6 Ground Covers To Replace Turf Grass

Lawns! We love them and we hate them. Turf grass remains the largest irrigated crop in the U.S., covering approximately 49,000 square miles – that’s larger than the state of Pennsylvania! Some view a green lawn as essential to being a good neighbor or even an indication of financial success. Many of us, well, we just like the way they look.

Yet, the popularity of lawns has been trending downward across the nation for years, understandably. An attractive lawn requires work – lots of it. Mowing, edging, maintaining equipment, fighting brown spots and weeds, adding fertilizers, regular watering, and on and on. These are the constant trials of the grass farmer.

Lawns need a lot of water. Outdoor water use accounts for

up to 30% of total household use.

If you’re part of the crowd that wants to get off the hamster wheel of time and money BUT you still love coming home to an attractive green space, consider replacing your turf grass with native groundcover.  

Just what is a groundcover? They’re low-lying plants that creep and spread. They cover small to large sections of ground with minimal maintenance and come in a spectrum of shapes and sizes. Whatever your taste, neat and trim or something more “natural,” tall or short, busy or manicured, green or colorful, you can find a native groundcover to meet your needs.

Going with groundcover will save you a ton of maintenance time, water, chemicals, and money. The added bonus: while lawns offer almost zero environmental value, native groundcovers provide a host of benefits for pollinators and other wildlife. Who wouldn’t like to see more butterflies out their window?! 

If you’re ready to say good-bye to turf grass, check out these native, perennial groundcovers and find the best fit for your yard.  


Sun Loving Groundcover

Frogfruit Phyla incisa 

  • Height: 3-6 inches 
  • Bloom Time: May through October 
  • Color: White flowers. Semi-evergreen leaves 
  • Light Requirement: Sun 
  • Soil Condition: Tolerates most soils and drainage; Low water use 
  • Attracts: Butterflies and is the larval host plant for Phaon Crescentspot, Buckeye and White Peacock butterflies 
  • Tolerates drought and flooding. Avoid mowing until after flowering season 
Photo by Thomas L. Muller

Silver Ponyfoot Dichondra argentea 

  • Height: 3-4 inches 
  • Bloom Time: May through August 
  • Color: Silver-gray semi-evergreen leaves 
  • Light Requirement: Sun 
  • Soil Condition: Well-drained soil; Low water use 
  • Attracts: Butterflies and bees use for food and shelter 
  • Can spread rapidly under constant irrigation.  
Photo by Joseph A. Marcus

Prairie Verbena  Glandularia bipinnatifida 

  • Height: 6-12 inches 
  • Bloom Time: March through December 
  • Color: Pink and purple flowers; Semi-evergreen leaves 
  • Light Requirement: Sun 
  • Soil Condition: Well-drained soil; Low water use 
  • Attracts: Butterflies  
  • Cut back to encourage re-bloom and denser growth. 
Photo by Norman G. Flaigg

Shade Tolerant Groundcover

Horseherb Calyptocarpus vialis 

  • Height: 6-12 inches 
  • Bloom Time: March through November 
  • Color: Yellow flowers; Semi-evergreen leaves 
  • Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade, Sun 
  • Soil Condition: Well-drained sand, loam or clay soil; Low to medium water use 
  • Attracts: Small butterflies 
  • Tolerates mowing 
Photo by Melody Lytle

Partridgeberry  Mitchella repens 

  • Height: 1-2 inches 
  • Bloom Time: May through October 
  • Color: White, pink and purple flowers; Red berries; Evergreen leaves 
  • Light Requirement: Part Shade, Shade 
  • Soil Condition: Dry to moist soil; Low to medium water use 
  • Attracts: Birds and small mammals enjoy the small red berries 
  • Best for low traffic/undisturbed locations. Avoid mowing. 
Photo by Alan Cressler

Wild Petunia Ruellia nudiflora 

  • Height: 1-2 feet 
  • Bloom Time: April through October 
  • Color: Purple flowers; Leaves will fall off at the end of growing season 
  • Light Requirement: Shade, Part Shade, Sun 
  • Soil Condition: Sandy soil; Low to medium water use 
  • Attracts: Butterflies and is a larval host plant for Common Buckeye, Cuban Crescentspot, Malachite and White Peacock butterflies 
  • Tolerates mowing 
Photo by Sally and Andy Wasowski

Concerned about keeping native plants looking tidy? Keep edges maintained and occasionally trim or mow depending on the groundcover selected and you will have an aesthetically pleasing lawn with little effort. 

