Are Ground Cover Lawns Better Than Grass?

Thinking about ditching the grass for a more earth-friendly alternative? Want to know a little more about the benefits and drawbacks of installing a ground-cover lawn? In this article, certified master gardener Liz Jaros looks at the pros and cons of replacing a traditional turf lawn with perennial plants and spotlights a few of your best options.

ground cover lawn or grass. Close-up of ground cover lawn of Trifolium repens in the garden. Trifolium repens, commonly known as White Clover, is a low-growing perennial plant that features trifoliate leaves arranged alternately along creeping stems that root at the nodes. Each leaflet is heart-shaped and has a smooth texture with a pale green coloration. The plant produces round, white to pale pink, globe-like flower heads that sit atop slender stems.


Homeowners have been battling the elements for decades to achieve lush, green, perfectly manicured turf grass lawns. For many of us, it’s been an expensive and environmentally unfriendly fight as we throw good dollars after bad at irrigation, weed suppression, and maintenance.

Frustrated, cost-conscious, and craving sustainability, property owners and landscape designers are looking for something different. There is increasing interest in replacing turf grass lawns with compact, low-growing plants that hit the same notes as traditional grass. All things considered, we’re wondering if ground cover might be a better alternative for our particular needs.

If replacing a grass lawn with ground cover is something you’ve been considering, you’ve come to the right place. Read on for a list of the pros and cons of installing a ground cover lawn, plus a rundown of the most popular plants for the job.


Depending on your particular needs and wants, there are many advantages to choosing ground cover over traditional grass lawns. It’s generally considered the most efficient option and typically reduces your negative impact on the ecosystem. It’s also easier on the pocketbook in the long run. Let’s look at the key benefits of installing an alternative lawn

Water Conservation

Close-up of a flowering Creeping Phlox plant (Phlox subulata) with water drops. The plant forms dense, low mats with evergreen needle-like foliage that hugs the ground. The flowers are bright purple and star-shaped.
Ground cover lawns, tailored to soil conditions and hardiness zones, require minimal watering.

A lush green lawn does not happen without intervention from either man or nature. It requires an abundance of water, either from the sky or from supplemental irrigation. Grass lawns in regions with above-average rainfall may not need quite as much attention as those that experience intense drought or heat. However, a healthy lawn guzzles water like it’s going out of style, and property owners must be prepared to quench this thirst.

We might install sprinkler systems or devote an hour each morning to wetting the lawn with a hose. We might also use rainwater captivation techniques or redirect roof drainage, but we’re always going to be thinking about water. 

Ground cover lawns, on the other hand, are far less taxing on the local water supply and significantly less vulnerable to precipitation levels. When soil conditions and hardiness zone are factored into choosing the right ground cover plant for the site, supplemental watering needs are typically minimal to nonexistent. This is especially true when native ground cover is utilized.

Reduced Maintenance 

Close-up of a Bugleweed plant in flower. Bugleweed (Ajuga) is a ground-hugging perennial known for its attractive and dense carpet-like growth. The plant features rosettes of glossy, oval to oblong leaves that can range in color from deep green to bronze. Ajuga produces spikes of small, tubular flowers that rise above the foliage. The flower spikes are a bright purple-blue color.
Alternative lawns require minimal maintenance, reducing the need for mowing, dethatching, and chemical applications.

In addition to irrigation, traditional grass lawns require mowing, aerating, overseeding, dethatching, and weed control. Anyone who’s battled dandelions, clover, or creeping Charlie will tell you how much time, aggravation, and money a turf lawn can suck from your summer. Chemical weed applications, fertilizer, and gas mowers also have major negative impacts on local ecosystems. This has prompted many of us to ditch the green grass for a more responsible alternative.   

When properly selected and installed, ground cover plants can reduce these maintenance requirements significantly. A dense carpet of ground cover, such as creeping Jenny or ajuga, will maintain soil moisture and keep roots cool. It will also prevent many weed seeds from seeing the light of day, reducing or eliminating chemical weed control. 

