Grass is an expensive groundcover. Many homeowners love the calming look of a broad green carpet welcoming them home from work, but to keep their lawns looking their best, they turn to cartloads of chemical fertilizers, herbicides to control weeds, and pesticides to control the grubs and insects that try to coexist in the landscape.
This level of consumption comes with serious costs, both financial and environmental. Turf lawns individually consume 10,000 gallons of water each year, on average, on top of the rainfall they receive. Unprecedented droughts and the water restrictions that often accompany them make maintaining a large turf lawn impractical and irresponsible. Expensive chemical herbicides and pesticides, whether applied by the homeowner or by a contracted landscape service, are thought to contribute to honeybee colony collapse disorder, which will have huge impacts on food availability and food prices if it isn’t curbed.
Why not try a more sustainable and innovative approach to landscaping this summer? Replace a portion of your lawn with attractive edible groundcovers and shrubs. You’ll have less mowing, more leisure time, and home-grown herbs and berries to enjoy.
Blueberries can be grown throughout much of the United States. In the South or on the west coast, try rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) like ‘Climax’ or ‘Premier’ or Southern highbush varieties like ‘Blue Ridge’ and ‘Legacy.’ In the northeast, lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) perform best, and in the Midwest and Pacific northwest, northern highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum; try ‘Bluegold,’ ‘Duke,’ and ‘Elizabeth’) can provide attractive groundcover and fresh fruit for summertime desserts. Blueberries need acidic soil (contact your county extension service to test your soil’s pH and get advice on correct soil amendments), regular water, and sun to produce the best fruit, although they will produce fruit in partial shade. The leaves turn beautiful shades of scarlet and crimson in the fall.
Blueberry leaves covered in frost
What will grow in the acid soil beneath blueberries? Lingonberries. Hardy in Zones 2-8, lingonberries are a low-growing evergreen shrub related to blueberries and cranberries. They require the same acidic soil as their blueberry brethren, and lingonberries benefit from some shade in hot weather. Plant these low-growing shrubs at the same time as your blueberries, taking care to be gentle with both plants’ brittle roots. Depending on the variety, lingonberries may provide one or two crops per year, typically once in late summer and again in winter. They’re delicious in pancakes, or made into jam or sauces.
If your climate tends more to the hot, dry, sunny side, replace part of your lawn with low-growing thyme (Thymus sp.). This Mediterranean herb likes full sun, excellent drainage, and low water. Bees and other pollinators love the nectar from thyme flowers, and thymol, a natural compound extracted from thyme, has antimicrobial properties and helps control parasitic mites that stress honeybee populations. Thymus serphyllum, creeping thyme, grows 6 to 12 inches tall and will spread to 1 to 3 feet wide (depending on the cultivar), providing a tough, low-maintenance groundcover. Thymus serphyllum ‘Annie Hall’ is covered by tiny pinkish-lavender flowers. ‘Pink Ripple’ also has pale pink flowers and a lemon scent to the foliage. Culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris), has a more upright habit, but you can keep it compact by shearing off handfuls to use in soups, sauces, salads, marinades, and to flavor meats and seafood on the grill. Variety ‘Silver Queen’ has attractive white edges to the petals. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) is also edible, and has (not surprisingly) a bright lemony taste.
Slightly larger than thyme, but similar in appearance, winter savory (Satureja montana) is another herb that provides great groundcover and requires little input from the gardener. It grows 15 inches tall and wide, but harvesting the stems and leaves keeps the plant compact and thick. Like thyme, it appreciates full sun and well drained soil. It is hardy to Zone 6.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an underused annual herb that tastes faintly of citrus. Its fleshy leaves are rich in Vitamin C and omega 3 fatty acids. Popular in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, it spreads rapidly by seed, which can be good or bad depending on your landscape goals. You may wish to grow it in a container for a year to see how you like it, before planting it out in the landscape. Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge (Euphorbia chamaesyce, prostrate spurge, or Euphorbia maculata, syn. Chamaesyce maculata, spotted spurge), which can irritate skin and eyes and can be poisonous. Buy purslane seeds or plants from a reputable nursery and try the fresh new growth in salads–there are lots of recipes online. If you keep backyard chickens, you can share it with them; you’ll have plenty.
Try replacing a portion of your resource-hungry lawn with these easy edible ground covers. Your wallet and your wildlife neighbors (not to mention your dinner plate) will be glad you did.