Still unsure? The Woodlands Residential Development Standards encourages the use of native plants. As stated: 

D. Front Yard Landscaping  

Forty percent of the front yard (excluding the portion covered by driveway and walkways) must be trees, shrubbery, flowers, mulch or plants other than turf or grass. No trees, shrubbery, plants or vegetation may be removed that would result in the grassed area exceeding 60 percent of the front yard. 

F. Native Plants 

The use of native plant materials with an understanding of the functional and aesthetic properties of each plant category is essential in the achievement of a sense of continuity and consistency in The Woodlands landscape concept. Whenever possible, new plantings should make use of ground covers in lieu of grass. 

Even if you aren’t ready to replace your entire lawn, consider the benefits of replacing part of your lawn. Be rewarded with a yard that attracts pollinators and birds, saves you water, time and money. 


Many native plants qualify for a native plant rebate from Woodlands Water Agency. If you are a Woodlands resident and live in Montgomery County, be sure to check out the complete list of rebates available here. 


Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov 


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5 Design Elements Your Yard Might Be Missing

Welcome! Come on a design journey with us to turn your landscape into an inviting sanctuary that fits your goals and doesn’t take all weekend to maintain. This is Part One of a series to make your space your favorite place in The Woodlands. Let’s get started. 

Great design pairs what you want to do in your yard within the constraints of the space you are dealing with, without it feeling forced or out of place. Here are 5 design elements that help everything flow and really deliver the wow-factor.

Purposeful Paths

Are you looking to infuse some character or intriguing elements into your landscape? Would you like it to seem larger? How about improving flow and tying separate spaces together? Consider installing a path.  

Purposeful paths can provide an important foundation for your landscape design. As you consider their potential role, ask yourself: What areas get the most use? Could underused areas be transformed into a destination, boosting their appeal? And note where you have to maintain access to easements, that big green box in the back corner or other rights of way for utilities – these routes could be incorporated into pathways. Think about how people could wander through the space. Meandering paths that reveal new views help make use of the full depth and width of your lot – making it seem larger.

Installing paths is fun, but they can also be disruptive. Make life easier by tackling them before you start building and planting your beds. Bonus points for paths that allow water to percolate through. This helps to manage rainfall and provides tree roots with better access to moisture. Think decomposed granite, pavers, woodchips, or an artful mosaic.  

Rooms with a View 

Which window do you look out from the most? Is it an inspiring sight? For many, it’s the kitchen sink or a favorite reading chair. How could you enhance the experience by bringing the outside in? Note any sightlines that need screening, and opportunities to borrow a view from farther vistas. A beautiful glazed pot, stunning statue, or dramatic pop of color could make doing the dishes that much more pleasant.

Places to Plant the Rain 

Rainwater is a mineral-rich drench for the landscape. Harness this abundant, free resource by directing downspouts to plantings that rely on a good soaking to set deep roots and lush growth.  Our area is gifted with 50 inches of rain a year, but often we are too eager to direct it off our properties, allowing soils to quickly dry out. During the next cloudburst, get out in the yard with muckboots and an umbrella for a practical education about stormwater on your site. Do you have an area that stays wet for more than 3 days? This could become a rain garden. Where is water eroding the soil? This is an opportunity to slow down the flow with some well-placed rocks or a slight change in slope. Don’t let this valuable resource run away; encourage it to spread out and sink into the ground.  

Better yet, save some water for the sunny days ahead with a rain barrel.  Easy to install, Ivy rain barrels qualify for a rebate from Woodlands Water and proceeds support The Woodlands GREEN scholarship program. Order online and pick up at Environmental Services. Stay tuned for an entire post devoted to harvesting and managing rainwater; until then get inspired by Brad Lancaster.  

Grow Up! 

There are so many creative ways to use vertical space in the garden – vines on trellises immediately come to mind. But a quick search will reveal all kinds of possibilities: wall planters, obelisks, re-purposed pallets, yard art, plant towers, plant pockets, nested gutters, the list goes on. Growing up and even over has the benefit of creating a sense of enclosure around outdoor spaces that leads to a big “reveal” on the other side. This interplay of intimacy and openness adds a little drama to a space instead of seeing everything at once.

