Traditional turfgrass lawns are becoming a thing of the past. These days, homeowners want something more eco-friendly, and, frankly, a lot more interesting.
Rain gardens, perennials, and vegetable patches are a few ways that people are transforming their grass areas, but tapestry lawns are another popular idea that is prized for their easy installation, and grass-like characteristics.
Tapestry lawns combine low maintenance with beauty, while still allowing for some foot traffic. Here’s how to plant an amazing tapestry lawn.
What Is a Tapestry Lawn?
Like a tapestry of artwork, groundcover plants are woven together naturally as they spread and merge together. The “threads” of the plants eventually become concealed by the work of art itself, forming myriad textures, colors, and shapes of the various plants you integrate.
A similar effect can be achieved with perennial plants, but these grow vertically, so the effect is much different. Tapestry lawns live on a more two-dimensional plane, which is similar to turfgrass lawns.
It's not always economical to replace an entire lawn with tall perennials, but tapestry lawns utilize fast-spreading, groundcover plants that can cover a larger area. Because of their flat appearance, they can be integrated with other types of gardening quite easily.
Type of Plants
The best plants to use for tapestry lawns are native perennial groundcovers. Groundcovers sound like what they are: they spread out over an area, hugging the ground, and covering it as they grow.
Unlike upright perennials, they’re often used around pathways or to fill in rock gardens, as their shallow root systems allow them to travel into nooks and crannies.
Some will produce flowers, and may even grow vertically a few inches, while others act like carpets and are soft underfoot. Choosing natives is important since they will thrive in your particular climate while benefiting local bird and pollinator species.
They will also be the lowest maintenance once established, as average rainfall and temperatures give them all the nutrients and water they generally require.
There are so many varieties of thyme, that you could create a beautiful, lush tapestry lawn using only thyme cultivars, (with the added benefit of being able to make an abundance of “thyme” jokes, like: “I’ve got nothing but thyme”).
Creeping thyme spreads out into mats that produce tiny pink or white flowers, covering lawn spaces in no thyme (see?). Woolly thyme is just as prized as it spreads its fuzzy arms around rocks and hard places.
Other varieties like common thyme and lemon thyme will have a more upright, shrubby nature, and are not meant to be used as groundcover.
Most spreading varieties prefer well-draining soil and full sun. They won’t perform well in boggy conditions, and would rather live in drier areas, but they can handle part shade. Once established, they will tolerate foot traffic, as well as pruning or mowing.
Clover is another plant that comes in many cultivars, but unlike thyme, you can find ones that will work in various conditions. Prized for their ground-covering mats, they are often an easy first choice as a lawn alternative because they grow so effortlessly.
They are great nitrogen-fixers, drought-tolerant, and un-fussy. Clovers do well in nutrient-depleted soils, and are great replacements for nitrogen-loving grass lawns. Over-seed them into the lawn, and they will naturally overtake and replace grass, especially in problematic and patchy lawn spaces.
To get a proper tapestry look, mix Dutch white or micro clover with red and strawberry clovers. Or, choose one that’s best for your growing conditions and pair accordingly with others on this list.
Sedums (aka stonecrops) are a genus of approximately 500 species that love full sun and dry conditions. They thrive in xeriscape designs and dry areas that don’t receive a lot of rainfall, making them incredibly low maintenance and easy to establish.
Sedums are perennial succulents, so be careful to distinguish between the ones that are houseplants with the ones that will be hardy to your climate all year long.
While you wouldn’t want to mow or walk on most of them, 'dwarf carpet of stars' is getting a lot of attention as a lawn alternative as it looks like grass at first glance, but is actually a dense mat of tiny succulent plants. It's drought-tolerant, and can handle foot traffic from kids and pets while being soft underfoot.
Others to look for are ‘hens and chicks,’ ‘blue spruce,’ ‘John Creech,’ ‘Angelina,’ ‘coral reef,’ sedum ‘album,’ and ‘divergens’ varieties. A carpet of various sedums would create a magnificent display of color and texture, filling in nicely around pathways and stones.
