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  1. Life & Culture

Alternatives to turf grasses abound

Florida native sunshine mimosa is a fast-growing ground cover with pretty, fringed foliage. The lollipop flowers bloom spring through summer. Plant just a few in a contained area, like a bed surrounded by pavement, because it loves to roam.
Florida native sunshine mimosa is a fast-growing ground cover with pretty, fringed foliage. The lollipop flowers bloom spring through summer. Plant just a few in a contained area, like a bed surrounded by pavement, because it loves to roam.
Published Aug. 18, 2016

I hear from a lot of readers eager for a third-party candidate in the turf campaign. They may be fed up with mowing in this grueling summer heat or suffering pangs of conscience over the fertilizer-fed "guacamole" Florida algae blooms making national headlines. Whatever the tipping point, more homeowners with lawns want alternatives.

The good news: We have a smorgasbord from which to choose. The bad: All require at least some effort to maintain.

I asked the best expert I know on matters such as these — state consumer horticulture specialist Sydney Park Brown of the University of Florida. A longtime Florida gardener, she has favorite ground covers, new-to-me ideas and a few words to the wise.

"You can certainly save time that would be devoted to mowing, edging, spraying, etc., but ground covers are not maintenance-free," she warns. "Like any plant, they require occasional grooming, fertilizing and watering."

Another cautionary note: The best varieties planted in the wrong place will require just as much water, fertilizer and maintenance as the neediest turf. Part of your yard may be perfect for one ground cover, another ideal for a different choice. Take time to learn the hottest and coldest areas of your yard, the driest and boggiest, and the sandiest, and choose plants that thrive in those conditions.

Need ideas? Sydney has 'em.

Q. Where should we use ground covers?

A. They're most useful in shady areas where grass doesn't do well. Some good ground covers for shade are:

Aspidistra elatior (cast iron plant): This old stand-by is tough as nails. Some interesting spotted and variegated types are now available.

Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Prostrata' (creeping yew): A beautiful, cold-hardy plant with moderately slow growth, it can be a show-stopper.

SunHosta: Despite its name, I feel this hosta looks best in some shade in Central Florida. It's the only hosta I've ever been able to grow. SunHosta looks and grows better with moist soil. Note: It's dormant in winter.

Dwarf Asiatic jasmine: A very tough plant, but it demands some edging and pruning to keep under control. Some cultivars have white, pink, yellow and/or orange-red variegations.

Q. How about sunny areas?

A. Good ground covers for sun include:

Perennial peanut: Be sure to plant this in a confined area. It will creep into flower beds and is tough to dig out! I mix it with turf, so when a cold winter knocks it back, I still have green.

Ornamental sweet potato: Rambunctious! But there are some nice new cultivars that are restrained and bushy. Watch for them in garden stores next spring. (Penny's note: Love this plant! The different varieties have foliage in vivid colors, from chartreuse to almost black, and they almost smother weeds.)

Sedum 'FL Friendly Gold': This well-behaved succulent has a nice chartreuse color.

Sunshine mimosa and beach sunflower: Two tough, flowering Florida natives, they make a nice duo in a bed together.

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Coontie: A Florida native, it's slow growing and does well in sun or shade. There's also a new Mahonia cultivar I like very much called "Soft Caress," part of the Southern Living collection. It has slender leaves and produces bright yellow blooms in winter. The various varieties of low-growing junipers and border grasses also work well.

Q. A lot of people think of ground cover as being turflike — very low-growing like grass. You've mentioned plants like cast iron and coontie that are taller. Do we need to rethink our definition of ground cover?

A. Yes, I consider any low-growing plant that can be mass planted a ground cover. It really broadens the list of potential ground covers, which can include walking iris, flax lily, daylily, etc.

Q. If you're using taller plants, what can you do to discourage weeds?

A. Ah, weeds! They're clearly the biggest "pest problem" we face in landscapes — forget bugs and diseases! Mulch is ideal. Ground covers also help by shading out some germinating weed seeds.

• • •

Tired of mowing? Ready for a lower maintenance "lawn"? Plenty of Sydney's suggestions can handle foot, kid and pet traffic. Others, not so much. Some varieties go dormant in the winter; others shine for a season then retreat to the background.

Do your homework, find the varieties best suited to the conditions in your yard and your needs, and this will be your easiest election ever.

Contact Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com, her blog, digginfloridadirt.com, and join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt.

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