Solar Reality Check 

Finally, it’s time to take an honest look at the sun in your yard. We’ve all been there – brought home a beautiful, sun-loving plant at the nursery and watched it struggle in the place we want to put it. Or lamented ferns frying in some unexpected late-afternoon sun.  

Note the way the light moves over the landscape throughout the season as trees leaf out and the sun’s angle changes. Pictures or video can be great references for when the shadows are long but the memory is short. The plants you have may already give some indication of sun and shade. Having problems growing grass under the trees? Our St. Augustine struggles if given less than 6 hours of direct sun, leading to bare patches which invite weeds. Save yourself the heartache and use a shade-loving ground cover for lush, low-maintenance alternative. 

Other sun-lovers are vegetable gardens and most fruit trees. If one of these is a priority, then you may find yourself planting a lemon in the front yard, or putting veggies in pots on the deck to get these plants the light they need. Being realistic about the amount of sun each area gets will help steer you towards a successful plant pallet for that space. 

You still have plenty of options for shadier spots. Veggie gardeners will want to focus on crops grown for their roots and shoots over fruits, which take much more time in the sun to develop and ripen. If flowers and shrubs are more to your liking, there are plenty o great options that thrive under the tall canopy of the Pineywoods. Check out the table below for some surefire options.

Perhaps you’d like to bring more shade into your landscape. Trees and umbrellas are standard go-to’s for creating a hot summer oasis. But have you considered some well-placed vines and trellises (grow up!), pergolas with slatted roofs or sling canopies? Shade sails can also be hung as the heat ramps up and are easily adjusted as sun angles change throughout the season. Retractable awnings are a larger investment but they’ll shelter you from the rain, too.  

Check out Alexandra from The Middle-Sized Garden as she tackles a difficult shady corner of her yard. Even though she gardens in the UK, the way she comes to her decision is a wonderful exercise in assessing design options.  

Design is an iterative, incremental process. Start with what you want, what you have, and identify your major constraints. Often it is through design challenges that we find our most creative successes. 

Up next… 

Stay tuned for Part Two where we get into some of the “right ways” to garden in the context of where we live – the humid south – to help you make the best choices for a successful, easy oasis.


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov


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Earth Day GreenUp 2021: Thank you volunteers!

Over 700 volunteers worked together to remove an incredible 8,000 lbs of litter from our community at the 10th annual Earth Day GreenUp community litter cleanup day on Saturday, March 20,2021. The amount of litter collected is the equivalent of 125 of our curbside trash carts.

Single-use plastics, such as grocery bags, disposable cutlery and cups, fast food containers and straws, were the most common type of litter collected at GreenUp. These items are blown from parking lots, picnic areas and trash barrels into forested areas. Choosing reusable alternatives and refusing single-use plastics reduces this type of harmful litter. Volunteers also collected larger items such as construction debris, discarded lawn furniture, used tires and more.

Help keep The Woodlands looking beautiful by continuing the litter pick up habit. Consider organizing your own cleanup any time of the year or adopting a pathway through the Adopt-a-path program. Trash grabbers are available for loan through the Environmental Services Department. For more information or to reserve grabbers, contact The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department at enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov.

Scouts seeking their Soil & Water Conservation badge or the It’s Your Planet – Love It Journey badge can receive free equipment to organize their own cleanups from Keep Texas Beautiful. Check out their website for more information.

Earth Day GreenUp is hosted by The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department with support from the following sponsors: Waste ManagementKeep Texas BeautifulChevron Phillips ChemicalYellowstone LandscapeWoodlands WaterHoward Hughes CorporationThe Woodlands GREEN, and Papa John’s Pizza

Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov


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Drought Update: regional drought likely, keep conserving water

Let me guess, you probably had a coat on hand before winter arrived, a spare tire in the trunk in case of a flat, and a flashlight around the house should the power go out. The concept couldn’t be simpler: be prepared, save yourself some trouble. This simple logic is even more critical when it comes to our life-sustaining resources, like clean water.  

