Feed on

Herbal Lawns and other Lawn Substitutes

Suppose you are tired of all the mowing, fertilizing, watering, and edging that‘s required for a nice looking lawn. But you love the look of a level green sward, or have kids and dogs, or perhaps skills for a mean game of croquet. There are several low stature plants that give softness and a bit of color to the monoculture of smooth green, either added into turf for a cottage feel or a mix of plants and no turf.

Whether you’d like to try an herbal lawn with thymes, chamomile, Corsican mint, oreganos, and common selfheal or other sturdy lawn substitutes, it’s best to start small at first and see if you like it. The herbal lawn group of plants differs from other plants on this list only in that you get a lovely scent form the crushed leaves as you walk along. Here are a few tried and true plants that may be mixed together, either within existing turf or on their own. All can take at least some foot traffic, and the herb plants tend to attract more bees, except for the clover of course.

Bellis perennis English Daisy     Cheery little centers of pure sunny yellow surrounded by pure white rays in a diminutive but tough little plant. There are also Super Enorma seeds available in doubles: white, pink, rose-red. Sun to partial shade; best in cooler zones.

Isotoma fluviatilis Blue Star Creeper     Very sweet, soft blue stars are very charming amongst turf, coexisting quite well with it and fine with a lot of foot traffic. Full sun to part shade.

Muhlenbeckia axillaris  Small Leaf Creeping Wire Vine  Don’t let the tiny leaves fool you, this is a tough little plant that spreads just a as wide as its larger leaved cousins. Shining green leaves may turn bronzey in cooler weather. A great little plant to move around stones or as a ground cover.

Muhlenbeckia axillaris
Small Leaf Creeping Wire Vine


Phyla nodosa   Lippia

Phyla (Lipia) nodosa  Lipia   A California native, lipia is a very tough little plant with charming small flowers. It is light green in full sun, darker in filtered light. Bees like it, so don’t plan on walking barefoot.







Prunella vulgaris Common Selfheal     Another California native that plays well with others, either within turf or other short-stature perennials. Bright purple/magenta flowers and typical mint family flowers, it has medicinal properties and is edible.

Trifolium repens  White Dutch Clover     Easy from seed and a bee magnet, clovers fix Nitrogen in the soil, so are always bright green if they don’t dry out. Good for holding the soil in place; best in full sun except in the hottest areas.

Viola labradorica Labrador Violet     A naturalizing native of the northern U.S. and Canada, a short little cutie with heart-shaped purple-tinged leaves and lavender flowers. Spreads by seed and runners; partial sun to shaded exposures best.

Herbal Lawns

Achillea ‘Brass Buttons’ Dwarf Yarrow     Small creamy “buttons” atop fresh ferny foliage that’s durable and sun loving. Much tougher than it looks, and much easier to grow than Irish moss (Sagina subulata).

Chamaemelum nobile ‘Treneague’ Dwarf Roman Chamomile     This non-flowering form of Roman chamomile does best in full sun. It releases a pungent apple-mint fragrance when walked on.

Mentha requienii Corsican Mint     A tiny plant with a strong minty scent. Does best with plenty of moisture in the soil and mixed with other sturdier plants. A fresh green color, just a few sections here and there are a delight to walk on.

Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’ Creeping Golden Marjorum     Beautiful chartreuse to golden-yellow leaves, flowers only occasionally. Although foliage looks best with some afternoon shade, this exposure also will increase stem length and ramp up spread. Lovely as a river of gold between other greens.

Origanum vulgare ‘Humile’ Dwarf Greek Oregano     Very pungent deep green leaves with frilly pink flowers that are very attractive to bees and butterflies. Leaves have a great flavor.

 Thymus necefferi Juniper Thyme     Very tough and an almost completely flat grower with gray leaves and pink flowers. Very little water required; leaves are soft but have an almost juniper-like appearance.

Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’ Creeping Thyme     Tiny, deep pink flowers rise above a flat mat about 2-3 inches tall. The leaves are aromatic but not necessarily of culinary quality. Best on edges or around stones.

