Archive for Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ground covers good alternative to lawn

March 13, 2008


The more I write about gardening and learn about our environment, the more I am converting my lawn from grass to beds of perennials or annual flower beds, patios and ground covers.

Little by little, I am slowly taking away as much of my generic turf grass as possible. There are a bevy of reasons, including the fumes and maintenance of lawn mowers, the chemicals it takes to have a pristine lawn, how grass is a no-man's land for animals and how, as time goes on, there have become more reasons for me not have a lawn than to have one.

Ground covers are fantastic alternatives to a lawn and are tremendously useful as under-plantings as well. There are many that are soft and pliable for plenty of romping around with the kids and pets. Ground covers are quite effective at keeping weeds at bay by simply choking them out of the picture - with no chemicals needed or bending over involved.

Many of them sport blooms for added interest or scents to create aromas that waft through the air each time you tread on a soft, billowy carpet of many varieties. They provide for butterflies, birds and bees. After a couple of seasons you, your dog and your kids won't miss that gas guzzling, high-maintenance grass that kept you chained to the back end of a lawn mower on weekends and crouched over eradicating errant dandelions whittling away your remaining free time outdoors.


I inquired with various gardeners as to which ground covers they preferred and have discovered which thrive in our climate. But first I'd like to start with one of my favorites, liriope. Liriope, sometimes referred to as lily turf, creates the most lush, playful beds of ground cover around, the curving structure of the thin blades of dark green grass bend and conform to sweeping areas under trees and used as borders.

It is a heat- and drought-resistant plant, making it quite hardy and able to survive in most soil types. It resists the invasion of weeds and is rarely affected by pests or disease. The varieties are many - from clumping to creeping, sun to shade, there is a perfect fit for any landscaping dilemma. The majority of liriope are evergreen, thus creating year-long interest. And to put the cherry on top of the sundae, liriope dons spiky blooms in the spring of either lavender or white.

Karen Henry, a local gardener, agrees with my infatuation with liriope.

"Lily turf is my only friend during the hottest, driest days of the summer in my wooded backyard," she says. "It retains its neat dignity with virtually no care or water. Granted, this time of year it can get a little ratty, but some people just mow it and it springs back to life in April."


"I also love vinca, again it is a stalwart in the dry shade and I've finally realized you can plant stuff in it - like spring bulbs - and make it a very pretty bed," Henry says.

Mary Olson, an extension Master Gardener, agrees.

"Vinca vine is easier to control than most, also creeping Jenny has a beautiful yellow color that pops in the shade but will die back in the winter," she says. "Liriope have a divine texture as well."

Vinca minor is a short evergreen perennial ground cover that will tolerate partial sun to full shade; it dons waxy deep green leaves of a petite oval shape with delicate five petal purple blooms.

Varieties with white blooms are also available. Creeping Jenny is a superb ground cover. I have it tucked under many plants in my perennial beds, and it has virtually eliminated the need to weed those areas. Creeping Jenny likes shade or part shade; it has dime-sized and shaped leaves of a bright chartreuse green to pale yellow color. It spreads in every direction and quickly, so have the right place for it or be prepared to eradicate handfuls of it over the course of the growing season.

Olson does not, however, think all ground covers are created equal.

"I run screaming from ivy, Virginia creeper and euonymous they are all too invasive," she says.

I must say I am playing for Olson's team on this matter. I've had a battle with Virginia creeper and euonymous that the prior home owners planted in my garden for over 5 years now and just when I think I've pulled them all, presto - more Virginia Creeper!

However, not everyone feels this way. Amy Albright, co-owner of Vinland Valley Nursery, happens to like euonymous.

"I adore euonymous 'kewensis,' a super-low, broadleaf evergreen groundcover with a very fine texture of tiny rounded leaves of deep, glossy green," she says. "It almost looks like a dwarf cotoneaster. It's a great under planting for epimediums, hostas and heucheras because it offers an evergreen backbone that contrasts well with summer foliage plants."

