Lawn Replacement on Very Sandy Site Near Ottawa
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Joel and Brenda Morin
Posted on: January 24, 1999

We have a bit of a challenge and we’d like your advice, if possible. We live in a development on the south side of Ottawa. It’s a half acre lot on well and septic. The soil is terribly sandy. We have a lot of lawn that we don’t really need any more (kids don’t use it any more and the main purpose it seems to have is to get mowed). We have no mature trees (the area used to be farmland) but we do have several (6) that are 5-15 feet high. There’s a cedar hedge on 3 sides. We’re not "outside" people, We like to take advantage of the yard but are (a) too busy and (b) not sufficiently motivated to spend hours weeding and preening, especially when the heat and/or the mosquitoes hit.

So much for background, now to the challenge.

We’re thinking of gradually doing away with lawn, especially in the back yard, in favour of bushes, perennials, ground cover and self-seeding annuals that are suitable for sandy soil, drought resistant (with the well we’d rather not have to do a lot of watering). Plug trays and plants are much preferred to seed starts. The idea is to have an idea of a plan and start trying slowly (perhaps along a fence, creating some beds or accenting what exists) and see where we end up.

I like the idea of one or three ginkgo trees, by the way.

We’re hoping that you might be able to suggest some plants or trees (do you have others than the ginkgo?) or bushes or ground cover that you believe might fit our needs. Now’s the time to start planning so we can order them and get started in the Spring.

There are going to be three overriding issues as you think about this project further. The first is what plants are suited for the site; the second is what is your vision of what the site should look like when the project is finished; and the third is cost. Because you leave open the possibility that any plants from trees to ground covers could be considered, I will assume that you do not have a definite "look" in mind at the moment. But no doubt as you begin to picture in your mind what the site will look like after the planting is done, the range of plant material suited for the project will narrow.

Perhaps the simplest and cheapest solution is to simply replace the lawn with wild thyme. This plant is ideally suited for sunny and sandy locations. And it is perfectly hardy in your area; we know that because it is now naturalized in some areas east of Ottawa and it offers up a beautiful show of flowers in summer. The plant grows between 5 and 15 cm in height and it forms such a tight mat that weeds, including grasses, are completely choked out with time. Wild thyme, by the way, tolerates mowing just like grass.

Wild thyme can be introduced in stages, allowing it to slowly take over the lawn, or you can rip our the lawn completely and start fresh with wild thyme. The choice depends on how much work you are willing to put into the project at one time, and on your budget. Wild thyme plugs can be planted in 15 cm centres throughout the area if you are completely replacing the lawn, or you can start with patches planted with groups of plugs 10-15 cm apart which will eventually compete with the grass and take over.

Wild thyme is the only creeping thyme that can be grown from seeds. Seeds are worth considering if your budget is limited. You can start seeds two ways: by direct sowing in the area (after present lawn is removed and soil dug and prepared for seeding) or by sowing in flats or plug trays for later transplanting to the area. Direct seeding is riskier because the seeds are very small and chance for failure is high. However, if you are careful not to plant the seeds too deep and to water in a timely fashion during dry spells, a wild thyme lawn is readily established using seeds.

I have dwelled on wild thyme because this fragrant herb comes to mind first, especially after having seen it do so well in your area. However, there are other herbs you could consider. Indeed, many of the "Mediterranean" herbs – herbs such as sage, lavender, oregano, savory, hyssop, and thyme – thrive in sandy, sunny locations. You may wish to use these herbs to create some relief contrast to the expanse of low-growing wild thyme. If the budget allows it, adding some organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure will increase the fertility of the soil to the benefit of these herbs.

Higher shrubs and trees can be incorporated into the design. Ginkgo trees, though slow to establish, are very hardy and will eventually provide some welcome shade. Consider other herbal shrubs such as elderberry, witchhazel, and apothecary’s rose will do well. In amongst the taller shrubs and the lower oregano, hyssop, etc. you can plant medicinal herbs that thrive in sunny dry locations such as mullien, St. Johnswort, black-eyed susan, motherwort, mugwort, wormwood and echinacea.

For more ideas, we recommend two new books by Jo Ann Gardner: "Herbs in Bloom: A Guide to Growing Herbs as Oranmental Plants" and "Living with Herbs: A Treasury of Useful Plants for the Home and Garden," both available from Richters.

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