Grass is an expensive groundcover. Many homeowners love the calming look of a broad green carpet welcoming them home from work, but to keep their lawns looking their best, they turn to cartloads of chemical fertilizers, herbicides to control weeds, and pesticides to control the grubs and insects that try to coexist in the landscape.
This level of chemical consumption comes with serious costs, both financial and environmental. Turf lawns consume 10,000 gallons of water each year on top of the rainfall they receive . Unprecedented droughts and the water restrictions that often accompany them make maintaining a large turf lawn impractical and irresponsible. Certain expensive chemical herbicides and pesticides may be contributing to honeybee colony collapse disorder , which will have huge impacts on food availability and food prices if it isn’t curbed.
Why not try a more sustainable and innovative approach to landscaping this summer? Replace a portion of your lawn with attractive edible groundcovers. You’ll have less mowing, more leisure time, and home-grown herbs to enjoy.
If your climate tends to be on the hot, dry, sunny side, replace part of your lawn with low-growing thyme (Thymus sp.). This Mediterranean herb likes full sun, excellent drainage, and low water. Bees and other pollinators love the nectar from thyme flowers, and thymol, a natural compound extracted from thyme, has antimicrobial properties and helps control parasitic mites that stress honeybee populations. Thymus serphyllum, creeping thyme, grows 6 to 12 inches tall and will spread to 1 to 3 feet wide depending on the cultivar, providing a tough, low-maintenance groundcover. Thymus serphyllum ‘Annie Hall’ is covered by tiny pinkish-lavender flowers. ‘Pink Ripple’ also has pale pink flowers and a lemon scent to the foliage. Culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has a more upright habit, but you can keep it compact by shearing off handfuls to use in soups, sauces, salads, marinades, and to flavor meats and seafood on the grill. Variety ‘Silver Queen’ has attractive white edges to the petals. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) is also edible, and has (not surprisingly) a bright lemony taste.
Slightly larger than thyme, but similar in appearance, winter savory (Satureja montana) is another herb that provides great groundcover and requires little input from the homeowner. It grows 15 inches tall and wide, but harvesting the stems and leaves keeps the plant compact and thick. Like thyme, it appreciates full sun and well drained soil. It is hardy to Zone 6.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an underused annual herb that tastes faintly of citrus. Its fleshy leaves are rich in Vitamin C and Omega 3 fatty acids. Popular in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, it spreads rapidly by seed, which can be good or bad depending on your landscape goals. You may wish to grow it in a container for a year to see how you like it, before planting it out in the landscape. Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge (Chamaesyce species), which can irritate skin and eyes and can be poisonous. Buy purslane seeds or plants from a reputable nursery, and try the fresh new growth in salads – there are lots of recipes online. If you keep backyard chickens, you can share it with them; you’ll have plenty.
 EPA, Conserving Water, “Landscaping and Irrigation“
 The Xerces Society, “Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees“; Harvard School of Public Health, “Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies“
Photo of Thymus vulgaris by Dlanglois; photo of Satureja montana by Kurt Stueber; photo of Portulaca oleracea by ZooFari; all photos via Wikimedia licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported