Herbal Lawns

Getting started with an herbal lawn may be as simple as changing your definitions and attitudes.

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A pure turfgrass lawn to me is the horticultural equivalent of white bread—familiar and versatile but typically bland and boring. Our lawn, by contrast, is a crusty homemade loaf of multigrain bread sprinkled with sesame seeds. There’s grass enough, but also a dozen or more kinds of perennial or self-seeding annual herbs. The herbs add fragrance when I mow or simply take a stroll, they provide tasty nibbles or a cup of tea, they invite me to sit down and take a closer look, and they make a more interesting habitat for the chipping sparrows, goldfinches, bluebirds, robins, toads, garter snakes, and other critters that live here.

What is an Herbal Lawn?

An herbal lawn encompasses several possibilities, depending on the ratio of grass to herbs. Our current lawn is mostly grass, with herbs dotted here and there. The lawn at our previous home was about half grass and half herbs after I’d spent five years encouraging and supplementing the herb component. Lawns that mix grass and herbs are inexpensive, easy to care for, and tough enough to walk and play on. If mowed regularly, they are flat and tidy: the herbs show only when you look closely.

You can renounce grass altogether and make a solid patch of low-growing herbs such as Roman chamomile, thyme, yarrow, or pennyroyal. (I’d call that a ground cover or lawn substitute, not a lawn.) An herb patch looks more distinctive than a mixed lawn, but it’s more expensive and more trouble to get started, and may be more trouble to maintain. Some herbs can make an excellent ground cover for small areas, and they’re great for filling in narrow strips where mowing grass is inconvenient, but they’ll never replace grass on a large scale.

Before installing an herbal lawn, take time to think through a few questions. How much lawn do you and your family need or want, and what do you want it for? Is it just to look at, or is it a play surface for children and pets? Must it be a dense, fine-textured, emerald green carpet that feels great under bare feet? What do the neighbors think? Do you care what they think? How much time and money do you want to spend on a lawn? If durability, texture, and appearance are all-important, the best solution is to have a turfgrass lawn or a mostly-grass lawn on most of your property and to restrict an herb lawn to a small, defined area. If those factors aren’t so important, you can spread herbs everywhere.

Lawns That Combine Herbs and Grass

Mixing herbs into the lawn works fine where winters are cold and summers relatively mild—in New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, the upper Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the northern Pacific Northwest. Lawns in these regions are commonly mixtures of bluegrasses, fescues, and ryegrasses—all cool-season grasses that go dormant in the heat of summer just when the herbs are thriving. By contrast, the warm-season grasses used for lawns in the South, Texas, and the Southwest tend to spread aggressively and grow vigorously all summer. Few herbs can compete with the likes of Bermuda or St. Augustine grass.

Recognizing What You Have

Where cool-season grasses thrive, it’s easy to incorporate herbs into a lawn. You may have some already. Many herbs introduced to this country by European settlers now grow wild in lawns, pastures, and meadows, as do several plants used as herbs by Native Americans. Getting started with an herbal lawn thus may be as simple as changing your definitions and attitudes. Instead of targeting them as lawn weeds, try thinking of clover, yarrow, and potentilla as unacknowledged, unappreciated herbs. (We all have our limits. Useful or not, plantain still looks like a coarse weed to me, and my weed-pulling reflex takes over at the sight of sourgrass or sheep sorrel.)

You can encourage existing herbs by doing just the opposite of what lawn care specialists recommend: don’t water, don’t fertilize, and wait a few extra days between mowings so that you’re cutting back the grass by more than half its height. This strategy gradually weakens the grass and favors the herbs. I call it creative neglect.

Adding Herbs to an Existing Lawn

Remove foot-wide patches of turf, roots and all, from random or selected spots in the lawn. Add enough compost or topsoil to fill the holes before planting well-rooted divisions or vigorous, bushy seedlings. I do this in late spring so that the herbs have all summer to get established, and I water them every week or so if it doesn’t rain. When mowing, I pass right over the new herbs, though I do swerve to avoid crushing them with the mower wheels. By fall, the herbs and grass have knitted together.

Lawns of grass and herbs that are not mowed turn into “meadow gardens”. A meadow of waving grasses and blooming herbs is a lovely sight, but it’s too shaggy for many neighborhoods. For neatness’ sake, mow every week or two, depending on rainfall. If tidiness isn’t critical, waiting longer will enable some of the herbs to flower and go to seed.