Mentha requienii Corsican mint


Thymus necefferi  juniper thyme


Achillea ‘Brass Buttons’
Photo by Deb Kelly

Achillea ‘Brass Buttons’ growing beautifully on a slope.
Photo by Deb Kelly



Dogs in the Garden

Dogs in the Garden

We love our dogs and we love our gardens, but sometimes they just don’t mix well. Here are a few tips I’ve learned from coexisting with both. My problems include digging, breaking plants, digging, peeing on turfgrass, fence fighting, and digging.

I’ve learned that many of the nuisance habits such as digging depend on the breed, separation anxiety issues, and energy/boredom level. Currently I have two female rescue hounds: a Plott hound and a dachshund. Separately, they are wonderful, loving girls who lounge in the sun and snooze most of the day after a vigorous morning walk. Together, they are a tag team of destruction rooting for mice, rats, gophers and moles. After being away for just a few hours, I’ve returned home to craters in the planting beds, soil and mulch on the gravel paths, and uprooted and broken plants. My female Labrador never did this.


Of course much of this behavior is due to their houndiness: they are bred for tracking and catching raccoons, rats, squirrels, and badgers. Both of them have excellent noses; any whiff of cat or rat, organic soil amendment, kelp or fish emulsion fertilizer is thoroughly investigated. Investigation includes vigorously digging up soil and mulch, and any plant that happens to be in the way. I’ve found that burying their poops in these favored digging areas does work to some extent. Or, they carefully excavate around the poop.

Although I love using organic fertilizers, and believe that plants and soils do best with them, I have to use them very carefully. Cottonseed meal, alfalfa and kelp meals are pretty safe to use, but anything with fish meal or manure is not. Even mixing one of these products into the soil itself is not a good idea with my hounds. Other breeds seem to prefer rolling in their favorite scents; dead worms are a favorite with several terrier and poodle mixes I know.

To eliminate the turfgrass pee rings, I eliminated the turf. Swapping the turf for gravel is one of the best things I have done in my garden, and the dogs love to lounge in it. Although this can make for a dusty dog, they love scrunching into it and I love the plants that thrive in gravel (especially California poppies and lupines). I think that although dogs love to run and play on modern turf, they don’t tend to like sleeping on it for the same reason we don’t like to walk barefoot on it. Modern water-saving turf-type tall fescues are pokey and stiff, compared to water loving bluegrass cultivars that are soft and pliable.

My dogs bark at all creatures and feared noises outside their domestic domain: crows, squirrels, delivery people, gardeners, neighbors, skateboards, garbage bins, and even me. I believe this is a natural and learned behavior that can be reduced, but perhaps not eliminated. My dogs are very happy to see our very patient mail carrier on the sidewalk, just not right outside the gate. So I do my best to reduce the barking and fence fighting habit by eliminating the opportunity. Other solutions I have seen include plastic peek-through bubbles in a fence so dogs can see out, or working with your dogs to allow an initial warning bark and then stop. Best to work with a professional trainer on this.

A dachshund on airspace patrol for intermittent crow flyover brings me a smile every time.

Sleeping is best.











Tula digging in the arugula to find the fish meal fertilizer.










Sweet puppy thinking about where to dig next.

A Gravel Garden Instead of a Lawn

I have a friend who says that many gardens have lots of lawn because of a lack of imagination. While I tend to agree, I think it is more than that. We “know” how to take care of turf: extensive soil preparation, an irrigation system, sod installation (or seeding), then watering, fertilizing, mowing, edging, watering, fertilizing, mowing, edging, repeat. But a garden? That takes thought in designing, selecting, and observing and tending.

In my own garden space, we once had a nice lawn that my husband took care of. He loved it; me, not so much. Then came two female dogs, lawn grubs, and a city rebate offer to remove it, and so we did. We already had small, gray, angular roofing gravel for paths in the rest of the garden, so we replaced the lawn areas with the same gravel. We used about 2 inches of base rock beneath the 2 inches of gravel with fines layer, and our courtyard space now is much more open and expansive. And there are wonderful plants that thrive in the gravel with almost no water.