With ground-cover lawns, homeowners can ditch the mower and dethatcher entirely. They can also fertilize significantly less (if at all) and opt for organic materials rather than harsh systemic killers. Other than season-ending cutbacks and some occasional thinning, maintenance demands on a ground-cover lawn will be minimal. 

Erosion Control

Close-up of a freshly planted Vinca periwinkle plant in the garden. Vinca, commonly known as periwinkle or myrtle, is a low-growing, trailing evergreen ground cover. Its glossy, lance-shaped leaves are arranged oppositely along the stems, and they have a dark green hue. The plant produces an abundance of small, five-petaled flowers of a blue-purple hue.
These low-growing plants have stronger roots to prevent soil erosion better than stressed grass lawns.

When grass is stressed by drought, disease, or inadequate sunlight, it becomes thin, sparse, and fragile. While a thick, healthy lawn can help mitigate erosion from wind and water, a weak lawn often leads to soil loss and terrain change. 

Ground cover plants have stronger, deeper roots and will hold the soil in place better than grass. They are particularly helpful on a slope, and they are not as susceptible to erosion caused by frequent watering or storm runoff. Native ground covers have a symbiotic relationship with the existing soil microbiome as well. This further supports a healthy soil structure.

Soil Improvement

Close-up of a flowering Lobularia plant in a sunny garden. The low-growing mounds of lobed, lance-shaped leaves create a dense carpet of foliage. The plant produces profusion of small, four-petaled flowers that bloom in clusters, forming a fragrant and visually appealing ground cover. The flowers come in white.
Ground cover plants enhance soil by increasing infiltration, aerating, and improving nutrient retention.

Depending on what type of ground cover you’re using, most plants will improve the ground soil in several ways. Since ground cover plants have root systems that are denser and deeper than most short grass roots, they naturally increase soil infiltration. This means water is slowed and efficiently delivered to the soil’s sublayers rather than running quickly off its surface.  

Ground cover also aerates the soil as roots expand and work their way downward. This loosens soil that may be compact or clay-heavy, ultimately decreasing runoff. Plants that decompose cyclically improve the soil’s nutrient retention, keeping nitrogen and phosphorous on the land rather than in the drains. As a bonus, trees and nearby plants will benefit from soil that has been organically improved by ground cover rather than grass.


Close-up of Swallowtail feeding on Creeping Phlox in the garden. The Swallowtail butterfly boasts wings adorned with vibrant patterns and colors. The wings showcase a mix of black, yellow, and blue hues, with intricate markings resembling eyespots and distinctive tails on the hindwings resembling a swallow's tail. Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata) is a low-growing perennial ground cover. The plant forms dense mats of needle-like evergreen foliage, creating a lush carpet. Creeping Phlox bursts into a profusion of small, five-petaled pink flowers.
Traditional grass lawns limit biodiversity, impacting ecosystems and pollinators.

With grass lawns being the standard in most residential neighborhoods, we find ourselves with a monoculture that is limiting to the native flora and fauna. In plain terms, traditional grass lawns are an artificial landscape element that consumes too large a percentage of the earth’s surface and decreases biodiversity. 

A neatly manicured grass lawn that has been sprayed for weeds offers no food source to the bees, butterflies, and birds we need for pollination. It also eliminates or reduces the habitats of many insect and animal species that we count on to balance our ecosystems. 

Since plant selection will vary depending on hardiness zone, site conditions, climate, and personal preference, ground cover lawns return biodiversity to our landscapes. They mitigate the negative effects of neighboring grass lawn monocultures. 

Cost Effective

View of a growing Creeping Thyme ground cover (Thymus praecox) in the garden. This creeping ground cover forms a dense mat of tiny, aromatic, evergreen leaves. It produces clusters of small, tubular flowers of purple color.
Investing in an alternative lawn pays off in long-term savings on maintenance costs.

While grass seed may be cheaper initially, an upfront investment in an alternative lawn pays off in the long run. Depending on what kind of material you choose and how large of an area you need to cover, the start-up costs might be significant. However, they will surely be offset by savings in maintenance over time. 

