Low Growing Natives for Lawn Replacement

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

I recently listened to a talk by Lorraine Johnson who is the former president of the North American Native Plant Society and is the author of numerous books on gardening and environmental issues. I was inspired by her talk and have started plans to turn part of my front lawn into a native garden.

I have struggled for years to grow grass near the bottom of our front yard.  The soil is mostly clay with a lot of rock.  We have no sidewalks and this part of the lawn sits at the curbside where it could be affected in the winter by salt and sand.  It faces north/west and receives a very hot sun, especially in the afternoon.

I am not a regional native plant purist.  I get excited about most plants and have a variety of perennials in my gardens.  I am hoping to fill this garden bed with as many native plants as possible, but I do recognize that some of the plant varieties are not always considered native.

There are a number of lovely native plants for sun that have height, but I am cognizant of the fact that my neighbour requires a safe line of sight to the street when they come down their driveway.  For this reason I would like to use mostly low growing groundcover with a few taller plants positioned in areas that will give a pleasing look to the garden bed, but also not impede on visibility.

I have begun to research native groundcovers and other low growing plants that would survive in the conditions I’ve described and here is what I have found so far.  Some of these are new to me, but others are plants I already have in my backyard.

Have you considered replacing part of your lawn?  I would love to hear about your ideas and your successes and failures.

Bearberry (Kinnikinnick) Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

This plant grows 6 to 8” tall and has a spread of approximately 3 feet and is similar to a low growing shrub.  It has a white bloom with a tinge of pink in May.  It’s drought tolerant once it’s established. Rounded berry-like fruits ripen in August to September.  Birds love the fruit!  I have a friend who has found that this plant will disappear over time and because it prefers a sandier soil, it may not be the perfect plant for my home.  However, I may give it a try as I occasionally enjoy pushing the limits.

Creeping Juniper, Juniper horizontalis ‘Wiltonii’

This plant is known to be salt tolerant, likes sandy soil and full sun, grows to a height of 8” and spreads to approximately 7 ft.  It is a non-flowering evergreen.  It spreads by long trailing branches. Foliage is primarily scale-like (adult) with some awl/needle-like (juvenile) needles appearing usually in opposite pairs. Foliage is typically green to blue-green during the growing season, but often acquires purple tones in winter. It likes to grow over rocks; however, it is a slow grower and takes some time to get established. 

Prairie Smoke, Geum triflorum

Prairie Smoke; Author’s garden

This is a tough plant, and grows to about 6 – 12 inches.  It has a lovely reddish pink to purple bloom with interesting seed heads.  It is drought tolerant.  My one concern is the hot afternoon sun, as my research shows it may prefer a bit of shade later in the day.  As the flower fades and the seeds begin to form, the styles elongate (to 2″ long) to form upright, feathery gray tails which collectively resemble a plume or feather duster.  They are very unique.  It spreads by rhizomes and can be naturalized to form an interesting groundcover.

Small Pussytoes, Antennaria howelli

It has spoon-shaped basal leaves, is known to be drought tolerant, and has flower heads that look like little shaving brushes.  There are three to 15 flower heads in a flat to rounded cluster at the top of the stem. Stems are erect, green to reddish, covered in long, white, matted hairs and sometimes glandular hairs. Horizontal, above ground stems (stolons) emerge from basal leaf clumps, spreading in all directions, rooting at the nodes and forming colonies.

Pasque Flower, Anemone patens or sometimes Pulsatilla vulgaris

Pasque Flower; Author’s garden

Pasque flower grows up to 12 inches tall and forms a rounded clump, which increases yearly. It never gets out of hand, making it a desirable plant.  It carries one flower with purple petals and yellow stamens, on top of each stem.  The bloom is quite large, up to 2 inches in relation to the overall size of the plant.  It is not fussy about soil conditions, but may go dormant during drought.  It blooms in late spring into summer.

Nodding Wild Onion, Allium cernuum

My research shows this is a very pretty plant that grows to a height of 1 to 2 feet.  It blooms in mid-summer.  Its grass-like ribbony leaves are long and graceful; its flower cluster hangs down, covered with a fine onion-skin-like sheath before opening.  The blooms in mid-summer are whitish rose coloured and bell-shaped.  The seed heads are round.  It does prefer good drainage.  Looks best when planted in groups.

Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

Butterfly Weed with Zinnias; Author’s garden

This is a butterfly magnet that has clusters of orange flowers borne at the top of 2-to-3-foot stems.  It is probably a little larger than I would like, but thought I might give it a try in the front.  This image is from my garden 3 years ago.  I lost the plant the next year and believe it was because of overcrowding and not enough sun.  The leaves are narrow and dark green.  The plants get bushy if they have lots of room.  The seed pods are large and very striking.  They bloom in mid-summer and prefer a full sun exposure.  Once established, they are drought tolerant.  It emerges from the soil quite late in spring, so it is important to be careful not to disturb the roots.

Check out the following nurseries for native plants

Native Plants in Claremont – https://www.nativeplants.ca/

John’s Garden in Uxbridge – https://johnsgarden.wordpress.com/about/

Grow Wild in Omemee – http://www.nativeplantnursery.ca/

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