Thoughtful plant selection and careful watering until establishment can yield beautiful, resilient, interesting gardens. These are not carpets of green but pools of green, gray, and sage with pops of seasonal color. California native plants are very beautiful and provide habitat for birds and pollinators as well. Natives also work well with plants from many other parts of the world with similar climate.

Beautiful, interesting forms
A diversity of plant forms compliment this way of gardening: often low and ground hugging, or tight, rounded cushions accented by short and tall emergent bulbs with strap-shaped leaves. Foliage and form are the stars here, flowers are an ephemeral bonus. In addition to our gorgeous native manzanitas, Ceanothus, and salvias, there are beautiful dry climate species such as Cistus, Callistemon, Euphorbia, and olive. Native blue-eyed grass, Sisyrinchium bellum and its cultivars provide spikey verticals, and Convolvulus and Dianthus are small ponds of muted gray-green. Succulents such as Dudleya, Echeveria, Agave, and Aloe are especially happy here and look stunning in the gravel.

Subtle tonal colors
Gray plants are especially beautiful in gravel gardens. Their soft wooly hairs reflect the sunlight above greener leaf pigments. Examples are manzanitas, lavenders, gazanias, sages, catmints, Sideritis, Ballota, Santolina chamaecyparissus, and Phlomis. Plants such as Stachys, Tanacetum, Helichrysum and Marrubium have a silky, even felted appearance. Plants with needles or whipcord foliage do well here too, such as dwarf conifers and hebes respectively.

Depending on your preferred palette of plants, the underlying color of the gravel can enhance the plant colors: brown to creamy orange, gray to salt and pepper. It’s nice to have carefully places larger anchor stones for scale. If you’re lucky and patient, you’ll notice beautiful lichens on those large stones over time.

Direct seeding
California poppies are also seeded into the gravel in late summer or fall, either falling from existing plants on their own or from saved seed. Other plants that have seeded themselves into the gravel are black violas, native Oenothera and Lupinus species, Phacelia californica, and salvias.

Reduces the need for watering
In a mediterranean climate, the range of plants that can be grown without summer water is quite large. This isn’t to say absolutely no summer water for most plants; in fact many plants benefit from an occasional refreshing summer spritz on the leaves to free them from dust. In my own gravel garden, there is no irrigation but I do water in plants initially, and then occasionally before an expected summer hot spell. Fall is the best planting time, giving plants a chance to grow establish with natural rainfall. Gorgeous and aromatic salvias, lavenders, and woody thymes thrive here, as do summer blooming alliums and Nectaroscordium siculum (Sicilian honey garlic).

A gravel mulch reduces moisture loss while keeping the vulnerable crowns of plants dry. Most woody natives and mediterranean species are susceptible to crown and root rots when moisture lingers too long in the soil, especially during warm temperatures. Surface drainage is much improved with gravel, water drains away from sensitive crowns much faster with a mineral mulch surface compared to an organic mulch.


Sideritis cypria, Aurinia saxatilis, Lepechinia hastata, and Tula










California native poppies and thistles thrive in the gravel substrate.

Oenothera ‘Silver Blade’ is easy from seed.









Back Yard Habitats

Want to attract more birds and other wildlife into your garden? Plant California natives this fall or next spring and you will be rewarded with more birds in your own back yard. Bring nature to your own home by growing a variety of native species—truly if you plant it they will come.

indigo bunting

An indigo bunting in an Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana); Pine Flat Road, Sonoma County.
Photo: Thomas Reynolds

Fall is an ideal time to plant natives because the soil is still relatively warm but days are shorter and rain is (one hopes!) on the way. One way to support both wildlife and native plant growers is to buy locally native plants at one of the fall plant sales. Before you go, be sure you know what your soil is like (sandy, heavy clay, loamy) and what the exposure is (does the planting area receive full sun? shade? filtered light? is it windy?). Although you may find a knowledgeable volunteer to assist you, plants sales can be hectic and chaotic, which can be infectious and quite fun unless you are trying to get specific planting information. Keep in mind the adage to “plant the right plant in the right place,” and do a little homework before you embark.

