An estimated 40-60% of household water use goes to landscaping. But a grassy lawn is the hallmark of the American landscape. With growing concerns about drought, herbicide use, and maintenance, thirsty ornamental grasses may need to be replaced with more sustainable lawn alternatives.
Contrary to popular belief, you can enjoy a gorgeous verdant green lawn without constant irrigation or chemical use. And no, that doesn’t mean plastic artificial turf or a weedy, ugly mess. These alternative lawn plants are drought-tolerant, eco-friendly, low-maintenance, and aesthetically pleasing. Many of them even have added benefits for pollinators and aesthetics.
Let’s dig into 18 lawn alternatives you can seed in place of high-maintenance turfgrass.
What is a Lawn Alternative?
A lawn alternative is a low-growing or creeping groundcover plant that can be used as a replacement for grass. Generally, these substitutes require little to no irrigation, reduced weeding, and no pesticides or fertilizers. They are easier to care for than a traditional lawn and more sustainable than turfgrass.
Clover, thyme, chamomile, and moss are examples of plants that sprawl over the ground and easily withstand drought, walking, and neglect. These plants also provide ecological benefits like habitat for native species, pest deterrent properties, air filtration, and a cooling effect for your summer home.
18 Alternative Lawn Plants to Replace Grass
If you’re ready to take the plunge and rip out your high-maintenance, nutrient-demanding grass, these low-growing plants will eagerly populate your yard without requiring much care beyond establishment. Before you plant, be sure you have thoroughly killed your existing lawn by smothering the grass with a tarp, newspaper, cardboard, rototilling, leaf mulch, or a thick layer of compost.
Clover (Trifolium repens)
A cost-effective, year-round lawn option with attractive flowers that attract pollinators.
Clover is a popular lawn alternative that attracts pollinators with lovely white or pink flowers. It is also the cheapest lawn replacement out there! To sweeten the deal, clovers enrich your soil.
You can choose from red or white clover or plant a mix for a pretty display. With its year-round lush greenery, clover is perfect for regions where your lawn turns brown and dull in the summer. It requires less water and is more drought-tolerant than grass, but it may require a little mowing if you don’t want bees visiting the nectar-rich flowers.
Clover has the added benefit of being a legume. Legumes are nitrogen-fixing members of the Fabaceae plant family, meaning they add nitrogen to the soil and don’t typically require nitrogen-dominant fertilizers.
They do this by working symbiotically with a root-borne bacteria called Rhizobium. This bacteria colonizes clover roots and transforms atmospheric nitrogen into soil-available plant food.
The best time to seed a clover lawn is early spring or early fall before heavy frosts. This plant is very competitive and spreads quickly, so sometimes you only need to mow your lawn super low and then sow clover seeds into the existing grass. The aggressive nature of clover means it’s great for outcompeting weeds, but it’s not so great to have in your vegetable or ornamental garden beds.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
This fragrant ground cover with small aromatic leaves can handle foot traffic.
Creeping thyme is a fragrant groundcover cousin of the popular Italian culinary herb. This variety has tiny, aromatic leaves and forms a dense mat of greenery that can withstand foot traffic. It also feels quite nice to walk barefoot!
If you mow your thyme lawn a few times throughout the summer, creeping thyme will simply produce a cushion of pointed, glossy blue-green leaves. If you let it flower, the plant becomes an ornamental treat with vibrant fuschia flowers that attract a range of bees and beneficial insects.
Like clover, creeping thyme spreads quickly and shouldn’t have a big problem outcompeting the existing grass. If you spread a 1-2” thick layer of compost over the lawn before planting, the thyme should take off in no time.
It needs to be watered every day during establishment, but once it has rooted in place, the plants prefer soils on the dry side. In many climates, natural rainfall is plenty. It certainly won’t need as much irrigation or attention as your previous lawn.
The main downside of this lawn is its expense. Creeping thyme is expensive to buy from plugs. I recommend directly sowing the seeds. Fortunately, once you seed this perennial, it won’t go anywhere.
Each plant lives about 3-5 years and prolifically self-seeds. However, it may get woody after a few years if you don’t mow or cut it back. A quick pruning can regenerate the growth back to its lush greenery. If you don’t want it to become groundcover in your garden beds, add a barrier like bricks or stones around the beds to stop the thyme from creeping in.