With a ground cover lawn, the amount of money spent on mowing, fertilizing, dethatching, weeding, watering, and overseeding will decrease exponentially each year. As plants mature and spread to retain moisture, suppress weeds, discourage runoff, and nourish the soil, the ultimate cost will be significantly less than that of traditional grass


Like all controversial issues, the alternative lawn movement has some disadvantages as well. Turf grass fans are quick to point out that there are many reasons why ground cover alternatives should be discouraged and even prohibited in residential neighborhoods. Here are a few of the arguments you’re likely to hear on the subject:

Subjectively Unappealing

Background of thyme and autumn leaves in the garden. Creeping Thyme is a groundcover that features small, opposite, and aromatic leaves that are lance-shaped or elliptical. They are glossy and dark green in color. Autumn dry and yellow leaves lie on the ground cover.
Unconventional lawns may appear sparse during establishment, potentially deviating from neighborhood norms aesthetically.

A patch of thick green lawn has become the gold standard for suburban home ownership, and many of us are resistant to deviations from this norm. Ground cover lawns can be sparse and patchy initially, especially when they are establishing, and there is more dirt than plants. 

In these first few seasons, a home with a ground cover lawn will have plant plugs and mulch, whereas other homes have swaths of green grass. That might be upsetting to the overall neighborhood aesthetic. Even when plants have matured into a dense carpet of ground cover, there will always be something ‘different’ about your property. 

Less Practical

Close-up of Stonecrop 'Sedum Spanish,' ground cover in a sunny garden. These low-growing perennial forms are dense, fleshy rosettes of succulent leaves of bright green color. The leaves are spoon-shaped and coated with a powdery or waxy substance.
Ground cover lawns may lack durability and playability compared to traditional grass lawns.

Another major drawback to ground cover lawns is the usefulness factor. Let’s face it, a patch of dense green grass makes a more durable, shock-absorbing play mat for kids than a scattering of creeping phlox or sedum. And a dog can run out onto the grass and do his thing without tracking a bunch of loose dirt into the house when he returns. These reasons alone are enough to cause many homeowners to put the brakes on installing ground cover instead of grass.

Seasonal Change

Close-up of a flowering Lobularia plant in the garden. The plant forms low mounds of small, lance-shaped leaves. Sweet alyssum is prized for its abundant clusters of tiny flowers that come in purple. These dainty flowers densely cover the plant, creating a soft and frothy appearance.
Ground cover lawns offer seasonal changes, which may differ from the typical evergreen grass.

While a grass lawn remains green and looks pretty much the same for most of the year, a ground cover lawn changes with the seasons. It might have tiny flowers in early spring, and its leaves might turn red in fall.

It might die back completely during winter, leaving nothing but bare earth behind. Or it might be scrubby and unattractive during dormancy. These variations in behavior and appearance are at odds with what most of us consider a traditional lawn. 

Unwanted Spread

Top view of seedlings of white Alyssum flowers in loose and weed-free soil. A garden hoe with teeth lies in the garden bed. Seedlings of white Alyssum are planted at the same distance from each other. It forms low, spreading mounds of small, lance-shaped leaves that are gray-green in color. The plant is renowned for its profusion of tiny, fragrant flowers that create dense clusters. These flowers are of a delicate white shade.
Choose ground cover wisely, as aggressive spreading may pose challenges without proper containment.

By definition, a ground cover plant spreads easily and consumes soil surface as it matures. While this is a good thing when you’re trying to cover a large area quickly, it can become a very bad thing when the plant jumps into places where it’s not wanted. 

A plant that spreads by rhizome and seed can be much more aggressive than grass. It can also be much harder to control, especially in areas without hard borders. Make sure you consider this factor when deciding to plant ground cover and selecting a material for your site. 

Initially Expensive

Close-up of a flowering Aurinia saxatilis plant against a blurred green background. Aurinia saxatilis, commonly known as Basket-of-Gold or Alyssum saxatile, is a perennial herbaceous plant. It forms low, spreading mounds of gray-green, narrow leaves that provide an attractive backdrop to its stunning floral presentation. The plant produces dense clusters of small, golden-yellow flowers that cover the foliage.
Buying seeds for grass is cheaper initially, making a traditional lawn more budget-friendly upfront.