Ideally, you will have an idea of what you are looking for by looking at books, searching online, talking with friends, consulting an expert, visiting private or public gardens, or knowing what native plants occur in our area. Several of our fine local nurseries carry native plants and are good places to buy from year round; most also help supply some of the sale plants for organizations like CNPS (California Native Plant Society). Local native plant nurseries include: Cal Flora, Sommers & D Streets, Fulton; Mostly Natives, 27235 Highway One, Tomales; and North Coast Native Nursery, 2710 Chileno Valley Road, Petaluma. All three of these nurseries have websites with availability lists.

A few notes of caution: deer have evolved with native plants and enjoy browsing them, so protection will be required if plants are exposed. Also, all container-grown plants, including natives, require thorough and regular watering until they are established. This could be anywhere from two years to four years depending on the initial planting size, soil type, exposure, planting time, etc. There are many variables to watering intervals and plant establishment. Don’t let this discourage you, just keep in mind that new plants need tending in order to do well. And remember that plants still in containers dry out especially quickly; rainfall alone won’t keep the root ball sufficiently moist.

Habitat favorites for birds include several local species: oaks (Quercus spp.), willows (Salix spp.), big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), elderberry (Sambucus caerulea), huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), native blackberry (Rubus ursinus), salmonberry (R. spectabilis), coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), currants (Ribes sanguineum and others), gooseberries (Ribes speciosum and others), manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.), and California lilac (Ceanothus spp.).

In addition to the larger woody plants listed above, good habitat plantings include native perennials such as California fuchsias (Epilobium spp.), buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.), seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus), woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum), asters (Aster spp.), sages (Salvia spp.), and goldenrods (Solidago spp.). Bunchgrasses are also very popular as garden plants and plants sales often have quite a number of them. Our native grasses are especially beautiful, and finches and other seedeaters enjoy the seed during summer months. Look for California fescue (Festuca californica), and melics (Melica spp.), and grass-like natives such as rushes (Juncus spp.), and sedges (Carex spp.).

Hummingbirds are quite fond of California fuchsia (Epilobium sp.), any of the species or named varieties, but especially the darker flowered ones. They are also fond of bee plant (Scrophularia californica) flowers and those of manzanita, gooseberry, and currant. Finches love the buckwheats, asters, and goldenrod. California quail seem to prefer nearby cover (especially layered tree, shrub, and bunchgrass cover) when foraging, often near coyote brush, manzanita, ceanothus, and poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum).

Ah, poison oak. I recall hearing of a study conducted by the National Park Service many years ago, and they determined poison oak to be utilized by more species of wildlife than any other plant. I doubt you will find it at a native plant sale, but it is beautiful—from a distance. So why not try some of our beautiful and more people-friendly natives in your garden from one of the native plant sales or nurseries this fall; bring your own boxes and flats and head out­—both our wildlife and you will be glad you did.

A nice list of native plants and birds that are attracted to them: www.marin.edu/cnps/birds

A dark-eyed junco nest constructed of grasses and horsehair.
Photo: Thomas Reynolds












Local and Regional Plant Sales: 

Milo Baker Chapter CNPS

Second Saturday in October, 9-1 at Santa Rosa Vets Building


Tilden Regional Park

Third Saturday in April from 10-3, and weekly on Thursday mornings from 9-11


Berkeley Botanical Garden

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Strybing Arboretum, San Francisco

September 8, 2012 10am-2pm


UC Davis Arboretum

Saturday, September 29, members only, 9-11; public 11-1

Sunday, October 14, 9-1


Merritt College

Oakland, CA

First weekend in May, and first weekend in October

Saturday 9-3, Sunday noon-3



Lark Greenhouse & Bech Lot Nursery

Tuesday, October 16, 2012, noon-5pm


Jail Industries

Ordinance Road, Santa Rosa

Spring sales, usually mid-April and early May


This article will appear in the summer/fall issue of the Madrone Audubon newsletter.