Ground-Covering Plants for Your Lawn

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A moss garden never needs mowing and only light watering.
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A wide ribbon of blue chalk sticks (Senecio mandraliscae) adds color and texture to a dry slope in a frost-free climate.
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Aromatic herbs sprout between pavers in this gravel courtyard garden.
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“Lawn Gone!” provides a basic introduction to low-water, easy-care lawn alternatives for beginning gardeners.

Homeowners pour 300 million gallons of gas and 1 billion hours of time every year into mowing their lawns. No wonder why the anti-lawn movement is sweeping the nation, as more and more homeowners look for eco-friendly alternatives that are as easy on the wallet as they are on the eye. Lawn Gone! (Ten Speed Press, 2013) guides readers through the process of redesigning a traditional lawn into a beautiful, sustainable and satisfying alternative. This excerpt is taken from chapter 3, “Ground-Covering Plants.”

You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Lawn Gone!

Ground-covering plants are perfect for cloaking expanses of bare soil, as a lawn does, and the best ones require less water than lawn grass and little maintenance—often just a yearly cutback or occasional trimming.

What is a groundcover? It’s any plant that grows close to the ground, forms a dense mat that helps choke out weeds, and spreads easily by means of rooting stems or underground shoots.

Because they spread easily, choose a groundcover with care, making sure you don’t plant one that will try to annex your entire yard. Oftentimes, aggressive plants are the ones given away at plant swaps and by gardening friends, simply because they have so much of it. Do a little research before planting, keeping in mind that a plant that’s invasive in one part of the country may be perfectly well behaved in another, and that properly edging a plant may go a long way toward keeping it in bounds.

Ground-Covering Plants: Creeping Vines

Creeping vines are probably the best-known groundcovers. Not coincidentally, they tend to scare people a little. English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, vinca—to some these names are synonymous with Godzilla. Ever heard of kudzu? Planted for erosion control, it quickly became “the vine that ate the South,” smothering trees, telephone poles, old houses, and anything else in its path.

So you don’t want a kudzu monster on your property. However, a potential liability—aggressive, spreading growth—can be an asset when you have a large, difficult space to cover and you plant wisely, choosing a creeping vine that isn’t on the invasive-plant list for your region. It’s also a good idea to keep a creeping vine from climbing your trees, which can be harmed by overshading, and to install durable edging to keep your groundcover where you want it.

For a sunny or partly shady location in the South, Asian jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum) and star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) are popular evergreen choices; the latter offers the bonus of fragrant, creamy flowers in spring. In the North, purpleleaf winter creeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Colorata’) is an adaptable, evergreen groundcover for sun or part shade. All three of these vining groundcovers sport glossy leaves that help to brighten shady spaces.

Don’t overlook the potential of annual creeping vines like sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas), which can cover a lot of ground in one growing season. The chartreuse (‘Margarita’) or deep-purple (‘Blackie’) foliage of sweet potato vine adds gorgeous color and lasts all summer and into fall. As with all annuals, it’ll die with the first freeze, so you’ll need to replant in spring.

Ground-Covering Plants: Creeping and Spreading Plants

An elegant solution to covering bare soil can be found in the many varieties of low-growing creeping and spreading plants. These are especially well suited for difficult-to-mow areas like slopes, parking strips bounded by curb and sidewalk (no edging necessary!), and the dry shade under trees. As with vines, they can rapidly take over in favorable conditions, so be sure to install edging to contain them and keep a weed trimmer or edging tool handy.

Instead of lawn, imagine leafy foliage in hues of emerald green, chartreuse, silver, or even purple, with varying leaf shapes, seasonal flowers, and fall color. So many options exist that it can be hard to narrow your choices. Purple heart (Tradescantia pallida), snake herb (Dyschoriste linearis), creeping raspberry (Rubus pentalobus), and silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea) are just a few of the spreading plants that thrive in hot climates.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) grow well in cooler climates. Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), and hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) are versatile groundcovers that thrive across a wide range of the country.

Low-growing, mat-forming groundcovers that can handle light foot traffic, like thyme (Thymus spp.) and creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummiularia), have long been used to soften the spaces between paving stones. You can green up a flagstone patio or a stepping-stone path by planting “walkable” groundcovers in the spaces between the stones.