Starting a New Herbal Lawn

Installing a new lawn of grass and herbs is more trouble than enhancing an existing lawn, but it gives you the chance to choose modern turfgrass varieties that are vigorous, resistant to pests and diseases, deep-rooting (so they need less watering), and short (so they need less mowing). Early fall, about two months before hard frost, is the best time to sow seeds of cool-season grasses, but it’s good to plan ahead. I’m extending our lawn this year, and this is my schedule. In the spring, I used a rototiller to mix ground limestone and dried manure into the soil. I raked the area smooth and planted a cover crop of oats. Before the stalks get too tall or too lush to mow, I’ll mow them down, let the clippings dry for a day or two, then sow buckwheat seeds in the stubble and maybe rake them in. Buckwheat grows fast in warm weather. When its pretty white flowers open, which could happen in as little as six weeks, I’ll mow it down, too, and leave the clippings and stubble as mulch. Growing the oats and buckwheat is an old-fashioned way to squelch weeds by shading them out without using an herbicide, and the decomposition of the stubble and roots amends the soil with more organic matter than I could afford to buy. Tilling in the stubble isn’t necessary and would only stimulate a fresh surge of weeds.

Meanwhile, I’m tending a little nursery bed of herb seedlings and starts—yarrows, thyme, violets, Roman chamomile, wild strawberries, pennyroyal, pussy-toes, and English daisies. After I mow down the buckwheat, I’ll transplant the herbs here and there, about three plants per square yard. Then I’ll oversow a mixture of Pennlawn red fescue and a little white clover seed, keep the area moist, and wait. Within two weeks, the herbs should be surrounded by a dainty mist of tender new grass and tiny clovers. If fall runs late, the grass may get tall enough to mow once or twice before winter. Both herbs and grass will continue growing roots until the soil freezes, and the lawn should be well established by next spring.

Some Herbs to Plant in Lawns

The following herbs can be interplanted with cool-season lawn grasses such as bluegrass, red fescue, or perennial ryegrass. They tolerate weekly mowing to a height of 2 inches or more, and they’ll endure frequent foot traffic and an occasional party or ball game. All survive below-zero winters, summer afternoons in the 80s, and occasional brief heat waves in the 90s or higher. Once established, all persist from year to year, often spreading by runners or by seed. Most are sold as seeds, a few as plants.

Ajuga or bugleweed (Ajuga reptans). A creeping perennial with flat tufts of glossy leaves and creeping runners. Green, dark purple or bronze, and variegated forms are all commonly sold as ornamental ground covers. Unmowed ajuga bears spikes of blue flowers in late spring. Native to Europe. Used medicinally as an astringent.

Bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). Spreads to make a flat mat of wiry stems with dainty compound leaves. Has bright gold flowers for several weeks in summer followed by pointed seedpods arranged like a bird’s foot. Perennial, native to Europe. Formerly considered medicinal. Now valued as a bee plant.

Chamomile, Roman (Chamaemelum nobile). Finely divided bright green leaves radiate from a thick central stem. Stays flat. Foliage releases a fruity aroma when crushed, and the little daisylike blossoms make a soothing tea. Perennial, native to the Mediterranean region.

Cinquefoil, dwarf (Potentilla spp.). Creeps along the ground with wiry stems. Glossy dark leaves have five toothed leaflets arranged like fingers. Has bright yellow five-petaled flowers in spring. P. canadensis is native to eastern North America; P. reptans, native to Europe but widespread here, is similar with larger flowers. Both are tough perennials. The roots, high in tannins, are a traditional astringent.

Clover, white or Dutch (Trifolium repens). A creeping perennial that spreads to form broad patches. Leaves have three round leaflets, sometimes four if you’re lucky. (When you find a four-leaf clover, mark the plant; chances are it will make many more.) Round clusters of white or pale pink flowers please the bees. Red clover (T. pratense), with much larger leaves and rosy pink flowers on taller stalks, is probably too tall for an herb lawn. Both are native to Europe, and used in teas for sore throats and colds.

Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea). Wants to grow upright, but mowing stops it. Stiff stems have slender, fuzzy, gray-green leaves. Does best in dry, sandy soil. American Indians had many medicinal uses for this widespread native perennial.

Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium). Intensely fragrant, with a penetrating minty aroma. Usually creeps along, rooting as it goes, but flowering stems are upright unless they flop over or get mowed off. Perennial, but not reliably hardy. May self-seed. Native to Europe. Used to repel fleas and other insects. Do not use for tea.

