Astroturf alternatives: let's talk about no-care groundcover

June 18 |
astroturf furniture © by emdot, used under Creative Commons license.
We are buying a house (yay!) and we'll need to completely landscape our very small backyard. My other half is dead set on fake grass because it's inexpensive and it requires no mowing. I'm not so convinced.

Does anyone have any ideas for groundcover that is real, requires no mowing, but still allows us to sit on a blanket and read or bask in the sun when the weather allows?

-Julia

Neither Ariel nor I have yards, so we must pass this question to the yard-having and ground-covering-knowledgable Homies. What are your suggestions for astro-turf alternatives?

  1. It depends where you are and what climate you are living in. Clover (Dutch white) is a really great and cheap grass alternative that needs no mowing, can be played on, peed on (dogs) but it wouldn't be your best bet, in say, Arizona. There are also ornamental grasses (again, depending on where you live) that will cover and do not grow as tall. You could do a combination of clover for groundcover then have the edges something like thyme, yarrow, stonecrop with hens and chickens- all cheap "Creeping" varieties of plants that cover well and are pretty.

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  2. I live in Vancouver and half my backyard is spanish moss, which is green, alive, doesn't need to be moved, and is soft on the feet. It's also easy to cultivate:

    Just get a few handfuls of moss (must be alive, dried moss won't work), and stick it in a blender with 1 part moss, to 3-4 parts buttermilk. Blend until smooth, and then pour wherever you want moss. If your climate is very wet, it will stay there and keep growing.

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    • Um, Spanish Moss is grey and grows in trees. :)

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  3. Here's another vote for clover if you're in the right area (New England, for instance). Bonus: pretty flowers and won't set off your friends' grass allergies. Though maybe some people have clover allergies, I don't know!

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  4. Besides clover, which is a great choice, there is also ground cover herbs like thyme that will fill in and smell great when you walk over them.

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    • This was going to be my suggestion. I have areas of my yard where I grow elfin thyme, corsican mint, and moss because it would be too much of a pain to mow those areas. Smells great whenever I'm walking around there :)

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    • Just be aware that thyme will attempt to take over *everything*.

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  5. Voting against anything that my city can classify as a weed and fine me for growing. So I'm pretty sure clover is out, although I'd love to have it. More ideas please!

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    • Your city fines people for having weeds in there yard? I would be so screwed if I lived their. I go by the if it's green and doesn't have thorns or give me a rash it stays method of yard growing…..

      I'm pretty sure our city would like to see clover over astroturf, but then again as far as I know here they don't care what you do as long as it's maintained and not bothering the neighbors.

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    • and they wouldn't fine you for having astroturf? i'd revisit city ordinances before making any kind of a decision.

      where, exactly, are you located? that would help determine what will survive and thrive in your area.

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      • I'm in Alberta, Canada. Zone 3a. Re fines & weeds: If your neighbours can prove that the thing that you are growing in your backyard on purpose, is what's taking over their lawns, then the city gets after you. Simple as that.

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        • Ah, thanks for the clarification. :) I'm just surprised they allow astroturf as a replacement.

          I know some folks who have peanuts as a grass alternative. They mow once a month. Maybe that could be an option?

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          • I also live in a city that fines for weeds but allows Astroterf. Their is actually a section of the city that is locally famous for its astroturf lawns.

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    • Nooooo….Bermuda grass is the devil! We planted it here because it's "drought tolerant" and hardy, but it's also crazy invasive and I spend hours and hours digging it out of everywhere it's not supposed to be in the summer, including raised garden beds and cracks in our brick porch. Also, when we have a good rain I swear I can HEAR it growing, and I'm pretty much mowing it every single week all summer long.

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  6. If you live in the mid-west, native prairie is beautiful! (it takes a few years to get past the scraggly weedy looking stage, but the payoff is totally worth it!

