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The Homeowners Column
State Master Gardener Coordinator
Love them or loathe them, lawns are the ultimate groundcover. Lawn grass accepts foot traffic, can spread to fill in bare soil, stays green most of the time, holds soil against erosion and gives us a great place to play volleyball. However, sometimes we need or want alternatives to lawns. Worthy reasons include: difficult to mow areas; shady areas where grass grows poorly; desire for more wildlife friendly options; or you are sick of mowing.
First, time for a reality check. Areas planted in groundcovers do not translate into plant 'em, leave 'em and forget 'em. During the first year groundcover plants should be mulched and watered periodically if rain doesn't provide at least an inch of water a week. Some weeding may be needed, especially until groundcovers cover the soil. After groundcovers are established, scout for weeds and problems throughout the season.
Before planting prepare the soil properly by adding organic matter such as compost and working the soil to 8 to 10 inches deep. Remove any weeds through herbicides or physical removal before planting. Future weeding will be reduced if weeds are managed before planting. For severe weed issues I would recommend preparing the bed this fall and planting next spring once you are assured weeds are under control.
Here is just a small sample of the many perennial groundcovers. Keep in mind these groundcovers will not tolerate heavy foot traffic, so keep your size 10's off.
Bugleweed, Ajuga reptans, has low-growing, attractive leaves in swirled rosettes. It spreads by above ground stolons and prefers moist, well-drained soils in heavy shade to full sun. Protect bugleweed from winter winds. It tends to die out when plants get crowded. However, usually enough plants remain to repopulate the area. Bugleweed has several cultivars with small to large leaves with maroon to variegated leaves.
Canada wild ginger, Asarum canadense, has heart-shaped leaves and grows to six inches tall. Wild ginger is a native plant excellent for partial to deep shade. European ginger has a glossier evergreen leaf and also makes a great groundcover.
Galium odoratum, is a delicate groundcover that forms a mat of bright
green whorled leaves. Its small, white flowers are a delight in late spring.
Sweet woodruff prefers moist, well-drained soils in medium to deep shade. It spreads
to form Elizabethan collars around its neighbors.
Japanese spurge, Pachysandra terminalis, is evergreen with whorled leaves on upright stems. It's best in full shade in moist, well-drained soils with lots of organic matter. It performs best if it is protected from winter winds. Japanese spurge does well in heavily shaded areas under shallow rooted trees.
nettles, Lamium spp. suffer through a
very unfortunate common name, but are tough, adaptable plants for full shade to
part shade areas. Many cultivars are available with silver leaves and flower
colors of pink, white or purple. Leaves are variegated with some degree of
silver which can light up a dark shady spot. Lamiums often flower all summer
and the foliage stays lovely well through December.
Tread lightly with exaggerated claims about total lawn replacements. Lawn alternatives must be vigorous plants to be good groundcovers. Start with replacing a small area and determine how well the plants grow in your yard. For example creeping thyme is often listed as a lawn alternative. It is a fabulous perennial plant; however, it can struggle with our high organic matter soils and winters with little snow cover. Creeping thyme may work as a lawn alternative in other areas of the U.S., but here in central Illinois it is best left in small sunny areas with good soil drainage.
Consider using taller plants as groundcovers such as catmint, daylily, hosta, obedient plant, prairie dropseed, sedum, or 'Flower Carpet' rose. Check out http://extension.illinois.edu/groundcovers/