In Cold Climates

By: Jackie Carroll

Maintaining a lawn is a lot of work and when you add up the cost of water, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides you’ll find that it is also expensive. Read on to find out about cold area grass alternatives that are easy on your budget and your time.

Alternatives to Grass

Ground covers and other lawn alternatives in cold climates are easier to care for and more environmentally friendly than traditional lawns. When you replace your lawn with plants that don’t need mowing, you eliminate the exhaust that your lawn mower and string trimmer produce. In addition, you won’t need the lawn chemicals that can seep into groundwater and run off.

Here are some cold hardy plants for lawns:

  • Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia)-These sturdy plants grow well in poor soil and never need watering. Pale pink blossoms appear in spring atop plants that range from 6 to 18 inches (15-46 cm.) tall.
  • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadensa)-These quick-spreading plants survive winters in the coldest climates. Wild ginger grows about 6 inches (15 cm.) tall and needs supplemental water in dry climates.
  • Angelita Daisy (Hymenoxys acaulis)- The one foot (31 cm.) tall, pine-like foliage of Angelita daisy plants looks great year-round and the bloom season lasts a long time. It’s best for small areas. Angelita daisy needs occasional watering in dry climates and frequent deadheading.
  • Prostrate Juniper (Juniperus sp.)- These short shrubs grow about 2 feet (61 cm.) tall and they are great for wide areas. They can grow up to 5 feet (1.5 m.) wide and need constant cutting back if they are planted in narrow areas. Otherwise, they rarely need pruning. They need an occasional rinse with the hose to get rid of spider mites. Full sun scalds prostrate juniper in USDA zones warmer than 5.

Other Cold Area Grass Alternatives

Various types of mulch also provide alternatives to lawns. Stone and gravel mulch look good in most settings. Shredded bark or hardwood are organic mulches that have a more natural look and they add nutrients to the soil as they break down. Organic mulches look best in a natural or woodland setting.

Mosses are another cool region lawn substitute that you might consider. These tiny plants form a lush carpet that needs very little maintenance, but the cost is higher than most ground covers- unless you plant some already growing on your property. Moss can add a feeling of peace and tranquility to your landscape, especially when mixed with pavers or stones.

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The 4 Best Grass Types for Lawns in Chicago, IL

Planting new grass requires research to guarantee you are picking the right type of grass for your lawn in Chicago. Not all grass is the same. Certain grasses grow better in different climates and location. Chicago area residents also need to take into consideration the characteristics of their yard. A yard that receives full sunlight needs a different type of grass than a resident with shady areas.

When the settlers first made their way westward from the founding colonies, they were greeted with a wide expanse of native grasses across the plains and prairies. Gorgeous, unadulterated acres that rustled in the breeze and protected the underlying soil from erosion and degradation. Having evolved in the Americas, they needed no watering or fertilizing to thrive.

As populations moved westward, the native grasses commenced a decline that almost led to their demise. Well-heeled colonialists preferred to emulate the European grasses, and brought over many varieties from the continent — Kentucky bluegrass the most prevalent.

In addition to the introduction of competitors, several other factors contributed to the decline of native grasses. Among them:

  • The settlers began to move across away from the original colonies exploring the interior of the country. Cattle and horses were allowed to graze on prairie grasses, sometimes in large herds as entire communities picked up to move west.
  • Cowboys turned the prairies and grasslands into range territory as they drove thousands upon thousands of cattle to market. Native grasses were dangerously overgrazed.
  • Settlements established and populations increased. The land where native grasses were once allowed to grow freely was now being lost to farmland cultivation.
  • When farming first took hold, most of the farm power came from mules and horses. To feed these animals families had a grassy meadow for grazing. The introduction of mechanized tractors negated the need for grazing meadows and more land was lost to cultivation.
  • Naturally occurring wildfires knocked down burgeoning wooded areas and promoted the reintroduction of young native grasses. Wildfire management saw a drastic reduction in natural fires and woodlands began to crowd out what little native grassland areas existed.

As populations continued to grow, and more land was dedicated to cities and cultivation, the native grass populations continued to dwindle. Americans’ love for well-tended turf became so well established that the nonnative grasses became a “traditional” lawn.

Fast forward to today. As consumers display an increased appreciation for conservation and sustainable lawns, interest in native grasses has grown. As interest in sustainability grows, more people are looking to rebuild native populations by planting natives species in their landscape, whether as ornamentals or in place of turf.

Corsican Mint

This fragrant garden herb not only smells good, but also makes an excellent flowering grass alternative. The small, rounded green leaves act as a lush backdrop to its tiny purple flowers. You may have heard that mint spreads like crazy – but Corsican mint is considered a well-behaved creeper. It won’t take over your entire landscape overnight.

This perennial groundcover does well in low traffic areas, since while it can handle light steps, it won’t tolerate excessive foot traffic. Its flexibility is a bonus as it can be planted in both full sunlight and light shade, as long as the soil is moist and fertile.

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Which Grass is Best for Your Area?

