What are some low maintenance groundcovers to replace a turf lawn?


In front of my home on a city street, there is a smallish patch of lawn facing south and east that I would like to get rid of. Can you recommend a few low-maintenance, easily spreading groundcovers and flowering perennials? What is the easiest way (and the best time) to remove the grass? I am not an experienced gardener. 


Jonathan Foster, Community Education Assistant

Based on your question, you may already be aware that while a nice, lush lawn of grass can be a beautiful thing, there are a number of reasons why an alternative might be more desirable. Maintenance, light, water demand, need for fertilizers, and weeding all come into play when deciding what’s best for your space.

Common groundcover alternatives to turfgrass include creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), bearberry (Arctastaphyllos uva-ursi), and vinca (Vinca minor). If you are considering a taller class of plants as well as groundcovers, there are plenty of native bushes and small shrubs that might serve as well (please see the Buffer Book below).

There is excellent information available on the topic of grass alternatives in the following publications:

Univ of Delaware Lawn Alternative Fact Sheet
Penn State Univ blog entry on lawn alternatives

Because those are both more southerly resources, I recommend checking out the Maine State Gov Buffer Book to cross reference any specific plants. Natives for Maine are included there, as well as information on various environmental tolerances that may help you pick the appropriate plants for your yard.

As for removing the existing grass, there are multiple avenues available. If you’re in a hurry and have the tools, you can spade up the turf and physically remove it, or use a rototiller to churn it under. A less labor intensive, but slower, method is to cover the grass with multiple layers of thick newspaper or old carpets–this will eventually kill the grass and make it much easier to dislodge and remove.

Because you’re removing the old plants wholesale and putting in new ones, I recommend taking that opportunity to get your soil tested at the UMaine Analytical Laboratory. This will give you an idea what changes might need to be made in order to give your new plants their best start.