By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
(03/17/17) Lawns have their purpose in the landscape. They create a restful contrast to flower beds and other elements in the landscape. Lawns also are often needed for outdoor activities and are indispensable if you have kids.
Every square foot of space not occupied by shrub plantings or flower beds does not have to be planted with grass. Not only can this create a rather boring landscape, but lawn areas are also high maintenance and must be mowed every five to seven days from April to November.
Instead, consider planting some areas with ground covers. They will add beauty and interest to the home landscapes as well as reduce maintenance. Planting in spring while the weather is still cool is recommended. Early planting will provide ground covers with a chance to become somewhat established before hot weather arrives.
The term ground cover is applied to low-growing plants, other than turfgrasses, used to cover areas of the landscape. Perennial, evergreen plants having a sprawling or spreading habit are most often used. The plants used for ground covers are generally one foot or less in height, but taller growing plants are also used appropriately in certain landscape situations.
In addition to the beauty they provide, ground covers also have many practical uses. Some ground covers are effective in erosion control. Because they don’t have to be mowed, ground covers reduce landscape maintenance and are especially useful in problem areas such as on steep slopes, under low-branched trees and shrubs, where the roots of large trees protrude and in confined areas where mowing is difficult. They are also a good solution in areas under trees that have become too shady for grass to grow.
You must carefully consider the characteristics you would like the ground cover to have – height, texture, color – when making your selection, as well as the growing conditions where it will be planted, such as sunny or shady, dry or moist.
You should also look at the size of the area to be planted. Only the most reliable, fast-spreading and reasonably priced ground covers should be considered for large areas. Monkey grass (Ophiopogon japonicus), creeping lily turf (Liriope spicata) and Japanese ardisia (Ardisia japonica) are good choices for shade to part shade. Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum) is excellent for sun to part shade.
Whatever type of ground cover you choose, proper preparation of the planting area will help ensure good establishment and faster growth. First, remove all existing unwanted vegetation such as lawn grass or weeds from the area physically or with a herbicide such as glyphosate. Next, till the soil to loosen it. If you are working under a tree, use a turning fork to minimize damage to the tree’s roots, and avoid severing roots larger than an inch in diameter whenever possible. After the soil is broken up, spread 2 inches of organic matter – compost, peat moss or rotted manure – over the surface and work it in. If necessary, 2 or 3 inches of additional blended soil mix – generally called topsoil or garden soil – may be added at this point. Finally, sprinkle a general-purpose fertilizer over the area and thoroughly blend everything together.
Plant the ground cover at the proper spacing. This varies with the type chosen, so check with the staff at the nursery or your local LSU AgCenter extension office. Planting at the closest recommended spacing will provide quicker coverage, but it will cost you more money. Generally, decide on a budget for the project, purchase as many plants as you can with the money and evenly space them in the area to be planted. If more are needed, purchase them as more funds become available and plant them evenly among the existing plants.
After the area is planted, be sure to mulch with an inch or two of your favorite mulch, such as leaves, pine bark, pine straw or shredded pine straw, and water thoroughly. Until the ground cover fills in, which may take several years, weed control is very important. Your best defense is a good layer of mulch. Hand weed regularly as necessary to maintain good weed control. In addition, most ground covers spread faster when mulched.
Planting ground covers now takes advantage of the cool, moist weather we have in spring that encourages successful establishment. Fertilize in May and again in July with a general-purpose fertilizer following label directions to promote rapid growth. Gardeners with existing areas of ground cover can fertilize in March and again in June.
Ground covers can reduce maintenance, beautify problem areas and create a whole new dimension in your landscape. Consider using them in your landscape.
Asian jasmine planting along a walkway. Photo by Dan Gill/LSU AgCenter
Pruning liriope now removes unsightly rough ends and sets the stage for fresh, lush growth as plants green up with spring weather. Photo by Allen Owings/LSU AgCenter