Choose types adapted to your local climate and soil conditions. The newest varieties have greater resistance to drought and disease and need less maintenance

Note: Within each zone, certain species do better in some locales than others. Your state's cooperative extension can make recommendations

Zone 1: Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)

Traits: A cool-season perennial from Europe. Deep roots help it survive foot traffic and drought.

When to plant: September

Newest varieties: 'Rebel IV' and 'Tarheel II' tolerate some fungi.

Alternatives: Perennial

Zoysia, Kentucky bluegrass

Zone 2: Zoysia grass (Zoysia spp.)

Traits: This Asian import can tolerate shade, insects, disease, and dryness but goes brown at the first hint of cold weather. Grows slowly patch damaged areas with sod.

When to plant: April

Newest varieties: 'Meyer,' 'Zenith,' and 'Compadre' are winter-hardy.

Alternatives: Bermuda grass,

Zone 3: St. Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum)

Traits: This plug- or sod-grown species does best in sandy soil and bright sun. Sensitive to foot traffic and chewing insects.

When to plant: April

Newest varieties: 'Raleigh,' 'Delmar,' and 'Mercedes' are shade-tolerant and winter-hardy.

Alternatives: Centipede grass, Bahia grass, Seashore paspalum

Zone 4: Bermuda grass (Cynodon spp.)

Traits: Originally from Africa, it thrives in full sun, spreads aggressively, and needs lots of fertilizer. Mow 1 to 2 inches high.

When to plant: April

Newest varieties: 'Riviera,' 'Yukon,' and 'Patriot' handle cooler temperatures.

Alternatives: Tall fescue, Buffalo grass, Zoysia

Zone 5: Buffalo Grass (Buchloe dactyloides)

Traits: This American native needs little water and almost no fertilizer. Too much of either encourages weeds.

When to plant: April and May

Newest varieties: 'Bowie,' 'Density,' and 'Texoka' have the best turf.

Alternatives: Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue

Zone 6: Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis)

Traits: Recovers well from drought, cold, and foot traffic. Popular for sod seeds take up to 30 days to sprout. In hot weather, water twice as much as fescue.

When to plant: September

Newest varieties: 'NuDestiny' resists some fungi 'Midnight' and 'Blue Velvet' are best for shade.

Alternatives: Fine-leaf and tall fescue

Top 10 Winter Plants

­Fair weather or foul, nature finds a way to create variety and interest in the garden, and winter is no exception. Whether they're blooming through a crust of snow, or showing off their vivid colors­ while dropping temperatures force us indoors, hardy winter plants are doing more than just surviving when the winter rolls in they're thriving. These garden inhabitants create interest, texture and a touch of the unexpected in the landscape when our springtime favorites are taking a long winter's nap -- and they do it with style.

Let's take a look at 10 plants, trees and shrubs that can transform a barren, chilly landscape into a winter wonderland. For each plant, we'll discuss what it will look like in your garden, what type of soil and water it needs, where it should be planted, and some tips and tricks to give it a chance to excel. We'll also look at what zones the plants do best in, according to the USDA Hardiness Zone Map. This map splits North America into 11 sections, numbered 1 to 11, with each section being 10 degrees Fahrenheit (12.22 degrees Celsius) warmer or colder than the next section. This map is used to illustrate which plants can survive in which regions [source: United States National Arboretum].

With a little imagination, and some well-deserved admiration for these special plants, even gardeners who don't like to get cold feet will start to see gardening potential in the cooler months of the year. Exercising a green thumb when you have to bury it in the snow takes dedication, but there are some plants that deserve the effort. Give winter gardening a try you might just discover that the cold is cooler than you thought.

Sedge Lawns: A Sustainable, Low-Maintenance Alternative to Grass

Few breakthroughs in the history of turf have been as significant as the arrival of an entirely new kind of lawn—the sedge lawn. Sedges are close botanical cousins of the grasses and look a lot like them. Properly selected and planted, sedges can function as a traditional lawn, yet they require little or no mowing, fertilizing, or chemicals. Some require less water than many conventional turfgrasses. Others tolerate wet, moist areas, and many thrive in shade. What's more, sedge lawns restore something of the character of the native sods that existed before agriculture and development transformed the American landscape.

Conventional lawns consist of grasses from Africa, Asia, Europe, and other places. These foreign, high-maintenance species have largely replaced the native sods composed of sedges and grasses. Today very little remains of the native sods. Perhaps the new American lawn is the original sod just waiting to be rediscovered.

Sedge lawns are usually planted from plugs, as the seeds of many sedges are short lived and have low germination rates. The most important step in establishing a new sedge lawn is to start with weed-free soil.

When converting an existing lawn, make absolutely sure the old lawn is dead (see "Planting a Native Grass Lawn Step by Step"). Top-dressing newly planted plugs is far more beneficial than incorporating mulch into the soil. Fertilize as you would a lawn to speed establishment. Mowings every month in the growing season will speed tillering and help the newly planted plugs to fill in.

Part of the attraction of the genus Carex, into which sedges fall, is its tremendous variety and adaptability. There are more than 2,000 species of Carex, and they are found in a wide range of habitats in nature. They vary from miniatures with foliage only 1 to 2 inches high, to specimens growing to 3 or 4 feet. Some creep, some clump, some do a little of both. They can be found in sun or shade, in wet soils or heavy clay, from coastal dunes to alpine scree. In almost every ecosystem, there is at least one sedge with good, lawnlike qualities.