With more and more people eager to replace lawns with low-growing plants that can be walked on, a number of brand-name plant lines—Stepables, Jeepers Creepers, and Treadwell Perennials are three of the better-known brands—are being marketed online and in garden centers to meet the demand and make choosing plants easier. Expect to pay a little extra for a brand name. However, the plant-selection information and step-by-step planting and care instructions may be useful, especially for new gardeners. And you can usually divide plants into smaller pieces if you’re willing to be patient while they fill in. Dividing a ground-covering plant is generally as simple as moistening the root ball, removing it from the pot, and then gently pulling the root ball into two or three pieces, making sure there are roots, intact stems, and leaves in each piece. Then simply plant each piece as you normally would.

Ground-Covering Plants: Succulents

Is your yard afflicted by rocky, poor soil that brings lush, leafy plants to their knees? Turn that liability into an asset, and grow succulent groundcovers. These fleshy, often fantastically shaped, dry-climate plants despise having wet feet and require gravelly soil that doesn’t hold water. Commonly grown in sunny rock gardens, many small succulents perform better in dappled shade in the hot Southwest, with protection from blistering midday and afternoon sun. If you live in a frost-free climate like Southern California’s, you’re lucky in that you can grow a veritable tapestry of different succulents as groundcovers, including the gorgeous blue chalk sticks (Senecio mandraliscae). For a postage stamp–size front yard with gritty soil, imagine a mix of succulents like echeveria, sedum, senecio, aeonium, and small agaves and aloes combining to create a magical, under-the-sea garden that is supremely low maintenance.

Even cold-climate gardeners can grow certain succulent species as hardy groundcovers. Sedum is probably the best known, particularly the showy ‘Angelina’ stonecrop (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’), whose needle-shaped foliage turns golden-yellow and orange in cool weather or when drought stressed. The charmingly named hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum spp.), an alpine native, also shrugs off cold weather. Of course, you won’t replace your entire lawn with a swath of these miniature plants. But you can easily turn a rocky outcropping in your yard, which defied your attempts to sod over it, into a rockery spangled with these delightful succulents.

Succulents are very easy to propagate, too, allowing you to save money by growing more on your own. Simply break off a stem or a “chick” from the main plant, let it harden off in a shady, dry spot for a couple of days, and then plant it in well-draining soil. It’ll quickly take root and grow. It’s best to do this in spring, after any danger of frost has passed.

Ground-Covering Plants: Moss

Moss makes a green or golden fuzzy carpet that’s right at home in deep shade or moist conditions, exactly where lawn grass often fails to thrive. Sadly, many people view moss as a weed and expend significant amounts of money and time trying to eliminate it from their yards by aerating the soil, removing tree branches to allow more light to come through, and spraying chemicals on it. A much easier and greener solution is to embrace moss as a beautiful groundcover for moist, shady areas. Under the right conditions, you can even have a moss “lawn” that stays evergreen and requires no mowing. In fact, at least one landscape design company, Moss and Stone Gardens in Raleigh, North Carolina, specializes in creating moss gardens for its clients.

Moss is a unique plant in that it doesn’t have roots but rather rhizomes that help it attach to soil or rock, and so it needs only to be set in place, not planted. Large quantities of moss likely can’t be purchased from your local nursery, and while you may find online vendors, the mosses they sell may not be well adapted to your local conditions. It’s cheaper and more effective to use moss already growing naturally in your area. It should never be harvested from the wild because that can destroy natural ecosystems. Instead, propagate moss you already have or ask a friend for pieces of moss from his property. Simply lift a section of moss with a flat spade or a gardening knife, divide it into numerous pieces, and press the pieces in place on bare soil. Mist it every day, several times a day, for three to four weeks to establish the moss. This daily dampening isn’t as wasteful of water as it sounds and takes only a couple of minutes; thoroughly wetting the soil isn’t necessary because moss has no roots and absorbs moisture through its leaves.

Established moss is much more drought tolerant and even sun tolerant than many people realize. It requires moisture to grow but not to survive; it simply goes dormant during times of drought. Of course, if you want a moss lawn that is green and growing all year, your moss must have regular moisture, so a shady, damp location or cool, moist climate is ideal.

Adapted with permission from Lawn Gone! Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard by Pam Penick, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group. Photo Credit: Pam Penick. Buy this book from our store: Lawn Gone!

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