Unintentional groundcovers

Allowing diversity within your landscape is one way to reduce dependence on summer watering.

As summer heat sets in to stay awhile, many homeowners crank up the sprinklers to keep lawns looking as fresh and green as a spring morning. On the other hand, others who want to save water often overreact, ripping out all their grass and replacing it with tons of rock.

But these aren’t the only water-saving options.

In the neighborhood where I live, most people choose not to water their lawns. The grass isn’t as green as it is in springtime, but these lawns are true xeriscapes because they require zero gallons of water to maintain.

Along with not requiring any water, other interesting things occur in these xeric lawnscapes, namely what I refer to as unintentional groundcovers: Wild plants that aren’t grass but can withstand mowing and thrive in lawns.

Here’s a few common ones.

  • Gregg’s tube tongue. Gregg's woolly honeysuckle purple flowers with yellow horseherb, unwatered, in autumn 2023 after droughtI can’t sing its praises enough. Capable of growing in sun or shade, this plant doesn’t get more than a few inches tall even when it isn’t mowed and is covered with little pink blooms after summer thunderstorms. The leaves stay green most of the year, only being affected by winter freezes.
  • Three-lobed false mallow. This is an introduced weed ubiquitous throughout San Antonio, and when allowed to grow wild can get a foot or two tall. When it’s mowed the plant spreads out and produces a semi-ground cover of overlapping stems and leaves just below the mower blades. It’s not something you can find in nurseries, but in the lawns where it can be found it’s often the greenest plant from June to October. In addition, it produces petite orange flowers all summer long.
  • Wild petunia. This is another plant that can be found growing in many spaces around town, when it is allowed to grow it can be about one to two feet tall. However, when it is frequently mowed it spreads out into little colonies of dark green leaves. Occasionally throughout the summer they will send up a flower stalk and produce tubular purple flowers.
  • Low menodora. This small spreading plant is usually found mixed in with other ground covers like Gregg’s tube tongue or straggler daisy but can become dominant in extremely dry, full sun conditions. The stems grow along the ground and leaves never really get tall enough for a mower to touch unless they are propped up by something else. Little red buds followed by yellow flowers appear all summer long after rains.


This unassuming vegetation could be considered lawn weeds by the inexperienced because they out-compete grasses under the typical conditions used to promote lawns. But the fact that they perform better than turf grasses is the reason I think they’re the ideal complement (or replacement) to a typical lawn.

Other unintentional groundcovers have already been adopted as landscaping plants and are now widely used, including frogfruit and horseherb.

Every plant has a season. In San Antonio during drought, our warm season turf grasses only look their best in spring so unintentional groundcovers step up to the plate. Embrace them and you’ll save a lot of water, and money too.

Picture of Cleveland Powell
Cleveland Powell
Cleveland Powell is a conservation planner for SAWS. He is enthusiastic about grass taxonomy and milkweed propagation. In his free time, Powell enjoys hiking around area parks in search of intriguing bugs, birds and plants.
Dig Deeper

Find expert advice on garden basics, landscape design, watering and year-round maintenance.