Grass seed is significantly less expensive than ground cover plants. Depending on variety and additives, grass seed typically costs somewhere between $1 and $10 per pound. Each pound covers between 100 and 500 square feet. 

Whether starting from seed or purchasing nursery-grown plants, the initial cost of installing ground cover will far exceed that of installing grass. Although the cost will even out (and ultimately invert) over time, if your landscaping budget is small, a traditional lawn is cheaper to install at the outset

Ground Cover Options

When selecting a ground cover plant to replace traditional turf grass in your landscape, look for a low-growing, carpet-forming perennial or a mat-like succulent to do the job effectively. Pay attention to your grow zone as well as your soil and light conditions while making your decision.

You’ll usually have more success selecting a native ground cover once you determine these two things. Here’s a quick at some of our favorite turf lawn alternatives. Note that some are classed as invasive species in parts of North America. Check with your local extension office before planting them if you’re unsure.

White Clover

Close-up of blooming Trifolium repens, commonly known as White Clover, is a low-growing perennial plant with a distinctive appearance. Its leaves are trifoliate, forming three leaflets that are oval or heart-shaped, each with a white V-shaped mark. The foliage sits close to the ground on creeping stems, creating a dense mat of clover. White Clover produces small, white, pom-pom-like flower heads that rise on slender stems above the leaves.
A petite pea family member with variegated leaves and white flowers, clover spreads extensively, making it a suitable grass alternative.
botanical-name botanical name Trifolium repens
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 3-6 inches
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-10

This diminutive member of the pea family features three-lobed, variegated leaves with round white flowers that bloom from spring through summer. It spreads liberally by both stolon and seed, forming a dense mat over the soil surface.

It is often one of the nuisance plants we remove chemically from our green lawns in our quest for uniformity and textural perfection, which helps explain why clover lawns make a good grass alternative. 

Creeping Jenny

Close-up of a flowering groundcover Lysimachia nummularia in a sunny garden. Lysimachia nummularia, commonly known as Creeping Jenny, is a perennial ground cover appreciated for its vibrant and trailing appearance. The plant features round to oval, bright green leaves that grow in pairs along creeping stems. The leaves are glossy and have a distinctive golden-yellow hue. Creeping Jenny produces cup-shaped, bright yellow flowers that adorn the stems, creating a lovely contrast with the foliage.
Durable and chartreuse, creeping Jenny is a perennial, semi-evergreen plant that thrives in various conditions.
botanical-name botanical name Lysimachia nummularia
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 2-4 inches
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-8

Prized for its chartreuse coloring and durability, creeping Jenny tolerates heavy foot traffic and returns faithfully year after year (whether you want it to or not). It’s an herbaceous perennial but remains semi-evergreen during winter in warmer zones.

Creeping Jenny grows best in full sun and prefers wet to dry conditions, but has proven adaptable to a variety of growing conditions. It produces one-inch yellow flowers in summer that are attractive to pollinators. 


Close-up of Sedum album in bloom in a garden as a ground cover. This low-growing plant forms dense mats of small, fleshy, needle-like leaves that are green. White Stonecrop produces clusters of tiny, star-shaped white flowers that blanket the foliage.
Drought-tolerant sedum offers colorful, low-maintenance ground cover.
botanical-name botanical name Sedum spp.
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
height height 2-36 inches
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-9

There are quite a few sedum species that perform well as a ground cover. Commonly referred to as ‘stonecrop’ for its tendency to thrive in dry, rocky soil, sedum plants are a good choice for gardeners in hot, arid regions where grass lawns might not even be an option. ‘Murale,’ ‘Cascade,’ and ‘Angelina’ are among the most popular ground cover varieties. 

