Master Gardeners of San Mateo & San Francisco Co.
University of California
Master Gardeners of San Mateo & San Francisco Co.

Lawn alternatives: ground cover trial

Go green with environmentally-friendly lawn substitutes! With water resources becoming an increasing concern, it is important that we identify alternatives to lawns that require less water but can still meet people’s aesthetic and recreational needs. 

With this in mind, Master Gardener Jo Killen and others tested some ground covers that could serve as substitutes for lawns and might do well in the northern California coastal environment.  We looked for plants that were evergreen perennials, used less water than lawns, would grow in sun and partial shade, and could tolerate some foot traffic.  We did not test lawns that might be suitable for playing fields.

For the Zone 17 Elkus Ranch trial, we choose three lawn substitutes that met these requirements.

Pacific beach strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis (L.) Mill. ssp. pacifica Staudt

The beach strawberry is a native California species. It is a perennial that grows 4-8" high with dark green leaves and produces small ornamental strawberries in the fall. It is one of the plants chosen for the roof of the California Academy of Sciences building in San Francisco, and is recommended by the BAWSCA, Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency.

Beach strawberry is propagated from runners and is not readily available as seed. It will grow in full or half sun or shade.

Blue Star Creeper Isotoma, Laurentia fluviatilis

This dense, low-growing, bright green plant blooms in late spring and summer with tiny, star-shaped pale blue flowers. The BAWSCA recommends it as a good alternative ground cover and is a nice choice between paving stones or in rock gardens. It does well in full or half sun or shade.

Native Ornamental Fine Fescue Mix (no-mow grass)

No-mow grasses are of increasing interest because they require less water, little maintenance, and little or no chemical use.  These eco-friendly fescues also reduce the effects of pollution and trap windblown allergens. There are many no-mow mixes available in the market.

We choose a mix recently used on the grounds at Montalvo Arts Center. The mix, from Pacific Coast Seed in Livermore, includes

42% Festuca rubra, Molate Blue Fescue
28%  Festuca occidentalis, Western Fescue
38%  Festuca idahoensis, Idaho Fescue
2% inert / other

Methodology

Planting the beach strawberry
Planting the beach strawberry
Planting the blue star creeper
Planting the blue star creeper
Planting the fescue mix
Planting the fescue mix











In March, we planted 35 seedlings of Pacific beach strawberry, 23 seedlings of blue star creeper, and the fescue mix seed.[1] We covered the fescue with hardware cloth to protect it from the birds. The drip watering system was set initially for 10 minutes 3 times a week to get them off to a good start.

Results

Overall, all three ground covers did well. In mid-August, our irrigation system needed repairs, so we decided to go to once a week hand watering for the ground covers. With considerably less water, the plants continued to thrive.

Beach Strawberry

Beach Strawberry
Beach Strawberry
The results overall were excellent. By mid-August, the beach strawberry had covered the bed and spread over the initial bare areas. The foliage was green and healthy with many runners. Small white flowers will bloom in the spring, followed by red edible – but not tasty – berries.

Blue Star Creeper
After the gopher attack – early March
After the gopher attack – early March
Recovery after the gopher attack – late March
Recovery after the gopher attack – late March
During the first few weeks of growth, a gopher attacked the Blue Star Creeper and ate huge chunks of the plants, leaving craters and bare earth in its wake. After the attack, we put hardware cloth over the plants to protect them. To our amazement, the gopher moved on the other temptations, and the remaining plants were sufficient to robustly regrow and spread over the craters and bare spots. The hardware cloth effectively deterred the gophers.


Blue Star Creeper, mid-August
Blue Star Creeper, mid-August



Fescue mix
Fescue
Fescue
The seeds sprouted and the grass flourished. We did not cut the grass during the trial resulting in a lush green carpet suitable for many garden or yard landscapes.

Conclusion

All three ground covers substitutes performed well in the coastal climate.

Beach strawberry proved to be a hardy and attractive ground cover. One can walk on it easily without damage; however it is not smooth enough for lawn games or children’s play. It can be cut back or mowed in early spring to encourage new growth.

Blue star creeper can be a successful a lawn substitute. It is attractive, rugged, withstands some foot traffic, and requires less water than a lawn—although it is not drought tolerant. If you are in gopher country, it may be a problem. And how many lawns are adorned with a pale blue flower during most of the season up to frost?

No-mow fescue is a good lawn substitute for areas that are primarily for landscaping and not used for recreation.  This natural lawn does not need mowing or chemicals, requires less water than traditional lawns, and provides a visually satisfying natural turf.

Trial bed with Beach Strawberry (top), Blue Star Creeper (middle) and Fescue Mix (bottom) – mid-August
Trial bed with Beach Strawberry (top), Blue Star Creeper (middle) and Fescue Mix (bottom) – mid-August

 
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