by David Salman

Groundcovers on sloping yard in La Jolla, CA
Islands of taller plants in the groundcovers providing additional beauty and interest in this La Jolla, CA yard.

Inspiration For Replacing Lawns in the Intermountain West

California, which has been suffering the effects of prolonged drought for the past 4 to 5 years, has a huge palette of non-cold hardy waterwise plants that they use to create xeric landscapes. Those of us in the rest of the western US should look at their landscapes as inspiration and borrow their designs and design elements using plants suitable for colder regions, such as the Intermountain West.

Say No to Gravel and Yes to Groundcovers

Front and side yard lawns are the most obvious component of many yards that can be replaced when converting a conventional landscape to a xeric (waterwise) one. These lawns are used simply as green groundcovers because their value as foot traffic tolerant turf goes unused. So why not use low care, low water groundcovers instead? The amount of work and expense that goes into mowing, fertilizing and watering a lawn will be greatly reduced. And groundcovers provide beautiful flowers that grass doesn't.

Most commonly, homeowners will chose gravel to replace the lawn. But gravel is:

  • Ugly and creates uncomfortable visual glare.
  • Has no value as habitat for pollinators and songbirds.
  • Increases the need for home air conditioning as the gravel absorbs heat and the cooling effects of the lawn is gone.
  • Often results in the loss of valuable shade trees when the irrigation water once used on the lawn has stopped.
  • Extensive use of gravel and other hardscapes that absorb heat, contribute to the bigger problem of urban environmental heating (the "urban heat island" effect).

However, areas of gravel mulch are an excellent environment into which heat tolerant groundcovers can be planted. And we have a plethora of cold hardy groundcovers from which to choose as you'll see below.

Ice_plant_groundcover_side_yard_La_Jolla
Evergreen Ice plant with a fabulous display of late spring flowers to come.

Techniques for Replanting Groundcovers

  • When replanting into gravel or replacing the sod directly with groundcovers, leave the old sprinkler system in place. Sprinklers are the best way to irrigate big areas planted with groundcovers. This saves the expense and effort of putting in a new drip system. And you'll be using the sprinklers much less often once the groundcovers are established.
  • Use a variety of groundcovers species to improve the habitat value and visual beauty of your landscape. Or plant only one type of groundcover if the uniform look of your old lawn is desirable, and you want to duplicate it in a much more water efficient way. With either choice, most groundcovers can be planted on 15-18" by 15-18" centers and will generally fill in by the end of the first growing season.
  • When planting multiple species or varieties, group them in "drifts" (large patches of the same plant) to maximize visual interest.
  • It is a nice design element to plant islands of taller growing ornamental grasses and flowering perennials into the groundcovers to give your ex-lawn a less flat, and more visually interesting look to your front yard. Create patches of natural nectar to attract hummingbirds or fruit bearing shrubs to attract songbirds.
  • Place some stepping stones or flagstone pieces to create walkways across the groundcovers. But first, observe where you've been walking previously so to minimize the wear and tear on your new groundcovers.
  • Soil preparation is important, especially when replacing old lawns where the soil has been worn out and compacted. Dig individual holes for each plant and enrich the soil with Yum Yum Mix and compost. Or spread compost and Yum Yum Mix over the whole area and rototill it in to facilitate the groundcovers to root more readily as they grow out across the soil.
  • Use corn gluten as a natural pre-emergent herbicide to reduce weeds while the groundcovers are filling in.
La Jolla succulent groundcover.
A no mow succulent duplicates the look of grass with very little care and water needed.

Groundcovers for Colder Climates

Groundcovers for Sun and Part Sun

Part Sun and Shade

© All articles are copyrighted by High Country Gardens. Republishing an entire High Country Gardens blog post or article is prohibited without written permission. Please feel free to share a short excerpt with a link back to the article on social media websites, such as Facebook and Pinterest.

  1. Thymus Pink Chintz, Pink Chintz Creeping Thyme

    1" tall x 18" wide. Pink Chintz Thyme (Thymus Pink Chintz) is a tight, low growing creeping thyme with thick stems of woolly green foliage that blooms in mid-spring with a profusion ...

    Learn More
    Pink Chintz Creeping Thyme Pink Chintz Creeping Thyme Thymus serpyllum Pink Chintz
    As low as $7.99 Sale $6.79
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    1" tall x 18" wide. Pink Chintz Thyme (Thymus Pink Chintz) is a tight, low growing creeping thyme with thick stems of woolly green foliage that blooms in mid-spring with a profusion of salmon-pink flowers.
  2. Orange Zauschneria garrettii Orange Carpet, Zauschneria garrettii Orange Carpet, Creeping Hummingbird Trumpet

    2001 Plant Select Winner 4-6" tall x 15-18" wide. Orange Carpet® is a vigorous perennial groundcover that blooms in mid- to late summer with a profusion of bright orange trumpet ...

    Learn More
    Orange Carpet® Creeping Hummingbird Trumpet (Zauschneria) Creeping Hummingbird Trumpet Orange Carpet® (Fire Chalice) Zauschneria garrettii Orange Carpet®
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $10.99 Sale $9.89
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    2001 Plant Select Winner 4-6" tall x 15-18" wide. Orange Carpet® is a vigorous perennial groundcover that blooms in mid- to late summer with a profusion of bright orange trumpet shaped flowers. Spreading with underground stems, this beauty is perfect for slopes and cascading over the edges of raised beds.
  3. Limiam White Nancy, Dead Nettle flower close up

    White Nancy is an outstanding Old World groundcover for shade and semi-shade. Blooming much of the summer with bright white flower helod over green and white variegated foliage, this...

    Learn More
    White Nancy Lamium White Nancy Deadnettle Lamium maculatum White Nancy
    As low as $7.99
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    White Nancy is an outstanding Old World groundcover for shade and semi-shade. Blooming much of the summer with bright white flower helod over green and white variegated foliage, this long lived groundcover is the best.
  4. Artemisia versicolor Seafoam, Photo Courtesy of Plant Select

    Seafoam is grown for its curlicue silver foliage and low, mounding habit. Useful as a small scall groundcover, the plant is an excellent companion for other tall perennials with gree...

    Learn More
    Seafoam Artemisia Seafoam Curlicue Sage Artemisia versicolor Seafoam
    As low as $10.99 Sale $9.34
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Seafoam is grown for its curlicue silver foliage and low, mounding habit. Useful as a small scall groundcover, the plant is an excellent companion for other tall perennials with green or blue foliage. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric). Introduced into cultivation in the US by Lauren Springer Ogden.