Lawns provide an attractive and durable surface for areas that receive a lot of traffic in your yard, but can also require a lot of upkeep. Mass plantings of ground covering plants can provide a low-maintenance alternative to traditional lawns. Replacing large sweeps of lawn with groundcover plantings can be beneficial to wildlife, highly attractive, and reduce your landscape’s irrigation needs. If you are searching for something different this year, consider planting ground covers as a lawn alternative to help wildlife, reduce water use, and save money.
Why ground covers?
The main appeal of ground covers is their reduced maintenance and upkeep, especially in areas where it is difficult to grow turf grass. Ground covers also reduce the risk of mower or string trimmer damage to trees and shrubs by serving as a buffer between woody plantings and turf areas. Densely planted ground covers help suppress weed growth, protect plant roots from ground freezes in colder months, and are good choices for difficult-to-maintain areas such as ditch banks or areas against buildings and walls.
Choosing a ground cover
There are hundreds of ground cover plants from which you can choose, but remember to select varieties that are suited for your specific area. For example, ajuga and vinca, are evergreen plants that form low-growing mats and prefer partial to full shade. As spring bloomers, both provide early nectar sources for foraging bees and pollinators. Another option for shade is to mass plant evergreen ferns such as Christmas fern or holly fern. Contrast the lacy texture of ferns against the narrow, linear leaves of mondo grass, another ground covering shade lover.
Shore juniper and blue rug juniper are both evergreen plant that prefer well-drained soils in full sun, and are exceptionally drought tolerant. Flowering perennial groundcovers for sunny, well drained areas include creeping phlox, with white, purple, or pink spring blooms, dense plantings of daylilies, and lower growing ornamental grasses like pink muhly grass. If you are looking for something edible and fragrant, creeping thyme and oregano make interesting additions in areas with full sun and good drainage. For areas with heavy soil or poor drainage, try liriope, daylilies, or rain lilies.
Knowing where to begin can be overwhelming, especially if you are planning on removing a good portion of your lawn. It is best to start small and select an area adjacent to your home or an area of your lawn that is not growing well, such as under or around trees.
If you are removing centipede or St. Augustinegrass, a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard laid over the top of the turf is effective, but turf can take several months to fully die. A quicker option is to spray a general purpose herbicide over the area once the grass greens up in spring. One application will likely be sufficient to kill centipede, carpetgrass, or St. Augustine, but Bermuda and zoysia lawn areas will likely need to be sprayed at least twice before planting.
Planting and maintaining ground covers
Fall is the best time to install plants, but early spring also works, as spring rains will provide a natural source of water. Incorporate a few inches of compost into the soil over the entire planting area to improve drainage and moisture retention for new plants. While you are preparing your area, have your soil tested so you can choose plants suited for your soil pH, and so you can add needed nutrients accordingly.
When spacing ground covers, take into account how quickly or slowly a specific plant species grows. It can take 2 years or longer for some plants to become fully established and cover an area. Slower growing groundcovers will need to be planted more densely than faster spreading varieties. Weeds need to be maintained for the first year or two, or until ground covers become well established.
Establishing a new ground cover has a lot of upfront inputs; however, with a little time and patience, you will find that a ground cover can completely transform your yard. With careful planning, you can have a landscape that provides color throughout the year, and helps reduce inputs and environmental stress.
For more advice on ground covers and lawn alternatives, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Sam Marshall is the horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.