Euonymous spreads by creeping stems that root where they touch the ground, a wall, whatever it touches. It spreads indefinitely as a dense sprawling mat; similarly to English Ivy it can climb a vertical surface.


A lovely perennial, thyme can be upright or creeping. Thyme is considered an herb and is quite aromatic particularly if you choose varieties like "spicy orange thyme," "creeping lemon thyme" or "white flowering creeping thyme." The shortest creeping thyme is "elfin." Thyme has minuscule, round leaves that are supremely delicate to look at but don't let that fool you, stomp all over thyme and it will bounce right back. The butterflies and bees are also attracted to thyme for its mesmerizing scents.

Mike Gerken, a landscape architect, says of thyme: "I really like it and plan on planting some this spring between my flagstone step path. I like thyme because it is a ground cover that can handle foot traffic and when it is stepped on it gives off a wonderful scent. It also gets nice, pretty purple flowers and has a clean look to it."

Gerken has another favorite ground cover.

"Another choice that I like because it can handle shade is Barren Strawberry," he says. "I have never seen it around here, which is surprising because it has great qualities. It can deal with shade, foot traffic, it maintains a very low profile, so again, it is very clean looking. It bears a small fruit that animals love to eat and it gets a small flower and the leaf looks kind of like a maple leaf. It is nice for those tough to grow places in the yard."

Indeed, barren strawberry is a good general-purpose ground cover for full sun to partial shade, its leaves are dark green and wedge-shaped they turn bronze in the fall.

Wild ginger

I fell in love with wild ginger when I visited Extension Master Gardener Jack Landgrebe's home. He had mounds of it billowing under giant shade trees, a unique and truly awe-inspiring ground cover.

"I really like wild ginger, Asarum canadense, with its velvet green heart-shaped leaves," he says. "It spreads by rhizomes and seeds and will tolerate light to full shade, but not afternoon sun. It does like moisture and will wilt in high temperatures if not kept moist. It is a great shade ground cover that blankets the ground, and it has a nice aroma when handled."

I love it; I only wish I had a shade garden to spread wild ginger throughout.

Last but not least is Sedum kamchaticum, a pretty little ground cover that, like many sedums, has that tropical succulent feeling about it. With yellow, orange flowers on scalloped dark-green foliage this ground cover is one that requires up close inspection. It prefers well-drained soils and works very well among rocks and along borders.

Gerken says of the flora: "I also like yellow sedum or Sedum kamchaticum. Another ground cover that is very clean. It has a very showy yellow flower in the summer and has amazing fall color of red, yellow and orange."

So, however you fill in your garden space, I would consider ground covers always to be a close personal friend. I steer more towards the clean, neat ones but the wild, unruly ones have their place as well. Bottom line, ground covers will help you in the garden by making your time there more enjoyable.

It will be less about weeding and spraying and more about texture, delicate interest and kicking back to soak in the warm rays of the sun.

- Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.


canyon_wren 10 years ago

Lots of good suggestions here--my only problem is that it is difficult to rake out the many cottonwood leaves that wind up mixed in, and that makes the groundcovers look pretty tacky.

Tandava 10 years ago

Dear Jennifer:

Welcome to the club -- finally! Some of us have been getting rid of big expanses of lawn and planting ground covers and other plants for 30 years.

The City of Lawrence used to have a big problem with yards such as mine. The "weed inspector" used to be a summer job filled by some KU student majoring in English or something; in other words, he couldn't tell a weed from a desirable plant. As the years went by, and as more and more people caught on and turned their lawns and the "parking" -- that area in between the sidewalk and the street -- into gardens, the City finally had to give up. (The City should police itself. There are more noxious weeds, such as giant ragweed, growing on City-owned property than practically anywhere else.)

Having a large expanse of lawn is a false aesthetic forced on the American public mostly by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the U.S. Golf Association, the City Beautiful Movement, and the Garden Club of America, not to mention various magazines and the multi-billion-dollar-a-year lawn care industry. Maintaining this false aesthetic resulted in the chronic overuse of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that is having a devastating effect on the enviroment.

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