Alternatives to grass in an outlawn

'Cuz we don't want to mow that parking strip!

A short question nets a detailed design and more:

 

• We start right here with the situation, then
 An answering design
 Special considerations for parking strip design  • Adapting across zone lines
 Choosing and re-choosing  plants
• Practical soil prep and planting in an outlawn

 

I bought a home on a corner lot, so it came with two long, useless strips of lawn between the sidewalk and the road. It doesn't make sense to mow out there, there's already enough lawn to cut. They are also awkward to mow. Each one is 4' x 80', interrupted by trees, with a curb the mower can fall off of. What else can I plant there? I'm in Savannah, Georgia. - D.S. -

Public strip, park strip, parking strip, hell strip, sidewalk strip, tree lawn, parkway, median, right of way, outlawn -- people call it many names, which all sound the same when
muttered by a disgruntled mower/edger.

It's exciting to buy a house but a drag to discover that tedium lurks in the yardwork. Here's a smart design to make the mowing merrier.

It's exciting to buy a house but a drag to discover that tedium lurks in the yardwork. Here's a smart design to make the mowing merrier.

Right: What's Coming Up 144 has designs, how-to's and plant lists for alternative lawns. However, lawnlessness in the public strip raises unique considerations we'll address here. Between this article and What's Coming Up 144 (pdf) you can cover the whole front yard with other-than-lawn.

Notice in the aerial photo of this property (based on a Google Map; thank you Google!) or any scale drawing, that the outlawns are such a narrow border that they're almost insignificant compared to the rest of the property. So don't expect what you plant there to star in your landscape. Handle those areas simply and move on to the bigger spaces.

 


We prefer to think of gardeners whistling as they work. So here's a design idea for you, showing plants and initial plant placement. It's a big project that can be taken in stages, starting with the corner highlighted in violet.

 

Above, left: To be effective, a groundcover must be so vigorous that it's dense enough to prevent weeds from getting a foothold.  Here, Japanese Pachysandra (P. terminalis) and a 'Calgary Carpet' juniper combine forces to cover ground. In our design combinations we give each plant "initial" placement, distinguishing that from eventual location. We place them where we think the environment is right but expect and rely on our chosen mix to mingle and move until each occupies spots best for its species.

Above, right: In this bed the juniper once dominated. As the trees in the bed have grown, shade-loving pachysandra has asserted itself. Lately we've been giving the juniper a helping hand, removing pachysandra that crowds it. Eventually, we'll let the pachysandra win.

Above, left: Sedum 'Angelina' to the left of the bench, myrtle (Vinca minor) to the right, and behind, one 'Calgary Carpet' juniper.
Right: We filled the sidewalk-crossed corner of this no-lawn lot with three of the ground-hugging juniper, 'Blue Rug' (
Juniperus horizontalis 'Wiltonii'). Sedum acre (blooming yellow) has followed the blue arrow, jumping across to fill any opening in the juniper.

Please note that junipers are BIG plants...

...in the four-foot wide parking strip we address in this design, pruning will eventually be necessary. When you do that pruning don't simply clip the tips when they reach the pavement. That kind of cut turns the edge into a thick mat of brown twigs. To keep it feathery and healthy, prune to thin that juniper's leading edge.

What do the other plants look like?

We'd love to give you pictures of every one and will eventually post them here or forge links to hop from a plant name to other places where we have their photos. (For instance, creeping St. Johnswort.) For now, today we can't do it. We need to hop to it, as we've already missed our weekly deadline.) (Sponsor us and we can advance the cycle! Learn more!)

Choosing and re-choosing plants

Even after you take plant recommendations such as these and look at the plants in a plant encyclopedia or on-line, go see them growing before you buy. Go to local public gardens, a botanical garden or a garden center with display beds. Be sure you like it before you turn it loose to become a groundcover in your yard. By their nature, groundcovers are aggressive spreaders. Should you decide you don't like one after it has become established, removing it can be a drawn-out trial.
Other possibilities for this property:

Sunny spots:

Wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) Z 5-8

Rupturewort (Herniaria glabra) Z 4-10

Iceplant, spring-blooming (Delosperma nubegina) Z 6-9


Shaded areas:

Redstem stork's bill (Erodium reichardii) Z 7-9
Dwarf cranesbill (Geranium x cantabrigiense) Z 5-10
Golden coins (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea') Z 5-9

Crested wood iris (Iris cristata) Z 5-8

Pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia) Z 5-9


Right: To decide what will work for you and in a particular spot, go on garden walks, stroll your own neighborhood and visit local public gardens to see the plants growing. That's Ajuga 'Bronze Beauty' in the foreground. Way in the background where Janet's kneeling to weed this alternative lawn, the very flat
light green plant is wooly thyme (
Thymus pseudolanuginosus).
It's a sun lover that could not hold its own in the shaded end where the ajuga reigns.

Below: Many of the plants on this list and in the design are here in this no-lawn, hardiness zone 5 lot we designed and helped the owner tend. In the foreground, cheddar pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus) bloom. Behind the pinks, on the left,  darker purple catmint (Nepeta x mussinii) is in flower. Just beyond the trunk of the locust is a landing paved with flagstone, with spaces between stones occupied by wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and Sedum acre.

How to plant an outlawn

1) Look around to be sure there's precedent for lawnlessness in local parking strips, or check your community ordinances before removing the grass there.

Some communities require that an outlawn be planted with turf, or kept to a certain height.