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  7. My friend works for a company called perfect turf that lays synthetic grass. Looks wayy nicer than astro turf! Pricey but looks like the real thing. I'm in Alberta, Canada. Not sure where they operate…

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  8. You could go for a sturdier grass variety, or add wild flowers. Requires less mowing (maybe three times a year), smells heavenly and is good for your environment.

    Another thing I once read and loved was a slow-growing grass variety mixed in with fragrant herbs – walking over it would leave you with clouds of heavenly smell.

    Anyway, fake grass actually looks fake and needs its share of work as well (I imagine keeping it dirt- and dust-free, for example), so there would be no considerable gain.

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    • My aunt in Las Vegas has to vacuum her yard (astroturf) about as often as I mow (but I'm lax in my mowing schedule…)

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  9. Almost all varieties of plants that are strong enough to choke out grass and spread across the whole yard are strong enough to do so to all your neighbors' yards. They will not appreciate this as much as you.
    To start a plant that will spread but won't choke out grass, you have to do the choking.
    To prep the ground, cover the entire yard with newspapers. Basically, lay out an entire section of the paper and overlap it with the next. Fine mist the paper to keep it lying down and let it go. This will take a few months for the paper to break down and smother the grass. And it ain't cute. But what you're left with is a nice canvas for starting moss or something similar.

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    • Unless you have grass like mine. Which just laughs at newspaper, and plastic sheeting, and layers of mulch and pokes right through, keeps on growing and takes over your flower bed. Sadtimes…

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      • Sorry about the nuclear waste that's making your yard invincible. I just imagine each blade of grass has big bulky arm muscles, punching through anything that stands in its way.

        It sounds like it has deep roots and is invasive–could be Bermuda grass. Either way, this article could help if it's not something you've tried.

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    • My sis-in-law is doing a similar thing with cardboard to kill off the grass in her front yard. It is tough grass :(. She covered the cardboard with natural mulch (from a tree in her backyard) and added cement pavers to hold it down. She just waters it every day to help break down the paper and it looks like a no-flower bed (until you get close). Better than some of her neighbors' yards!

      I'm thinking about going the lasagna route (newspaper/cardboard, then grass, then other compost-y things, then more paper, repeat) has anyone had success with this? We live in the desert and our new house has an impossible-to-keep-alive lawn that we want to xeriscape.

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  10. so, we are in a similar situation – that is, looking for non-grass ways to cover our yard. only ours is because our dogs have destroyed most of our grass, leaving a nice little dust bowl. so grass – and probably most plants in general are out.

    we are seriously considering pea graveling the whole yard. it is hard, but the round gravel is not spiky on your feet (and puppy paws) like mulch is (though that is another option). anyone have experiences with non-living yard options? it seems like a major job to install, but afterwards low-maintenence and low-water and could be dressed up with spots of plants.

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    • Everything is always dependent on a great deal of thisses and thats, of course, but MOST of the non-living yards I've encountered have been great. My mom has always maintained beds of all sorts of rock, so I've got a teency bit of experience dealing with it. Here's some tips for anyone considering pea gravel (or pretty much any kind of gravel/rock.)

      For best results, you want to put it down on the flattest surface possible, so you'll probably need to dig out large portions of your yard. If you have an uphill area, I recommend just covering that area with a hardy ornamental grass. Slopes and bumps will cause the gravel to scoot down, leaving bare patches. Plus, if you walk out there, you'll stub your toe on lumps. Every. Single. Time. X_x

      I wholly recommend putting it down on some sort of landscaping fabric or plastic, which will keep grass and weeds from growing. Holes will wear into it and weeds will creep out–some weeds will even grow right out of the gravel with barely any dust to use as soil. If you get wears and tears, the best solution is usually to take it all up and replace the fabric–if it's wearing out in one spot, it's probably wearing out everywhere. Patching it doesn't work terrifically well, in my experience. Weeds just work their way out of any hole.