Five sedges that have shown excellent promise as substitutes for traditional lawngrasses are catlin sedge (Carex texensis), Texas Hill Country sedge (C. perdentata), Baltimore sedge (C. senta), Pennsylvania sedge (C. pensylvanica), and California meadow sedge (C. pansa). These species are described below.

These native sedges have been selected for their compact growth and good, green color most are evergreen as well. Many will tolerate varying degrees of shade and competition from tree roots. They are best grown in the regions where they are native, although most have shown amazing adaptability and grow well in regions outside their native range. As more horticulturists become aware of the sedges' potential in gardens, many more species are being collected from remnant populations in nature. Hybridization is still untapped and offers enormous possibilities for lawns of the future.

Carex texensis Catlin sedge

This wide-ranging sedge is found in nature from Texas through Ohio and has naturalized in parts of southern California. In nature, it hybridizes and mingles with closely related, similar species throughout the Southeast. Catlin sedge is adapted to a wide variety of climates, from the hot, muggy Southeast to the hot, dry Southwest. It is hardy to USDA Zone 6, and perhaps Zone 5 in sheltered locations. It forms a matlike clump 3 to 4 inches high and 6 inches wide. To maintain as a lawn, catlin sedge will require two to three mowings per year. This dark green sedge is at its best in partial to full shade. Planted in full sun, it will tend to be lighter green and require ample water to look its best. Catlin sedge makes a fine lawn mowed or unmowed, planted either from seed or from plugs 6 inches on center.

Carex perdentata Texas Hill Country sedge

This Texas native is another excellent lawnlike sedge. It is drought tolerant and moisture tolerant with surprisingly soft, medium-green foliage. Its slowly creeping, almost clump-forming foliage is a light green color growing 4 to 6 inches high. A very versatile sedge, C. perdentata grows equally well in sun or shade, heavy or sandy soils. Its evergreen foliage is dependably hardy to Zone 6 and possibly lower. It looks best when watered regularly, but like most sedges it will tolerate periods of summer drought. Plant from plugs 6 to 12 inches on center in fall or spring.

Carex pensylvanica Pennsylvania sedge

Pennsylvania sedge has a wide distribution throughout the eastern and central U.S., with one form, C. pensylvanica var. pacificum, reaching all the way to Puget Sound in Washington state. With such a wide distribution in nature, this sedge and its hybrids hold much promise for natural lawns of the future. Many distinct and varied clones are being evaluated by nurseries throughout the country. Typically found on sandy soils in dappled shade or as a constituent of low prairies, Pennsylvania sedge can tolerate less than ideal conditions in the garden. Its noninvasive, creeping foliage forms dense mats of medium green, fine-textured foliage growing 6 to 8 inches unmowed. As a mowed lawn, this sedge looks best cut two to three times per year at 3 to 4 inches high. Plant Pennsylvania sedge from plugs 6 to 12 inches on center in fall or spring.

Carex pansa California meadow sedge

This native Pacific Coast sedge is hands-down one of the finest native sedges for making natural lawns. Largely untested in the East, it has proven durable in Texas and Colorado. Slowly creeping, dark green foliage grows 4 to 6 inches unmowed. California meadow sedge will tolerate varied types of soil conditions and temperatures, from sandy, exposed seacoasts to heavy clays and hot, inland valleys. It is also exceptionally traffic tolerant. Thriving in full sun to partial shade, it will thin out in deep shade. Mowing two to three times per year keeps the foliage low, tight, and lawnlike. Unmowed, it makes an attractive meadow and remains evergreen in all but the coldest climates. California meadow sedge is fast to establish from plugs planted 6 to 12 inches on center.

Carex senta Baltimore sedge

This native eastern sedge is essentially a refined version of catlin sedge—identical except for shorter flower spikes, which lend a neater, more lawnlike appearance when unmowed. Discovered originally by Briar Hoffman growing in the lawn of a church in Towson, Maryland, Baltimore sedge is one of the best low-growing, lawn-forming sedges for deep shade. Treat this sedge as you would C. texensis. Plant plugs 6 to 8 inches on center. Like all sedges, plugs of Baltimore sedge planted in spring or fall will establish quickly.

Planting Sedge Lawns

Sedge lawns are usually planted from plugs, as the seeds of many sedges are short lived and have low germination rates. The most important step in establishing a new sedge lawn is to start with weed-free soil.

When converting an existing lawn, make absolutely sure the old lawn is dead (see "Planting a Native Grass Lawn Step by Step"). Top-dressing newly planted plugs is far more beneficial than incorporating mulch into the soil. Fertilize as you would a lawn to speed establishment. Mowings every month in the growing season will speed tillering and help the newly planted plugs to fill in.

John Greenlee, dubbed "The Grassman" by Wade Graham of The New Yorker, established Greenlee Nursery in 1985 and is the author of The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses (Rodale Press, 1992).

Watch the video: Alternatives to Lawns Part 1

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