Patches of moss have long been the bane of grass-lovers, but if you have these soft green areas forming in your yard, you can cultivate a beautiful, lush lawn alternative.
Moss and grass thrive in different soils, so if you have moss, you likely have soil that’s slightly acidic. Homeowner’s will spend a lot of money to try and change the pH of their soil to help the grass, instead of growing what naturally wants to flourish there in the first place.
Moss likes part shade to shady conditions and will do better in areas that stay relatively moist. If they do dry out, however, they usually green up once wetter conditions return, so they actually are fairly drought-tolerant and only require one percent of the water that grass does.
Natives include carpet moss, pincushion moss, purple moss, haircap moss, star moss, white cushion moss, and fern moss. Irish and Scotch moss are not true mosses, but they resemble and perform similarly. While they aren’t native to North America, they can be easily found in nurseries and will tolerate sunnier locations than true mosses.
Creeping juniper is a drought-tolerant, native, spreading evergreen that will cascade over rocks and edges, or spread its wings and suppress weeds. This spiky blue-green plant will add amazing texture while covering a large area.
Creeping phlox is another mat-forming stunner that sends out beautiful pink flowers in early spring, though it comes in other colors, as well. It stays a lush green throughout the growing season and loves to meander along sloping hills.
Creeping yarrow is another native groundcover that is drought-tolerant, and can be mowed or pruned as needed. It will send up tiny white flowers on fern-like green foliage.
Wild ginger, bunchberry, green and gold, and common blue violet are native groundcovers that will spread beautifully among woodland and shaded areas. Wild or Virginia strawberry is a native that will produce tiny edible fruits, and is not to be confused with the non-native mock strawberry that often takes over yards.
Beneficial Weeds as Groundcover
Thyme-leaf spurge is considered a weed since it grows in sidewalk cracks and urban environments where homeowners usually spray them with chemicals or ripped them up. Consider keeping this native groundcover, as it can thrive in hard-to-grow places, and has many holistic uses. (Don’t confuse it with other invasive spurges such as the leafy spurge).
Dandelion, mallow, miner’s leaf, purslane, and plantain are all common (so-called) weeds that hang out on lawns or along driveways and sidewalks. They thrive in nutrient-depleted soils, as well, but often replenish them with their deep taproots, or through nitrogen-fixing.
All of these plants are edible, so get to know the types of “weeds” you may have once thought were invasive, and consider implementing them into your tapestry lawn – especially if they are already there.
On the flip side, many common plants that are sold in nurseries or shared between gardeners are actually invasive.
Creeping Jenny, ajuga, dwarf mondo grass, vinca (also known as periwinkle or myrtle), Asiatic jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, English ivy, goutweed, pachysandra (aka Japanese spurge) shouldn’t be planted in North American gardens.
While they are valued for their ability to grow and spread quickly, especially in difficult areas, they end up out-competing the native plants that should be protected. These groundcovers are not beneficial to wildlife (except the ones you don’t want, like rats and mosquitos) and compete with other native plants, which damages ecosystems.
Experienced gardeners may feel as though they can contain these invaders, but problems arise when home ownership is transferred, and species cross into neighbor’s yards, or worse, into natural forested areas.
That's where they can cause the most destruction, as they take over animal habitats, bully native plants, and smother trees.
Soil and Preparation
If you have a turfgrass lawn already in place, there are a few ways to get rid of it. There’s the good old-fashioned dig method, which will ensure that lawn roots are taken out (and any weeds with it), giving you a blank space to work with.
This allows you to amend the soil with compost and organic material, which depending on what you want to plant, is usually beneficial (some plants thrive in less fertile soil). This method is also preferred if you are laying clover seed.
You can also lay down plastic or cardboard (or anything that will block out the sun), and grass will die within a couple of months. If you’ve ever left something on the grass for even a few days, you see how it begins to yellow and die.