Dwarf Carpet of Stars (Ruschia lineolata ‘Nana’)
This is a resilient and low-maintenance evergreen ground cover with pink daisy-like flowers.
This high-quality lawn alternative is amazingly hardy and vibrant green, making for a gorgeous manicured display. The drought-tolerant carpet of stars is technically an evergreen succulent that remains under 2” tall. No mowing is required!
The candy-striped pink flowers are daisy-like and bloom from late spring to early summer. This plant grows in light shade to full sun and prefers well-drained soil with occasional irrigation. It tolerates mild frosts but shouldn’t be grown in extremely cold regions. Some people report that it tolerates walking traffic, while others suggest only planting it in low-traffic areas.
The mat-forming plant comes in several varieties, with ‘Nana’ being the most popular lawn replacement. It is best to remove existing sod, loosen the soil, and add a thin layer of new topsoil.
Purchase some dwarf Carpet of Stars plugs and plant them 6” apart. Water every day for just 5-10 minutes during the first few weeks, and soon, your lawn will be filled with a verdant green mat.
Creeping Mazus (Mazus reptans)
An excellent ground cover with purple-blue flowers in early summer and fast-growing green foliage that can withstand foot traffic.
Mazus reptans is a fantastic groundcover plant that blooms beautiful purple-blue flowers in early summer. Its fast-growing foliage covers your lawn in a dense mat of bright green leaves that don’t mind being walked on. The plant is remarkably durable and drought-tolerant, meaning it won’t need much maintenance besides occasional mowing.
All this plant asks for is medium moisture and an annual application of slow-release fertilizer or compost. It needs more water than other options on this list, but not nearly as much as grass. It tolerates full sun or partial shade and fills an area quickly. Just six small plants per square yard will spread into a lovely groundcover mat.
If your lawn grows in heavily compacted clay, this alternative won’t do well. The soil needs to be loamy and well-drained. If I were shifting from turfgrass to creeping mazus, I would start by smothering the grass with a tarp for 2-3 weeks.
Then, spread a 1-2” thick layer of compost over the top and use a long-tine broad fork to loosen the entire lawn. This may be a sweaty task, but you only have to do it once! Finally, direct seed or transplant creeping mazus in the spring or fall and use overhead sprinklers once or twice a week until established.
Low-Growing Sedum (Sedum spp.)
Perfect for dry areas, sedums are versatile, low-maintenance succulent groundcovers that thrive in water-restricted regions.
If you have a lawn area with very little water where most grasses or other plants fail to grow, this is the lawn alternative for you! Sedums or stonecrops are groundcover succulent plants that come in various shapes and colors, making them a versatile and low-maintenance option for a lawn.
Depending on the species, they grow 1-6” tall and require very little maintenance. They are remarkably drought-tolerant, making them perfect for regions where summer water restrictions are in effect. The delightfully textured plants practically grow like weeds.
The only real caveat to sedum as a lawn is it doesn’t tolerate heavy foot traffic very well. The fragile succulent leaves and stems break off easily if they are regularly trodden across.
This is not the groundcover for households where kids want to play in the yard all summer long. Instead, plant low-growing sedum in lesser-used ornamental areas like rock gardens or side edges of your house.
For shady areas with lots of moisture, moss lawns are the low-maintenance solution that forms a lush, soft, green carpet.
If you have consistently faced pale or brown grass issues in a shady lawn, moss is your new best friend. Moss lawns require minimal maintenance and create a lush, green carpet in your landscape.
They feel so soft and cushiony to walk on barefoot, almost like nature’s rug. Best of all, they don’t mind soggy or compacted soils.
Plenty of Water
Unsurprisingly, moss lawns are very thirsty. If your lawn receives bright sunshine and long periods of drought, do not plant moss! Reserve this ground cover for shady, cool areas beneath trees or where water does not drain well. Unlike most plants, moss actually prefers to grow on harder surfaces, so you don’t have to worry about broad forking or tilling the ground.
