The Q&A Archives: High Desert Lawn Substitute

Question: I live in the high desert of CA and have a half acre front yard. The soil is predomintely sand. I would like to put in a low water consuming lawn or ground cover that would keep the tumble weeds and fox tails from growing. What do you suggest?

Answer: Turfgrass really does not have a reputation for being a great water conserving addition to the landscape. There are, however, many groundcovers that will cover your sandy soil and grow thick enough to crowd out weeds. Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a great choice. This evergreen prostrate ground cover creates a mat, spreading and rooting as it creeps out. Delicate light pink flowers appear in winter through spring atop dense leathery green leaves. Leaves turn a reddish tint in winter. Even though this is a slow growing species, it is useful to use on slopes or along retaining walls. Prefers sunny to partially sunny locations. Requires regular water the first summer after planting, and once established, depending on soil conditions will thrive with infrequent summer water. This plant grows to approximately 1 foot high by 2-3 feet wide

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) is another terrific groundcover. Native to Pacific beaches and bluffs, this plant forms lush, compact mats of dark green, glossy leaves that turn reddish in winter. Tolerates sun along the coast to partial shade inland. Large 1-inch wide white flowers appear in spring. Fruit will seldom set in gardens but in natural setting will produce a seedy fruit in the fall that attracts birds. Annual mowing or cutting back in the early spring will stimulate new growth. Requires little to regular water once established. This plant grows to approximately 6 ? 12 inches high by 1 ? 2 feet wide.

A taller plant is Rockrose (Cistus), a very hardy plant, with showy spring flowers. Accepts poor, dry soil and will tolerate cold ocean winds, salt spray or desert heat. Needs well-drained soil if irrigated. Little to no water is required once established. To keep plants vigorous, an occasional trimming of old stems will induce new growth. Height will vary depending on kind. Shorter varieties are useful as ground cover, in rock gardens, and in rough areas along roads or driveways. This plant grows to approximately 1 foot high by 2 ? 3 feet wide

A final consideration is Spring Cinquefoil (Potentilla tabernaemontanii). This tough and persistent plant has a dainty appearance. A tufted creeper, this plant bears clusters of butter yellow flowers in spring and summer. Does well in most gardens and will smother out weeds effectively once established. Makes a good lawn substitute in areas of no-traffic. A fast grower, it is well used as a cover for bulbs. Little to moderate water is required. This plant grows to approximately 2 ? 6 inches high by 1 ? 2 feet wide.

Hope one of these suggestions is just right for your landscape!

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