Garden lawn

16 plants for a green and fragrant lawn

I love grass. It reflects green light on hot days. The wombats love to eat it. It’s soft to sit on, fun to roll on and you can play Frisbee on it. But lawns need not be only grass.

Our lawn is a mix of at least 80 species, many of which I haven’t yet identified and may never be able to. While many are not available commercially, like the several species of local grass orchids, our “lawn” also has readily available groundcovers such as dichondra (kidney weed) and gotu kola (Asian pennywort) and so many lawn daisies that in late winter and spring you can hop from one clump to another without touching the grass.

Dichondra is a low, prostrate, creeping plant that is a good lawn substitute in damp, shady areas such as under trees, where it is difficult to get grass to grow or where mowing is difficult. It grows well in exposed areas, too, and while it doesn’t need mowing, regular cutting will thicken the sward.

Sow the seed at 100g for every 10 square metres or plant it in trays and transplant the plugs once they are established. Only grow it where you know you really want it as, once established, it’s almost impossible to remove from an area.

Gotu kola also likes moisture-retentive soil. It can appear to die out in a drought but always seems to spring back after a few months of rain.

One gorgeous blooming plant to grow through your lawn is dwarf yarrow.

In spring, large parts of our lawn becomes flower-beds (or at least areas dominated by spring flowers) filled with daffodils, jonquils and freesias. In late summer, belladonna lilies (naked ladies) spring up instead. There are many others, such as bluebells and snowdrops, which multiply like mad and form carpets beneath the trees, as long as you choose the right ones for your area. Ask at your local Garden centre.

One gorgeous blooming plant to grow through your lawn is dwarf yarrow. Make sure it is dwarf — the larger ones will put up messy flower heads. Dwarf yarrow spreads slowly, so it rarely becomes a weed. It meanders in and out of your lawn, blooming here in late spring in a rich mauve. Like all good “lawn companions”, it’s also low enough to survive being mowed, though do keep your mower on a slightly higher-than-medium setting. Look after the roots and your lawn will stay greener in summer’s heat, winter’s cold and during droughts.

Ajuga is a great lawn companion for slightly shady and moist areas. It’s a rampant grower and can become a problem. It has glossy, green leaves and deep blue or white flowers, grows best in semi-shade but will expand anywhere and tolerates frost and light foot traffic. Bronze-leafed and variegated forms are also available. It’s an excellent lawn substitute if you want to avoid mowing and is lovely under fruit trees. It’s also an excellent groundcover in places where grass won’t grow because of tree competition.

Violets can be either companions or weeds. I love them, especially the low-growing, small-leafed, small-flowered native violets. They, too, enjoy dappled shade and moisture. They can invade vegetable and flower gardens, though, and gardeners who like the green carpet lawn look may find them too shaggy.

The taller-growing and larger-leafed European violets can outcompete small shrubs once they get going: their flowers are pretty and fragrant but they also set an enormous quantity of seed, so again make sure you really want them if you put them in. The low-growing, purple-leafed Labrador violet can also make a good groundcover.

Mint can be grown thickly in moist areas and can even be mown — as long as you keep the mower fairly high.

Mint can be grown thickly in moist areas and can even be mown — as long as you keep the mower fairly high. Apart from Corsican mint, most mints will need mowing as they can become tall and bushy, but they survive it well. Mint grows best from cuttings as seeds may not be true-to-type. Most pieces of mint stem will root when planted. I find apple mint the hardiest. Hardy can also read “impossible to get rid of”, but it does smell delicious every time you mow. The only thing that will destroy your lawn mint is prolonged drought and sunlight.

Pennyroyal is a small-leafed, flat carpeter with tiny, mauve flowers in spring. It’s wonderfully scented to walk on and the leaves can be used in pot-pourri or to make flea repellent. It’s best in a moist or shady area and grows from seed or runners.

Moss needs no planting but is a gift when it does appear. There is a Japanese tradition of “moss lawns” — soft, green, undulating and amazing — though I doubt they are practical for most areas of Australia, which experience hot summers, drying winds or droughts. Some gardeners see moss as a problem — which it can be on a patio — but in a lawn it just adds another shade of green.

Theoretically, lawn thyme and lawn chamomile should be perfect lawn companions. But most grasses are too vigorous and quickly overwhelm them. Your precious thyme and chamomile are best kept for small gardens of their own, or in rockeries, pots or troughs.

As for the others, make your lawn at least a dozen shades of green, with small groundcover flowers and diversity: mowable, fragrant and weather hardy. Some will flourish in wet years, others in hot and dry. But it will always be gorgeous to sit on, for the kids to roll on and as a carpet below your Frisbee game.

Jackie French

Jackie French

Jackie French is a gardener, ecologist, honorary wombat, 2014-2015 Australian Children's laureate, 2015 Senior Australian of the year and passionate believer in the need for all humans to feel part of the earth around them, by understanding the plants that sustain us.

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