The ready availability of clean water hinges on a number of factors. Some we can control. Unfortunately, some we can’t, like the weather. We are at the mercy of precipitation to recharge our surface and groundwaters. When precipitation wanes for an extended period – drought – the accessibility of our water supply wanes, too. The longer and more severe the drought, the harder and more expensive it is to meet our water demands.  

Despite above-average rainfall in December, Montgomery County was in abnormally dry status at year’s end. Weather experts project drought status for the entire state through the summer.  

In December 2020, Montgomery county transitioned from moderate drought to abnormally dry. Click here  for the most recent drought report from the Texas Water Development Board. 

The Texas Water Development Board oversees planning for water needs by region. Their Region H 2021 Water Plan projects future water needs for The Woodlands and surrounding areas. To meet the needs of this fast-growing region, the plan relies heavily on conservation – an 18% reduction in the current demand rate. If conservation goals aren’t met, droughts will require more severe water restrictions – an uncomfortable, inconvenient and expensive step best avoided.  

Most of your neighbors are thinking ahead by conserving now. Are you?   

  • Fix leaks inside and out: sprinkler heads, hose connects, and toilets are likely culprits. A running toilet can leak 26 gallons a day! 
  • Put the right amount of water on your lawn. Our St. Augustine lawns only require an inch a week, including rainfall.   
  • Install low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators. One aerator takes only a minute to install and can save 3,000 gallons a year!  
  • Put water only where it’s needed. Check your sprinkler heads regularly to ensure they aren’t spraying your driveway and street.  

Will these measures really make a difference? Yes! An average home uses 120,000 gallons of water a year. In fact, you can meet the 18% conservation goal simply by adopting three simple actions: 

  • Turn off the water when brushing your teeth = 4,000 gallons/yr.  
  • Use an efficient dishwasher vs hand washing = 6,000 gallons/yr. 
  • Fix your leaks (toilets, faucets, appliances) = 7,500 gallons/yr.  

Drought will intensify the pressure on our already strained water supply. Plan ahead and conserve now.  Will you join your neighbors in doing your part? 


Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov


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Today I Saved A Frog

Never underestimate the power of youth to bring about change. Just because they’re young doesn’t mean they can’t show us older folks how to be environmentally responsible. Kids get it!  

Take the case of the Discovery School of Innovation students who stepped up recently to protect our local streams. A volunteer project installing storm drain markers near their school in Grogan’s Mill piqued their interest; they wanted to learn more, get involved and make a difference. 

Along with the school’s Director, Cathy Sagar, the students started by connecting with a Township environmental educator, diving a little deeper into The Woodlands’ water quality. They studied watersheds and modeled how stormwater carries pollutants from lawns and roads into our local waterways, like Spring Creek. They also grappled with some tough problems. Some people mistake storm drains for trash cans dumping grass clippings, litter, auto fluids and more into storm drains. Unfortunately, everything dumped in the drain is carried directly to a nearby waterway.    

Others fail to pick up after their pets. Pet waste is one of our biggest water quality issues. Dangerously high bacteria levels result when waste is left on the ground. Though it eventually breaks down, harmful bacteria remains, eventually working its way into nearby water bodies, endangering aquatic organisms and humans, alike. 

The good news? Youthful determination prevailed. Understanding that something can be done about these issues, they leapt into action to get the message out: keep our creeks clean!  

Remember how everything felt so certain when you were young? On a crisp December morning, the Discovery students jumped into action, affixing markers that carry the message about pollution in storm drains. As they were finishing their final drain marker, they observed a frog intently observing them.  In that moment, they felt certain the frog was telling them they had done the right thing that day, for him and all the other critters that rely on clean water.

 

But that’s not the end of the story for these young water heroes. Each student committed to picking up litter when they see it and picking up after their pets, too. They bubbled over with enthusiasm to share their new knowledge and commitment with others, continuing to expand their impact.  

Sure, most of the Storm Drain Marker Project volunteers are adults. But none of us, young or old, should take clean water for granted. And let’s not take our action-oriented youth for granted, either. If you see them installing markers or picking up litter, give them a shout out. And consider joining them by  registering to volunteer. Save a frog, a fish, or maybe Spring Creek.  

To learn more contact The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department at enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov or 281-210-3800.