      And then there's maintaining the gravel itself. You'll find yourself raking the gravel around a lot to fill in bare patches that scoot in. You'll be buying a few bags of gravel a year to replace gravel which has mysteriously disappeared. As the gravel breaks down, it creates a lot of dust that will kick up in the wind during the summer months. The best way to stave that off? Water it, of course. :) Not every type of gravel creates this problem, but it's something to look out for–rocks make sand, man.

      If it sounds like a DAUNTING project, do it piece by piece. Use those plastic border things to section off, say, a third of the yard. Take care of that, then save the next portion for next year or fall.

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  11. Mother of Thyme, wooly thyme, and creeping thyme are all beautiful choices. My inlaws have that as their only ground cover in their front yard, and soon their back too. No mowing, low water, it smells divine, and it actually blooms little purple flowers. Its perfect for a small space. My MIL even plants bulbs out in it, they pop up through for beautiful spring blooms.

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    • My dad has creeping thyme growing between the flat stones of his walkway and it's beautiful and smells fantastic! He doesn't do anything special with it so it's just been spreading on its own and therefore has been slow to propagate but it's lovely. And is so comfy for walking on in bare feet too. I'd like to do that when we redo our walkway.

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      • Bingo. That sounds just about right – the mix of stone and plants. Thank you.

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    • I second Mother of Thyme. I have a teeny tiny front "lawn". It's actually a tree box directly out our front door. We planted Mother of Thyme and it has been great. It filled in the tree box, looks great and has thrived under being constantly trampled getting by people getting out of their cars. I'd also suggest stone. We used pavers to cover our teeny teeny back yard.

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  12. Thanks for all the ideas guys! I'm excited to share these. We'll be moving to inland southern California (think 100 degree summers) so moss is out. Do you guys know whether the thyme options will work down here? The pictures of it look beautiful.

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    • Thyme thrives in dry climates so I think you'll be okay. Just make sure to water it every once in awhile during drought conditions.

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  13. I think the best option is a high end synthetic grass

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  14. Have you considered rubber mulch? They use it in kid's playgrounds lately, but you can buy bags of it at Home centers and nurseries. Lay down several layers of ground cloth and spread the mulch over. Its not as hard and scratchy as gravel or wood mulch, so you could walk barefoot on it and would be great for setting a container garden on, so you can still have some nature in your no-mow space.

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  15. I am with Jeff, I think a high end fake grass is the way to go. Then you can put planters on it and grow a garden in them and plant trees around the perimeter. Just hope your husband doesnt have allergies with all the wild type of plants people are talking about.

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  16. Flagstone. You can make some pretty designs and there's zero upkeep. There are some truly amazing stone yards on pinterest. Also sand or depending on how small your yard is, aquarium gravel? Rainbow Zen raking anyone?

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    • Heh. Your suggestion reminds me of one time I was visiting a Japanese garden near my old apartment. Two kids were standing in the middle of the Zen garden, throwing the white pebbles up in the air and yelling "It's snowing! It's snowing!".

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  17. A caution on synthetic grass, my aunt has it and it gets HOT in direct sun! So it's better if you aren't planning to walk on it barefoot in warmer weather, or if your "planting" it in shade. Most of the time it's not an issue, but my toddler niece did burn her feet on it once. Ouch!

    Oh, and she has the high end stuff. Not sure what brand, but it's not AstroTurf, it looks and feels pretty real.

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  18. Check out Stepables. I just saw them this year. They have tons of variety of low growing things that can handle being stepped on. I think I got 2 4in containers for $5 at the store.
    http://www.stepables.com/

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  19. If you're going the stones and hardy plants route, I'd recommend picking up a few books on xeriscaping from the library. They'll give you a lot of ideas on types of stones and plants as well as layout. I'm sending you luck from my parking lot yard.

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  20. Moss. Any variey. Pick some and transplant it. Goole images can show you amazing things done with moss lawns.

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