Sedum leaves are succulent-like with fleshy lobes that retain moisture. They come in an assortment of greens, browns, and reds. Branches sprawl horizontally and set roots into the soil, creating a colony. Some have small flowers in summer, while others let their leaves do the talking. Although not ideal for heavy foot track, ground cover sedum maintains a consistent, attractive appearance for most of the season. 

Creeping Thyme

Close-up of a flowering Creeping Thyme plant (Thymus praecox) in a sunny garden. Creeping Thyme (Thymus praecox) is a charming and fragrant herbaceous perennial ground cover appreciated for its low-growing and spreading habit. The plant is adorned with clusters of tiny, tubular flowers of purple color. The leaves are evergreen, lance-shaped and have vibrant green to silvery-gray hues.
Durable creeping thyme, with fuzzy blue-green leaves, thrives in dry soil, offering low-maintenance ground cover.
botanical-name botanical name Thymus praecox
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 3-6 inches
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5-8

A creeping thyme lawn is unique and fragrant. This ground cover is semi-durable, meaning it can handle moderate foot traffic, and has woody stems that creep and set roots as they spread. Leaves are small, fuzzy, and blue to green in color, depending on the cultivar. Flowers are tiny and tubular, appearing in dense clusters on top of leaves from June to September.

Creeping thyme prefers dry, rocky soil and will not thrive in low, wet areas. It is very low-maintenance but will benefit from a cutback at the end of the season. It spreads quickly to cover a large area, which can be wonderful or dangerous, so keep that in mind.

Sheet Moss

Large fluff of the Sheet Moss plant. Hypnum imponens is a lush and feathery moss species with a distinctive appearance. This low-growing moss forms dense, intricate mats of delicate, feathery branches, creating a soft and velvety texture. The individual branches are finely divided, resembling tiny fern fronds, and are bright green in color.
Sheet moss, ideal for shade, offers a soft, springy, and evergreen ground cover.
botanical-name botanical name Hypnum imponens
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 2-6 inches
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-8

This is your best bet for a lawn alternative that can tolerate shade. Sheet moss is not ideal for heavy foot traffic, but it will hold up under moderate use. It’s soft, springy, and beautifully green year-round.

Most mosses prefer acidic soil so test yours before planting and amend it to achieve a level somewhere between 5 and 5.5. Moss spreads slowly, so be patient and be prepared to pull weeds around it for a few years.

Spotted Deadnettle

Close-up of Lamium maculatum 'Roseum' flowering plant in a garden. Dead Nettle is a perennial ground cover appreciated for its attractive and distinctive appearance. This variety features heart-shaped, silver-green leaves with a central silvery stripe. 'Roseum' produces clusters of tubular, hooded flowers that are a soft, muted pink color.
Spotted deadnettle is taller and suitable for uneven surfaces.
botanical-name botanical name Lamium maculatum
sun-requirements sun requirements Partial to full shade
height height 4-8 inches
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-8

Another shade-tolerant species, spotted deadnettle is slightly taller than other options, making it a great choice for uneven surfaces but a poor choice for everyday use. Leaves are toothed, glossy, and mint-like. Some varieties are variegated and others have a blueish tint. 

Deadnettle flowers are small and come in shades of purple, white, and pink. They bloom prolifically from late spring to early summer and are very beneficial to pollinators. Check with your local garden extension to make sure this one is not on your region’s invasive list. It is considered a nuisance plant in regions with cool, dark forest floors.  

Final Thoughts

If you’d like to install a ground cover lawn, begin by adjusting your idea of what a lawn should look like. If you can put aside the notion that a lawn must be perfect and uniform at all times, you’ll be off to a good start.

Research the best ground cover plants for your zone, sun, and soil conditions, and be prepared to manage the spread responsibly. Finally, if you’re having trouble giving up grass altogether, consider setting a small patch of traditional turf aside for kids and dogs but replacing the bulk of your property with a more eco-friendly alternative

A hand presses down on freshly mown green grass on a plush eco-lawn.

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A cluster of pink stonecrop flowers, delicately held aloft by deep purple stems. In the blurred background, additional blooms of these charming flowers create a picturesque scene, adding to the allure of the composition.

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