Some of the easiest ways to reduce lawn area involve enlarging existing beds, merging several small beds into larger islands, and cutting off slopes and corners that are difficult to mow. It will make the lawn you keep easier and faster to manage without a major redesign project. This process can be done in stages, to make it easier on the gardener’s knees and pocketbook. Fill in the new spaces with low-profile plants to maintain the sense of openness that the lawn used to provide. Choose your plant palette to suit your growing conditions.
In the Full Blazing Sun
Sedum is always a wonderful choice for full sun. I suggest the new mat-forming cultivar Sedum spurium ‘John Creech,’ named in honor of our late colleague, retired director of the National Arboretum and inspiration for the North Carolina Arboretum. With free-blooming pink flowers and fleshy scalloped leaves, this plant will grow in impossibly hot, dry locations. Another great sedum is S. tetractinum ‘Coral Reef.’ Ours got started from a hitchhiking cutting carried in by accident. It was a happy mistake, as I love the coin-shaped, red tinged leaves.
A great blender for summer color is the new pink yarrow, Achillea millefolium ‘Pink Grapefruit,’ a soft, wonderful compact mound with delightful shades of rose pink. ‘Strawberry Seduction’ is a delicious paprika-red yarrow cultivar that will put fireworks in your front border. Tough and drought resistant, all of these Achilleas are good for cut flowers and as butterfly attractors. Lotus berthelotii, parrot’s beak, has fabulous orange red flowers on ferny silver foliage.
Julie weighs in strongly against the groundcover junipers; she has had some real pest and disease difficulties and prefers other, more interesting plants.
Spreaders and Steppers
There has been a recent marketing campaign for ‘stepables’ or plants that can be walked on. This program has taken many old favorites and added some newer varieties to make a palette of plants for paths and walkways. Most of them are less than 2 inches tall and will take moderate foot traffic.
In one of my earliest gardens, I started seeds of creeping thyme in the cracks of my new dry-laid brick walk. Wrong pick! Instead of a tiny, green, crack filler, I had rowdy 8-inch-high shrublets. It taught me the value of cultivar selection, and today, I would choose the true creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’). Woolly thyme (T. pseudolanuginosis) makes a wonderful silver-gray lawn. A little taller is lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus ‘Silver Queen’), a perky silver-edged form that is also great for cooking.
There are oodles of other great choices for very low bedding. Here is a starter list:
• Sagina subulata ‘aurea,’ golden Scotch moss, is a wonderful chartreuse spreader that needs a half-day of shade in St. Louis to be really happy.
• Dianthus petraeus spp. noeanus, fragrant snowflake garden pink, is a mid-summer bloomer with feathery snow white flowers that dance on wire-like stems.
• Isotoma axillaris, blue star creeper, a 5-Star Plant of Merit®, is a tender perennial that we usually grow as an annual.
• Mazus reptans, with purple flowers, and M. reptans ‘alba’, the white form, are special little native plants. This tiny Plant of Merit creeper fills in nicely around flagstones and in small beds, sun or shade.
Happy in High Shade
If you live in sunny Ladue, where deer are not a huge problem, you can indulge your true ‘Hostafarian’ nature. We have a great assortment of these lovely, colorful, lush shade-loving specimens in the Garden’s hosta collection just north of the Spink Pavilion. You can access a cultivar list on the Kemper Plant Finder search. Unfortunately, in West County, the deer graze them off just like spring asparagus and I’ve given up replacing them. Instead, I’m planning to use dwarf Chinese Astilbe, Japanese painted fern and Pachysandra ‘Green Sheen’ in my Asian-style courtyard garden.
For my hillside garden, I’m taking cues from Mother Nature. The native Heuchera pops out of the nooks and crannies of the limestone outcroppings in West County, happy with the high pH and excellent drainage this site affords.
For the Muddy Boots Set
There are a few wonderful mud lovers that can add interest to the low spots in your garden. I’m a big fan of dwarf sedges of the genus Carex. There are a number to choose from on the Kemper list, all satisfactory garden plants. Lysimachia nummularia ‘aurea,‘ the golden creeping Jenny, is a vigorous spreader that transitions well between wet and dry. Perfect for slopes and to drip over retaining walls, this golden girl is a bit rambunctious, and is best used in the back.
Invasive plants to shy away from
We have several seriously invasive groundcover plants in our area. A big problem in Ladue, especially along Deer Creek, is wintercreeper, Euonymus fortunei and its cultivars. Some others are goutweed, knotweed, ivy and periwinkle (Vinca major). These pesky plants out-compete the native flora and reduce biodiversity. If you have them, please consider removing them.
The Icing on the Cake
If you are serious about converting large plots of lawn to flat beds, take it on in small sections of a master plan. The cost per square foot to purchase and install enough plants and mulch to make an impact can be steep. New beds will initially require more time for maintenance as weeds will spring up in the loose soil around fresh plantings. Using a regular pre-emergent herbicide, like a crabgrass controller, will reduce the need for weeding somewhat. Once established, the number of labor hours per square foot per year will be lower than that of lawn.