Although we gardeners know that these spaces can be effectively planted with no-mow, inoffensive species that bear up to some foot traffic and stay out of the public's way, that knowledge isn't worth a dime if a law says "Thou shalt have grass." No sense court trouble in the form of a code violation.

Above, right: To effectively smother grass along a curb or pavement in preparation for planting alternative groundcovers, use a spade (a "shovel" with a rectangular
blade) to cut along both edges (follow the blue lines in this photo of D.S.' public strip).
Trench along each edge by lifting out that sod. You can dispose of sod in a compost, as yard waste, or spread it on the lawn in the center of the strip, there to die under
newspaper and thick mulch.

If you leave that edge "as is," greenery will be left peeking out from under the edge of the newspaper and mulch. That plant won't die!

2) Next, remove or kill the lawn. Although we often opt to save labor by smothering existing vegetation over time, that's not the best solution if the beds are elevated. (D.S., your strips do look high!)

Over years, ground level in sod can become higher than adjacent surfaces as organic matter accumulates between and under the grass plants.

If we kill the grass in an elevated area and don't dig to change the grade, we end up planting into a mound. Irrigation water tends to run off a mound rather than soak in, so new plants have a hard time getting established. In addition, mulch will tend to slide down the slope onto the walk where it will demand sweeping.

 

So we remove the sod to lower and level the bed. That gives new plants a fair shot at irrigation water and leaves room for mulch, too.

In a previous photo,  you saw a public strip where we removed the sod and then removed even more soil. Our aim was to stop all run-off from the sidewalk . The owner said, "I do not want water that falls here to run off into the gutter and end up muddying the river or adding to a water treatment plant's load." (Note: In lowering those public strips we made the conscious decision to contradict our normal salt-protection measures and accept some road salt damage, since spray from the road accumulates in such low areas.)

3) Be flexible. You may not be able to dig everywhere so a combination approach may be necessary. Smother where tree roots prevent digging and then let those spots be gradually colonized by groundcovers spreading from dug-out areas.

4) Place paving- or step- stones where pedestrians are likely to cross this strip or alight from parked cars.

5) Plant, mulch and enjoy your mow-less strips.

Left:We've red-lined space to be smothered, not dug, and outlined future landing strips in orange.  (The soil level in this parking strip is elevated; the bed has to be lowered before planting.)

Some special considerations for designing in an outlawn

Here are nine things specific to public strips that we thought about in making this design:

  1. Plant nothing hurtful. It's a public strip. Have a care for young kids whose feet or hands might stray, or who might topple off the walk while learning to ride a two-wheeler.
  2. Pedestrians must be able to see cars and vice versa. Use very low plants. If you want height in one or two spots because you want a bit of drama, use an herbaceous plant that is only seasonally tall and is cut to the ground to start over each year. (Everything in this design is either a groundhugger or can be whacked back to the ground each year in late winter or early spring to keep it at its lowest and neatest.)
  3. Don't be stingy or silly regarding foot traffic. Paths should not be planted and if they're accurately placed they become your easiest spots to tend. Mark where feet cut corners and alight from parked cars. You can guess cars' location, as we did here. You can be more precise by moving a car into spaces along the street then laying out a passenger-side landing areas.
  4. Plant very low groundcovers near landings so plants can fill spaces between the stones.
  5. Where cars will park, do not raise the bed or install any hard structure that sits above the grade. It will block the opening of low cars' doors.
  6. To keep foot traffic out of an area, warn people away by using plants that are safe yet have a mean face. For instance, in a region where agaves/century plants or cacti can be grown outdoors, people learn to avoid them because of their spininess. Those people may also steer clear of yuccas or aloes -- spineless but reminiscent of the more dangerous  plants.
  7. Don't hurt the street trees. Create large, mulch-only areas around each and don't plan to dig and plant there. Don't stack mulch against trees' trunks. Set paving stones on leveled soil rather than using anything that requires an excavation to establish a base of slag, gravel or sand. If groundcovers work their way into those spaces over time, that's okay.
  8. Repeat elements and patterns in the parking strip that appear elsewhere in your landscape. If beds nearer the house feature mondo grass (Ophiopogon), ajuga and hosta, it's visually pleasing to use those plants somewhere in the public strip, too. If your larger areas are laid out asymmetrically, continue that balance in the parking strip. Pick up the home's brick tones or accent color in plant foliage, and you visually "lay claim" to the outlying beds.
  9. Do not turn tree trunks into focal points unless it serves a purpose. Ring a tree trunk with distinctive plants or call attention to it in other ways only if the trunk, its placement or both are visually pleasing and deserving of a spotlight. In this design we've figured for asymmetry and we've avoided regular, rhythmic outlines around the tree trunks.

 

Adapting across zone lines

Do we, as cool Northerners, envy a gardener in Savannah, Georgia for being in USDA hardiness zone 8b, average minimum winter temperature 15°F? Or do we feel pity, since that area's in AHS (American Horticultural Society) heat zone 8 with 90-120 days over 86°F each year? (That's 2 to 3 times more hot days as we usually have on our home ground.)

Neither. We work in a number of regions and know that every one has its pros and cons. So we simply adjust our plant choices and planting dates, then enjoy the result.

Southeast Michiganders and those on Georgia's northeast coast have a surprising number of plant choices in common. If you are in a colder zone than D.S. but would like to accomplish the same look and function, use this design but pay heed to the plant substitutions list included on the design.