Lawn Alternatives: Drought Tolerant Ground Covers

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leaves and gravel ground cover

Save water without sacrificing beauty with groundcovers instead of grass. Here are a few ideas on some alternatives to thirsty lawns.


If you have not heard the word drought in the news lately, you must be on another planet. The shortage of water, especially in the western US, is of major concern. The new mandates for conservation in California should have targeted agriculture, which uses 80% of the state’s water, but until large industry has to cut back, everyone should do what they can to save water. And not just in CA!

Here in northern New Mexico, the mountains received enough snow in late winter to reach 100% snowpack. That is good news for our water supply, but it did not remove our drought status. We would probably need a dozen winters like that to feel secure about water.

No matter where you live, take a look at your landscape to save water. A typical lawn uses about 60 gallons of water a day just to stay green. Grass is pretty, and it’s a soft place for kids and pets to play on, but there are beautiful and soft alternatives that use very little water.

Native and adaptable plants

The natural place to start is with native plants. Adaptable plants have been introduced and do well in your climate, but are not invasive. They are acclimated to your weather patterns and rainfall, they need little to no fertilizer, and they are low maintenance.

Look at grasses first. It’s possible to have a ‘lawn’ of low-growing native grasses that is just as soft and green as Kentucky Bluegrass. I have a small area planted in Blue Grama grass. It stays low where we walk on it, but it’s ok if it sends up flowers and seed heads where there is less traffic. It reseeds easily, keeping the yard green.

Other native grasses, depending on where you live, are Buffalo Grass, Zoysia, Bermuda Grass, and Fescues. Check with your county extension agent to find out what works best for your soil. Ask how much maintenance each involves. Know your needs when making a decision.

wildflower rock garden

Flowering plants

One of my favorite ground covers is Mother of Thyme. I have it planted between flagstones in my walkway. The love the heat of the stone, and they soften the look of it. Large areas could be planted with it to create a lawn. And it smells so good when you step on it!

Another heat tolerant groundcover is Potentilla verna. It seems to creep towards the concrete walkway more than towards the garden! It grows quickly, is easy to propagate, and blooms single yellow flowers all summer long.

Chamomile is an herbal groundcover that likes the sun and smells good when walked on. Creeping Junipers, Sedums, and Speedwell do best in full sun, too.

Mosses and Vinca grow naturally in the shade. Mints will cover an area quickly, and most prefer a bit of shade. Other choices are Ajuga, Sweet Woodruff, and Pachysandra. These are all things my dad had planted around our house in New England as low-lying foundation plantings that blended into a lawn area.

Rock gardens and native plantsHardscaping

If you don’t need a soft lawn for kids and pets, consider walkways, patios, retaining walls, and gravel planted with water-wise perennials. Add visual interest with berms or tiered beds. Permeable pavers let water soak into the ground instead of creating run-off. They are also easy on plant roots by letting air in and out of the soil.

Build rock gardens and add alpine plants, such as Iberis, Arabis, Saxifrage, and perennial Alyssum. They naturally thrive on the minimal snowmelt of the Alps, some tucked into small cracks in the rocks. These are hardy, low maintenance plants that come in a wide variety of textures and colors.

No act of water conservation is too small

In the big picture of water use and conservation, replacing your lawn with a drought tolerant groundcover may seem small. But it does make a difference. Imagine one million households removing their water sucking lawns. That would save 60,000,000 gallons of water a day. There is strength and power in numbers, as they say.

So do something you think is small, and get your friends, family and colleagues to do it, too. And get vocal. Talk to your local and state water commissions, and ask that conservation be mandated. Start small, but think big. You never know whom that will help.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.