Lawn Alternatives-Moss, Sedge, and Creeping Thyme

A creeping thyme lawn is springy and fragrant to walk on
A creeping thyme lawn is springy and fragrant to walk on

Everywhere you look in suburbia, there is at least some space devoted to the ubiquitous lawn. The main focus of U.S. gardening is the lawn which ironically was inspired by  British landscape gardening. Still, mown grass dominates public and private spaces but is a water hog, is laden with chemicals, and pollutes the air with engine driven lawn mowers and weed eaters.

To add to this love affair with lawns, many localities still have “lawn ordinances”, which effectively make any other form of front garden illegal, and prosecution for growing anything else is common.

Progressive gardeners often wage a war against lawns and the public perception that lawn is the only way to go is slowly changing. There is even a campaign website: lawnreform.org.  On this website are great pictures of a variety of sedges that are suitable for lawns.

 “Kerb-appeal” – a desire to appeal to future buyers or to show off the home is an American way of life and we are creatures of habit when it comes to our landscapes.  Americans want “low maintenance and evergreen” which translates to boring, cookie cutter landscapes with no connection to the architecture of the house.

There is nothing cookie cutter about English gardening!
There is nothing cookie cutter about English gardening!

On the other end of the spectrum, English gardeners express themselves through gardening and if you travel through an English neighborhood, each landscape is different. The pictures below came from a tiny village called Blockley in the Cotswolds where each house had their own personally unique  gardens, with very little or no lawn.

IMG_3306 English landscape English landscape

More and more people are ripping out parts, or their entire lawn and replacing with plants that require less water and care, most notably less cutting. In more arid parts of the country, there are incentives to replace lawns with alternatives like gravel or water sipping plantings.

Using arid loving plants doesn't mean boring- seen in front yard in California
Using arid loving plants doesn’t mean boring- seen in front yard in California

 

With our constant rain this summer in the mid-Atlantic region, we are cutting our lawn at least every 4-5 days which requires a lot of time and produces a copious amounts of dirty exhaust and burns fossil fuel. Not to mention that a lawn is a sterile “desert” with poor underlying  soil with little to no biological action of microbial life and earth worms that make a soil healthy.

PA Sedge, Carex pensylvanica is a great alternative to fescue
PA Sedge, Carex pensylvanica is a great alternative to fescue

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But there are alternatives like creeping thyme for sunny locations and moss for shady moist locations. If you really want grass, you can plant a sedge that hardly ever needs cutting. Pennsylvania Sedge or Carex pensylvanica doesn’t look as neat and tidy as a fescue but it rarely needs cutting. It does need sun to grow in thick like the above picture.

Moss

A mossy "lawn" is not as manicured as a fescue lawn but is perfect for shady locations
A mossy “lawn” is not as manicured as a fescue lawn but is perfect for shady locations

Moss wouldn’t work in low moisture climates but is an alternative in shady locations. Designers and designers who are looking for sustainable, shade loving options, either as a lawn replacement or a sculptural backdrop as accents, have discovered moss.

Moss can accent sculptural pieces
Moss can accent sculptural pieces

Think Smooth

To start your own moss garden you need to first remove any existing plants, especially grass and weeds. Apply a pre-emergent like Preen to discourage germination of any existing seeds. Smooth out the soil, which can be loam or clay, but not too sandy. Any dips or undulations in the soil will be visible once the moss starts growing. Sandy soils won’t hold the moisture needed for good moss growth. Moss is a great soil stabilizer but must be mature to channel water for runoff.Bulbs and primroses growing up through moss

Bulbs and primroses growing up through moss

Preparing really smooth soil speeds up rhizome (underground stems) attachment and encourages faster branching so be sure to remove any debris, sticks stones, and leaves.

Ph

I was always under the impression that moss grows in only acidic soil, in ranges below 7 which is neutral on the Ph scale. But doing my research on moss culture, they aren’t really particular about Ph because the rhizomes do not feed on the soil. Plant any companion plants before you introduce the moss, smoothing the soil after planting.

Moss lawns are easy in the Pacific Northwest
Moss lawns are easy in the Pacific Northwest

You can scrape up patches of moss from the woods or other parts of your property and place them on top of your smooth soil. Scratch the surface very slightly before laying the patches down so that they will adhere and press the patches firmly into the soil, preferably by stepping on them. Contact is crucial between the bottom of the patch and the top of the soil for the moss to start growing. The transplanted mosses need some time for the moss to acclimate and become established while the moss adjusts to new sunlight, water, and substrate.

Selecting patches of moss
Selecting patches of moss
Placing patches of moss together to form a blanket of moss
Placing patches of moss together to form a blanket of moss

Water, Water, Water

Mist the moss thoroughly every day, making sure to saturate until the moss starts to grow. This might be 6 weeks or more. You can taper off slightly as the moss starts to fill in but your moss will go dormant when it dries out. The higher the temperature, the more water required to keep the moss verdant. If you remove leaves by raking or blowing, it is a good idea to pin the moss down with soil staples, or fern pins, or use a netting to keep the moss in place.

Creating a mossy fairy garden by transplanting patches of moss and pressing them into the soil and saturating with water
Creating a mossy fairy garden by transplanting patches of moss and pressing them into the soil and saturating with water
Mossy fairy garden
Mossy fairy garden

Maintenance

Established moss is naturally weed resistant but juvenile moss may have patches of soil and still be thin. Controlling weeds with hand removal is important until the moss is spongy and thick. A daily misting helps greatly in getting your moss established.

Moss garden at Mt Cuba
Moss garden at Mt Cuba

 

6 Replies to “Lawn Alternatives-Moss, Sedge, and Creeping Thyme”

  1. I know you wrote this just for me. I am in the process of taking out my entire back lawn and putting in bark dust for now. There is no real dirt there, just weeds we are not allowed to have. My mower is electric but still too much work. I have wood now to start building planter boxes and then I’d slowly like to put the thyme down in back like I have in the front. There was no grass there but it had a awful invasive tree. Gone. Now the thyme is spreading nicely in some areas, slower in others. I have other forms of ground cover growing among the thyme. All the neighbors love it. They call them “stepables at the nursery. We can walk on them. I have been looking for quicker alternatives to a nice lush back yard. Is the Preen something that will be safe for the birds and bees? I love this post. Thanks for the help.

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