Grass roots aren’t very deep or strong, so this may be enough to start your tapestry lawn. You’ll still want to dig out any remaining stragglers and amend the soil as needed, but it’s a great way to save on labor if you have the time to wait.
The other option is to slowly integrate groundcovers that will naturally overtake the grass. This will take longer depending on how healthy the grass was in the first place but can be a good option if you aren’t able to invest in a lot of plants at once, and don’t want to deal with a dirt lawn until the groundcovers establish themselves.
Planting in patches is also a good way to see what will take and what won’t. If you have a large lawn space, this may be a more economical method that allows you to naturally transition your grass into a tapestry lawn.
How to Design
Certain kinds of groundcover like clover, thyme, and Irish moss are hardy and spread easily, meaning your tapestry lawn will likely establish quickly and look healthy right away. Include these hardy varieties in the majority of your design and fill in with others that may be slower to grow and establish.
You can very easily plant only one of these and call it a day, but you would have more of a monochrome piece of art (like a Malevich) rather than a rich, vibrant scene (like a Monet). Plus, diversity is key to reaping all of the benefits of this kind of lawn alternative.
Consider what your needs are, as well. If you want plants that can handle more foot traffic, then yarrow, dwarf carpet of stars, moss, and clover are your best bets. If your area has full sun and hot summers where grass is usually scorched, consider drought-tolerant species like thyme and sedums, and install pathways if you need to walk across.
How to Plant
If you have a bare canvas of dirt, plant individual species according to the spacing requirements laid out on their information tag. You may have areas that are not filled in for a while, but the plants will eventually spread and form together.
Do not crowd the space. If you are over-seeding with clover seed, but want a mix of other plants, chose a few sections to over-seed while still giving enough space for the others to establish. Clover will take over if allowed.
For the best results, a mix of plants is not only aesthetically pleasing, they will also help protect each other from disease and pests, while offering diverse habitats for pollinators and other beneficial insects.
Once plants are established, there should be very little maintenance involved. You will need to water them more often during the first year, but if native plants are chosen for the right spots, they shouldn’t need any supplemental watering or fertilizing after that.
Clover, thyme, and yarrow can all be mowed or pruned with a weed-whacker once they are mature, but it’s not necessary, and leaving them to flower feeds pollinators.
Many of the beneficial weeds can handle a haircut and foot traffic, as well, if you want to clean things up.
Others are slightly more delicate and won’t handle mowing. Sedums, phlox, and other native perennials will naturally die back in winter or self-prune.
Creeping juniper can be clipped and pruned to train or keep shorn as needed, but it can also be left to sprawl. Moss tends to stay very low to the ground, and loves to be left alone.
The cost of installing a tapestry lawn will depend on what plants you choose and how much area you have to cover. Native groundcovers that are already present will save you time and money, while filling in spots with clover seed can cheaply cover a large area, while spreading a few plants from the nursery as you wish.
Groundcovers are often sold in small 3-inch pots or larger one-gallon pots, ranging from a few dollars to twenty a piece. The larger pots will establish easier, and spread quicker, however, purchasing a variety of the smaller ones can allow you to mix and match, creating a more diverse tapestry where you can see what species thrive.
The only major drawback of tapestry lawns is they may not be ideal for children’s play areas, and depending on what you plant, large dogs may rip up plants when they run. Technically, grass doesn’t always fair well with overuse, either.
As many areas experience more drought and local water mandates restrict water use, that dry, crispy grass can be exchanged for mats of color that will thrive without daily watering. They will also lure more pollinators, and eliminate the need for costly and environmentally destructive fertilizer and pesticides.
Spend your spare time enjoying your yard instead of manicuring it. Tapestry lawns are a winner for gardeners looking for a low maintenance and easy to install landscape, that will add texture and beauty for years to come. Pollinators who flock to the tiny flowers will agree.