The key is to smother the grass with cardboard or newspaper, and then press chunks of moss into the soil and secure it with landscaping pins while it gets established. Interestingly, moss is an ancient Bryophyte that spreads by spores rather than seeds.
The only real demand that moss makes is for acidic soil. These low-growing verdant species typically grow in coniferous forests where the continuous falling of evergreen tree needles acidifies the soil. If your soil is too alkaline, moss will struggle.
Most turfgrass lawns have soil that is too alkaline for moss. However, those with heavy clay soil may be naturally acidic. You can use a sulfur powder to amend the soil down to 5.0 or 5.5. Use a home soil pH test to check the acidity before planting.
Buffalo Grass (Bouteloua dactyloides)
Buffalo grass is a lush, drought-tolerant native option for an attractive, low-water lawn that’s ideal for picnics and play.
If you still want an aesthetically pleasing grassy lawn for afternoon picnics or playtime with children and pets, this native grass is the perfect alternative to turfgrass. Native to North America, buffalo grass is a drought-tolerant grass that forms a verdant lush carpet. The fine-textured blades stay deep green even in hot, arid climates, making it ideal for xeriscaping or low-water landscaping.
Benefits of Native Grasses
This grass species grows wild throughout the Great Plains and was a common source of Native American food and medicine in wild prairies. Buffalo grass has a very deep root system that can access water deep in the soil, even during the most intense summer droughts. It is also highly competitive with weeds, meaning that no herbicides or hand-pulling are needed!
Native lawn alternatives are amazing for providing habitat and food for local insects and wildlife. This is a highly ecological option that basically cares for itself.
Easy Establishment and Care
All you need to do is smother or till your existing lawn and directly sow the seeds about ¼ to ½ inch deep, then add a fine layer of topsoil over it to ensure seed-to-soil contact. Don’t plant any deeper than ½ inch in the soil! Just a few rounds of overhead irrigation, and your buffalo grass will take off in no time! In rainy months, the only care that it needs is mowing to keep it low to the ground.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
This native plant is a resilient option with fern-like foliage and small, colorful flowers that attract beneficial insects.
For a wildflower lawn, consider the beautiful and resilient native yarrow plant. Yarrow is a hardy perennial with fern-like foliage and clusters of small, colorful flowers. The gorgeous umbel-shaped white flowers are highly beneficial companion plants that attract butterflies, bees, and beneficial predatory insects to your garden.
Height and Mowing
Yarrow can grow quite tall (up to 36”) if left to its own devices. This lawn alternative requires mowing every month or so if you’re used to a manicured appearance. The bonus is the foliage smells delightfully reminiscent of honeysuckle. However, you won’t get any flowers with this technique.
If you’re OK with a wildflower prairie look, you can certainly leave yarrow to grow into a glorious knee-high floral display. It tolerates compacted and poor soils, growing well alongside other native wildflowers like purple coneflower, coreopsis, and black-eyed Susans.
Dwarf Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)
Mondo grass is a dark green, low-traffic ground cover with minimal maintenance needs that adapts to different conditions.
This grass-like ground cover has dark green, strappy leaves and is a great lawn alternative in shady low-traffic areas. It is an evergreen perennial that naturally suppresses weeds with its dense mat-like growth. Requiring almost no maintenance, this visually appealing grass offers almost all the benefits of turfgrass without any of the drawbacks.
Dwarf mondo grass can adapt to a range of soil types and conditions, from moderate shade to full sun. For the darkest green hue, grow in the shade. Grow in filtered sunlight beneath some tree cover for a lighter green color.
This perennial is great for those areas where traditional lawn grass struggles to grow or as an edging and pathway plant. While it can’t tolerate as much foot traffic, it is remarkably lush and fast-growing.
Dwarf mondo grass is a bit finicky about seeds. The seeds are best harvested fresh from a neighboring patch because store-bought ones tend to have low germination rates.
Divisions and transplants are more reliable means of establishing your lawn planting. This species is a fairly slow spreader, so be patient and plant closer together (as close as 4-6” between plants) for quicker coverage.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla L.)
These blooming lawns are visually charming, fragrant, and low-maintenance.
