Herbal Lawns

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

| June/July 1993

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.)

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