How can I cut down on lawn mowing?

This lush sward appears to be grass but look again. It's Selliera micrphylla a no-mow alternative to a traditional grass ...
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This lush sward appears to be grass but look again. It's Selliera micrphylla a no-mow alternative to a traditional grass lawn.

Q: I mowed our lawn yesterday. I filled the air with blue fumes, the neighbourhood with loud noise and the garden bin with only partly compostable clippings. But our garden is big enough to need a lawn; what are my options?

A: Plenty of people don't want the hassle of a grass lawn. Nelson-based NoMow Lawns & Groundcovers have come up with a solution. They provide a variety of low-growing, mat-forming, ground cover plants you can grow as an alternative lawn which won't need mowing. 

The best known no-mow option if you want a lawn that will stand up to traffic is Mercury Bay weed (Dichondra repens). Its leaves become smaller and tighter as it's walked on and it forms a dense thatch impenetrable by weeds once established. It is prone to a particular disease which gives it brown spots though so it's best sown mixed with other varieties like purple acaena and purple-green leptinella to create an intriguing mix of colour and texture. 

Dichondra repens, Mercury Bay weed, has leaves that become tighter when walked on.
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Dichondra repens, Mercury Bay weed, has leaves that become tighter when walked on.

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A tougher choice is the New Zealand native seaside plant Selliera microphylla, which forms dense patches of small green foliage with a mown-grass appearance, and which needs the attention of a mower only once or twice a year. It will tolerate wet conditions, doesn't mind periods of dry, and copes well with moderate foot traffic. In nature, this plant is often covered with salt water during periods of extra-high tides and it gets blasted by salt-laden storms, meaning it's extremely salt tolerant. Selliera grows on the rocks by the blowholes at Punakaiki, where it's trampled by the feet of hundreds of tourists every day. It copes just as easily as when it's being washed over by waves when the tide is high.

Selliera microphylla is ideal for areas with moderate traffic. This seaside plant is very hardy.
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Selliera microphylla is ideal for areas with moderate traffic. This seaside plant is very hardy.

Not that Selliera is right for every situation. It's not completely cold hardy, so if someone in Queenstown, for instance, wants a no-mow lawn, thymes and the little native Muehlenbeckia axillaris, which can be mown if it grows above a desired height, are a better option. 

Lawn substitutes for shade are another matter. Pratia angulata, which has pretty white flowers, and the handsome ground-hugging native fern Blechnum penna-marina, which grows 5-10cm tall and handles light foot traffic are possible options. Blechnum is is also a good plant for walls and banks, able to tolerate both moist and dry situations, light shade, and sun too, provided the soil doesn't dry out. It's an especially attractive fern in spring when the pink-tinged new growth emerges.

Fragrance is something that's often asked for in a lawn substitute and something Selliera doesn't possess. Thymes are an obvious choice for a lawn that releases fragrance when walked on, and several varieties are suitable for areas with light foot traffic. Walking on or mowing pennyroyal or Corsican mint can be a heady experience ad the crushing releases volatile oils which waft into the air.

White thyme. The most vigorous of the thymes, it spreads into a tough carpet.
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White thyme. The most vigorous of the thymes, it spreads into a tough carpet.

At the NoMow nursery, seedlings for no-mow lawns are grown in trays. At planting time, they're tipped out and cut into plugs, according to the variety, and planted out. It usually takes three to six months for the plugs to meet up. The plants become more dense as they age. 

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If you want a no-mow lawn, prepare soil as for a conventional lawn. It should be as weed free as possible, via herbicides and weed mats, but not too compacted. Weed problems should be minimal once established. Watering needs depend on the species used; some require no watering at all, others just a little during dry spells. Watering does help while they're establishing, however. 

While seed is rarely available for these mat-forming plants, seedlings can sometimes be found at garden centres or native nurseries, or else NoMow sends no-mow plants nationwide.

Bushman’s confetti, Muehlenbeckia axillaris, is a hardy native, ideal for children’s play areas.
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Bushman’s confetti, Muehlenbeckia axillaris, is a hardy native, ideal for children’s play areas.

Pennyroyal grows in sun or partial shade. It has a minty scent and purple flowers.
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Pennyroyal grows in sun or partial shade. It has a minty scent and purple flowers.

Corsican mint is best for areas with light foot traffic. Its fine leaves form a flat groundcover.
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Corsican mint is best for areas with light foot traffic. Its fine leaves form a flat groundcover.

Baby’s tears, Soleirolia soleirolii, likes moist shade and can grow on walls too.
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Baby’s tears, Soleirolia soleirolii, likes moist shade and can grow on walls too.

 - NZ Gardener

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