Chamomile lawns are not only visually charming but delightfully fragrant. When you walk on them, they fill the yard with the sweet aroma of chamomile tea. This herb’s carpet has a soft, frilly meadow appearance with feathery foliage and daisy-like flowers. What a romantic lawn addition!
This low-growing perennial requires minimal maintenance other than occasional mowing to keep it tidy. Chamomile can grow up to 24” tall, so keep it pruned or mowed for lawn purposes.
Sunlight and Soil
This is the perfect lawn substitute for full sun areas with well-drained areas. The plant tolerates drought and direct sunlight while attracting beneficial insects and pollinators.
It also establishes very quickly in quality soil as long as the seed is sown densely. You can rototill or smother your grass before planting and optionally spread a layer of compost or topsoil over the top to accelerate establishment.
Blue Star Creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis)
This low, ground-hugging perennial with star-like blue flowers thrives in partial shade.
This ground-hugging perennial has delicate star-like blue flowers far more attractive than a standard turfgrass yard. Blue star creeper enjoys partial shade to filtered sunlight beneath landscape trees or shrubs. The dazzling pastel blue and green display will captivate passersby all summer long, and because it stays less than 6” tall, little to no mowing is required!
The dense mats of foliage are aesthetically pleasing and naturally suppress weed growth. This versatile option can grow as a lawn or border plant that naturally fills between stepping stones and pathways.
The plant grows rapidly and spreads by underground runners, so it can easily overtake a grass lawn. Your main challenge will be containing the plant, as it can choke out other low-growing perennials if you aren’t careful. Fortunately, it’s not invasive, and you can control blue star creeper by keeping it in a limited space (like a lawn lined with a sidewalk or rock borders), watering less, and avoiding fertilizer.
Planting and Irrigation
You can find this perennial at most nurseries and divide the root balls to get more bang for your buck. Seeds are also available, but the propagation process is more complicated.
Blue star creeper can adapt to many moisture conditions and doesn’t require much irrigation except during long droughts. In fact, you may want to avoid irrigating so the plant doesn’t spread too far and wide. The delicate flowers are surprisingly tough, so you can freely walk on them.
Irish Moss (Sagina subulata)
A lush, emerald-green ground cover suited for damp, cool, and shaded areas, which helps prevent erosion and weed growth.
Irish moss is an emerald-green velvety lawn alternative that thrives in damp, cool areas of your yard. This groundcover moss is best for rock gardens, rain gardens, crevices, or dark, wet areas where other plants struggle to survive.
The dense growth of Irish moss is attractive in the yard while preventing erosion and weedy overgrowth. The verdant display produces adorable white flowers in the spring. Best of all, Irish moss feels plush and inviting to walk on, perfect for a tranquil garden ambiance.
Mainly for Shady, Moist Areas
The key drawback to Irish moss is its inability to thrive in hot areas of your yard. Like most mosses, it needs to stay consistently moist and cool. With enough water, it can tolerate more sunlight, but you may need to irrigate once or twice weekly.
Fortunately, this means the plant stays exceptionally low on the ground. Maxing out at just 2” tall, you never have to worry about mowing!
Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
A simple-to-propagate perennial, bugleweed is suitable for spring or fall planting and forms a low-spreading ground cover.
As one of the easiest perennials to propagate by division, bugleweed is the perfect lawn alternative for spring or fall planting.
The low-spreading groundcover is related to mint and grows well in sun or shade. Some consider the dense coverage to be more attractive than turfgrass, and it produces lovely purple flowers throughout the summer.
Avoid planting bugleweed in small spaces, as it can spread quite rapidly via runners. This plant is aggressive and can choke out more fragile plants if you aren’t careful.
This is great news for overtaking your existing grass but not so great if you are trying to establish ornamental or annual flower beds nearby. Keep your beds raised up with a border so bugleweed won’t ramble its way in.
Green-and-Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)
This is a shade-loving native groundcover with heart-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers.
If you have lots of trees in your yard, green-and-gold is the lawn alternative for you! This native perennial groundcover has lovely heart-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers that upgrade any lawn from bland to gorgeous. It loves shade and works excellently in tree-covered yards, woodland gardens, or any damp, cool area where grass won’t grow.
