Sometimes, there’s no substitute for a good grass lawn. Grass is the best choice if a lawn will get heavy foot traffic or will double as a playing field for friends, family and pets. But wildflower-grass seed mixes and low-growing groundcovers are low-maintenance alternatives that add beauty and habitat to your yard.
While varieties vary depending on the mix, flower-grass mixes, sometimes know as “eco-lawns,” require less mowing and fertilizing than all-grass lawns. And, unlike an all-grass lawn, some plants in these mixes stay green with very little watering throughout the region’s dry summers.
Check local garden stores for options, and look for these plants when choosing a mix.
Note: If you have concerns about bees, choose a mix without clover or other flowers. Or plant a flowering mix in a part of the yard where pollinators are free to roam with less potential for mingling.
- Dwarf perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass are great in a lawn mix: they’re not vigorous growers, so they won’t crowd out the flowering plants. Unlike an all-grass lawn, you don’t want a fast-growing grass variety or you’ll end up with the lawn you’re trying to avoid.
- Clover does triple duty. First, it absorbs nitrogen from the air and “fixes” it in the soil so it can be used by other plants (meaning less need to fertilize). Second, it flowers prolifically. And third, it attracts local (and threatened) pollinators like bumblebees that help keep your plants healthy and productive. As with grass, less vigorous and dense-growing varieties are best; strawberry clover is better than common white clover.
- Yarrow is dark green and fernlike. It spreads well and stays green even through drought, and flowers pink, white or red.
- English lawn daisies flower in pink and white masses in spring—at just the right height for tiny hands to pick. Flowering remains strong when you set your mower blade to 3 to 5 inches high and don’t mow too often (see below). They tend to disappear from lawns after four to five years.
- Roman chamomile is like yarrow - low and spreading - and has a pineapple smell when stepped on or mowed. It has daisylike flowers used in teas.
Mow about every three weeks to 3 to 5 inches high, so you can enjoy the lawn’s flowering elements without letting it get too tall. (You may need to mow every two weeks during spring rains.) Let clippings lie, as you can in an all-grass lawn, to add nitrogen to the soil.
Once established, a thorough watering (about 1.5 to 2 inches) once a month in the summer is about right. This is about a third or fourth the amount of water you’d need to keep an all-grass lawn green during the region’s dry summers. More water means you’ll end up mowing as often as you would with turf, and cutting off the flower heads before you can enjoy them.
Beyond a lawn mix: groundcovers
If you want to totally retire the lawnmower, plant a low-growing groundcover. Most are perennials and spread easily; heights range from very low to about 12 inches. The flowering plants listed above are good options for a no-mow groundcover that can handle light foot traffic. Depending on whether you want cover for sun and shade, or for a path or swath of green under trees, local garden stores offer many options. Some you can walk on. Others are not so foot-friendly, such as these:
- wild thyme
- coastal strawberry
For a more complex yard that is even better at attracting wildlife, consider creating a backyard habitat, a landscape that mimics the plant layers of a natural woodland, from groundcovers to shrubs to trees, all within the confines of your lot.
Find tips for growing a safe and healthy grass lawn