Pineapple weed (Matricaria matricarioides). Small but tough, with light green finely divided leaves and tiny gold flower heads, it even grows in gravel driveways. Crushing the leaves releases a pleasant fruity odor. Traditionally made into tea for colds and stomachaches. An Asian annual, widely naturalized here. Self-sows.

Pussy-toes (Antennaria neglecta). Spreads by thick runners to form low mats of fuzzy leaves, green on top and gray below. (Related species are thoroughly gray.) Short stalks bear fuzzy, dense flower heads that do look like a pussy’s toes. A hardy native perennial, widespread across North America. Used as a folk remedy for various internal and external ailments.

Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis). A bushy little annual with short-stalked, five-petaled flowers that open on sunny days but close if clouds move in. Flowers of the species are brick red, but those of A. a. var. caerulea are sky blue. Native to Eurasia, but now widespread. Formerly used as a cure-all in folk medicine.

Speedwell (Veronica officinalis). A creeping perennial with opposite gray-green leaves. Unmowed, it bears tiny blue or lavender flowers on knee-high stalks in midsummer. Native to ­Europe, where tea made from the leaves or roots was used for a variety of ailments.

Strawberry, wild (Fragaria virginiana, F. vesca). Low perennials that spread by runners, with white flowers and sweet red fruits. Glossy, three-parted leaves are rich green in summer, turn purplish in fall. Native throughout much of North America. Both leaves and roots have been used to make medicinal teas. The false strawberry, Duchesnea indica, looks similar but has yellow flowers and bland, seedy fruits. Native to Asia but common here. Traditionally used for both internal and external ailments.

Sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum). A perennial grass that forms a clump of slender, slightly hairy leaves and has flower stalks up to 2 feet tall. You’ll never spot it by eye, but you’ll smell its warm vanilla fragrance every time you mow. Native to Europe but widespread in North America. Easily raised from seed. Sweet grass or Russian buffalo grass (Hierochloe odorata) has coarser leaves and spreads aggressively by runners. It is native to cool, moist sites around the Northern Hemisphere and is sold in small pots by herb nurseries. Both grasses contain coumarin, called the fragrance of new-mown grass. Traditionally used to flavor beverages, coumarin is now considered potentially carcinogenic.

Thyme, creeping (Thymus pulegioides, often sold as T. serpyllum or T. praecox). Forget about putting fancy named cultivars of thyme in the lawn; just get a packet of seeds labeled creeping thyme or mother-of-thyme. Raise a few dozen seedlings and set them out; the ones that are happy will spread by themselves. Most creeping thymes form a low mat of tiny leaves that are nearly evergreen, with clusters of minute pinkish purple flowers in midsummer. Native to the Mediterranean. Leaves are used in cooking and for a medicinal tea.

Violet, sweet (Viola odorata). Dark purple flowers have a hauntingly sweet perfume, bloom in early spring, sometimes again in fall. The heart-shaped leaves are nearly evergreen. Spreads by runners and seed. Tolerates damp soil and part shade. Don’t bother with fancy cultivars; the species is more carefree and hardy. Start with plants; seeds need a cold winter outdoors before germinating (maybe) in spring. Both flowers and leaves are rich in vitamins. Native to the Old World. V. canadensis, a fragrant native violet, grows a little too big for a mowed lawn but does well around the edges.

Yarrow, common (Achillea millefolium). A reliable bloomer in other circumstances, yarrow lives for years in a mowed lawn without ever raising a flower stalk. Its finely divided, fernlike leaves lie close to the ground and remain fresh and green from early spring to late fall. Easily raised from seed. Native to Europe, but common in North America. Formerly used as a cure-all; now enjoyed for its pungent aroma.

Rita Buchanan of Winsted, Connecticut, is a multifaceted and energetic individual who is co-editor of Taylor’s Master Guide to Gardening, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 1994.

Sources Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Road, Athens, OH 45701. Catalog $2. Herb plants and seeds, including Roman chamomile. The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $2. Herb seeds. The Fragrant Path, PO Box 328, Fort Calhoun, NE 68023. Catalog $1. Herb seeds. Gardens Alive, 5100 Schenley Pl., Lawrenceburg, IN 47025. Catalog free. Modern, low-growing turfgrass seeds and clover seeds. J. L. Hudson, Seedsman, PO Box 1058, Redwood City, CA 94604. Catalog $1. Herb seeds. Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 North Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321. Catalog free. Modern turfgrass seeds, “ecology” lawn mixes that combine grass and herb seeds, herb seeds and plants.