Apr 17, 2023 - News

Four low-water ground covers to replace your grass

Plants grow around a cobblestone path

Woolly Thyme and Red Creeping Thyme grow around a cobblestone path, with yellow-flowered sedum at bottom left. Photo: Erin Alberty/Axios

Garden season is (finally) upon us, so now is the time to look at replacing some of your grass.

  • We've found some low-growing groundcover plants to keep things vibrant without wasting water.

Why it matters: Turfgrass — particularly the thirsty Kentucky bluegrass that fills most Utah lawns — tends to invite water waste, according to USU's water-wise landscaping guide.

  • It goes brown in drought faster than most other landscape plants, and doesn't immediately show stress from overwatering.
  • While turfgrass is useful in areas with a lot of foot traffic, it isn't necessary to cover a whole landscape.

Here are some low-water ground covers to prevent erosion and avoid "heat islands" from sunlight reflecting off plant-less gravel.

  • Our thought bubble: Local garden centers have been more reliable suppliers than big box chains in my experience. I usually start with Butterfield Gardens Ground Cover in Sandy.

Creeping thyme

Creeping thyme covers a lawn in early spring in Salt Lake City.
Creeping thyme covers a lawn in April 2023 in Salt Lake City. Photo: Erin Alberty/Axios

The shortest varieties grow barely a half-inch tall and most withstand some foot traffic, making them a great choice between stepping stones and other spots that might see footprints.

  • Red creeping thyme has glossy, dark green leaves that turn purplish in winter with a midsummer flush of dark pink flowers that last longer than many garden blooms.
  • Woolly Thyme is a lighter green and is more resilient and thicker than Red Creeping — but doesn't have flowers.

Sedum

Sedum grows in front of tulips in early spring.
A small patch of sedum sprouts between early spring bulbs near a cobblestone path in Salt Lake City. Photo: Erin Alberty/Axios

There is a huge variety of this rubbery succulent, with foliage ranging from bright yellows and greens to deep red — and many have flowers.

  • Most groundcover sedums are 2-3 inches tall, reaching 6-7 inches with flowers.
  • I've had the most success with undivided trays of "rooftop" sedum mixes, which combine colors and textures. But flats of individual plants are often cheaper and more uniform if you're filling a big area.

Sulphur buckwheat

Sulphur buckwheat grows in a mass in early spring before yellow pom poms appear.

It's native to Utah, attractive almost all year, and mine have survived scorching summers more reliably than any other low-growing plant.

  • The mat of darkish-green leaves turns reddish to purple in fall and winter, and in summer sprouts dramatic yellow pom poms that fade to orange and tan during the dog days.
  • Yes, but: The flowers make it too tall for stepping over. Set it a few inches back from a path.

Pink pussy toes

Antennaria, or Pink pussy toes, grows near a rock.
Pink pussy toes are coming back to life in Erin's garden (which is still in spring cleanup mode). Photo: Erin Alberty/Axios

I had misgivings about this Utah-native darling because it's found at higher elevations, and I expected it to struggle with my stingy watering schedule. But it has cooked without complaint on a sunny site.

  • This small plant holds tight to the ground until late spring, when the eponymous flowers appear.
  • It doesn't cover a lot of ground, but planted en masse it adds a streak of silver-to-seafoam color contrast to your garden.

This article originates from the Great Salt Lake Collaboration, a solutions journalism initiative designed to inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake.

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