Prepare a good soil mixture in advance with plenty of organic matter to retain water. Green-and-gold is extremely resilient and doesn’t require much more than consistent moisture. The plants bloom from spring through early fall and welcome a vast diversity of native pollinators and beneficial insects.
Choose a Stolon-Producing Variety
These are best propagated by divisions or transplants in late spring. Be sure to find a variety that is produced by stolons (runners) so it will spread quickly. This plant forms a dense carpet of leaves that naturally suppresses weeds, so you don’t have to worry about herbicides.
Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii)
Fragrant, low-growing Corsican mint is ideal for pathways and gardens in cooler climates.
This highly fragrant mint variety has lovely little leaves and a creeping habit. Corsican mint is low-growing, perfect for planting between pavers, raised bed pathways, or in rock gardens. This lawn alternative does best in partial shade and cooler climates. Don’t switch to a mint lawn if you have long, hot, dry summers!
This aromatic herb is visually appealing for very little maintenance. As it’s just 4” tall with dense self-sowing growth, you don’t need to mow or weed, and it doesn’t mind foot traffic. However, if you need to control this mint from creeping into neighboring beds, a very low mow or snip will be useful for reducing its growth. Like most mints, the leaves are edible and delicious, perfect for tea!
Dichondra (Dichondra spp.)
Dichondra is a low-maintenance groundcover with minimal mowing that is suitable for full sunlight and is drought-tolerant.
You’d be hard-pressed to find turfgrass that only needs mowing 3-4 times per year! But Dichondra fits the bill. This low-maintenance and handsome groundcover tolerates light foot traffic and stays low to the earth. It is a warm-season perennial that enjoys mild conditions with full sunlight. Its spreading habit can easily outcompete existing grass.
The vibrant green, heart-shaped, and rounded leaves only grow 3-4” tall. Best of all, Dichondra is remarkably drought tolerant. It requires less water than any regular lawn but enjoys well-drained soil. Don’t plant this species in a waterlogged area.
The only problems with Dichondra are its low tolerance to walking traffic, its disdain for shade, and its susceptibility to pests. Plant it in a lawn area that doesn’t get heavily used. Avoid this plant if you have major problems with cutworms or flea beetles, as they feed on the leaves aggressively and could spread to your vegetable garden.
Kurapia (Lippia nodiflora)
This evergreen ground cover controls erosion, suppresses weeds, and adapts to various soils.
This herbaceous ground cover requires 75% less water than a standard lawn. Kurapia is an intriguing Japanese evergreen that has become increasingly popular in drought-stricken areas of the United States as well as rainy regions. It is easygoing about almost everything except frost. The tender plant dies back during frosts and comes back in the spring.
You can purchase kurapia as sod or plugs to install a new lawn quickly. The plants require good aeration and watering during the establishment phase. Once rooted, it is highly effective at controlling erosion and suppressing weeds with minimal water requirements. It is also disease-resistant and adaptive to many soil types.
Low-Growing with Pretty Flowers
Kurapia only grows to about 3” tall and produces lovely white or pale purple flowers during the summer. It resembles clover in growth habit and floral display. The ultra-deep root system goes 5-10 feet into the soil, creating a sturdy structure for slopes and hillsides. This also means it can find water even in the driest of climates.
Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)
This fragrant and shade-loving perennial with dense ground cover may require occasional mowing to stay compact.
As a final fragrant, frilly lawn option, sweet woodruff is a lovely creeping perennial that effortlessly colonizes shady areas. It grows from rhizomes and spreads into a dense ground cover that effectively outcompetes weeds. The rough-textured leaves are arranged in whorls around the stems, creating a uniquely captivating bright green visual on your lawn.
Beware that this plant is considered toxic to pets and people, so it’s not recommended in lawns with dogs. The plant can also grow 6-8” tall, so it may need some mowing to remain compact.
With so many groundcover options, getting rid of your high-maintenance grass is a no-brainer. The key to a successful lawn replacement is species selection. If your yard gets blazing hot direct sun, try clover or creeping mazus. Try Irish moss, creeping thyme, or blue star creeper if your yard is particularly shady or cool. Pay close attention to the expected plant height. If you don’t want to mow at all, stick with ultra-low-growing species like Corsican mint or Dichondra.