Ground covers going native

By Lynette L. Walther | Dec 15, 2017
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther Moist, and well-drained woodland soils and part shade help to provide the environment for one of our loveliest of ferns, maidenhair. Coltsfoot, another native, is in the foreground.

What has your lawn done for you lately? After all, you have fed it, watered it, possibly marinated it with all sorts of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides and then you mowed it, edged it, raked or blew it. And then you probably bagged up and carted those chemical-laden grass clippings off to the landfill — in short, you pampered great expanses of turf that no one used.

Lawns are one of the biggest and costliest of “crops” in this country — and they don't produce anything edible for anything, unless you have farm animals to graze. In short, lawns represent aristocratic symbols of conspicuous consumption. In other words, grand and appealing, but perplexingly dramatic and dated as dinosaurs. Many now find themselves questioning their lawns' practicality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying lawns are ugly. I’m just saying they are useless, old-fashioned and, quite frankly, are gluttons, making slaves of our time and resources. Their every sneeze and hiccup can throw us into a panic. And what do they do for us in return for all that expense and labor? The fact is, Americans spend an average of $40 billion every year on their lawns. That includes chemicals to smother them, seed to sow them, sod to cover them, mowers, blowers, edgers and fuel to power them, irrigation systems to water them, lawn services and so on.

And about those chemicals — the numbers are indeed staggering. American gardeners use some 78 million pounds of pesticides each year, some 60 million pounds of herbicides with fungicides coming in at slightly lower numbers. The amount of water required to maintain a luscious lawn varies according to the locale, but according to an article in “Scientific American,” America’s “Lawns require the equivalent of 200 gallons of drinking water per person per day.”

If you are one of the many who have started to think about the time, expense and energy required to maintain that perfect lawn, and have realized that except for the hours you spend pushing that mower, you never set foot on it — this could be a turning point for you and your turf.

This might be a good time to consider shrinking that lawn, or maybe even doing away with it entirely. No matter the amount of property the lawn occupies — be it a small patch or an expanse of acreage — you do have options. What this all boils down to is that you have two choices — pave or plant. Once your options are decided, the paths each choice takes are numerous and often colorful, and always an environmentally beneficial exchange for the lawn.

And if you decide to plant ground covers to reduce that expanse of turf, Hildy Ellis, program manager of the Knox-Lincoln Soil & Water Conservation District, suggests considering native plants as ground covers that not only help to provide environment for wildlife like butterflies and other pollinators and berries for food, but are also practically guaranteed to grow here, given the right placement. Many have the added bonus of seasonal blooms and colorful foliage as well. Plant them in the right place, provide a good start and watch these beauties go.

If you have ground covers in your future, Ellis suggests first preparing the areas to be planted by removing or killing existing turf. A thick cover of cardboard is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to accomplish this. Once the grass or other plants on the site are dead, cultivate the areas to be planted, have a soil analysis to determine if the location will support the desired plants, and you are good to go.

Now is a great time to start the prep with that layer of cardboard so that your ground cover areas will be ready to prepare for planting in the spring. Ellis points out that there are native ground covers suitable for a range of growing conditions from full sun to shade, from wet areas to dry and drained hillsides.

Here are some of Ellis’ favorite native ground covers:

Golden Alexander — wet soils, full sun to partial shade, spring blooms

Canada windflower — sun or shade with white anemone blooms

Big-leaf aster — part sun to shade

May apple — part shade to shade, great to hold soils on hillsides

Golden ragwort — part sun to shade with moist soil

Foam flowers (tiarella) — moist soils, shade to part sun, spring blooms

Alumroot — native Heuchera, well-drained soils in part sun

Pakasandra — full sun to part shade

Creeping phlox — shade, spring blooms

Lady fern — shade in moist woodland soils

Hay-scented fern — adaptable for large areas

New York fern — sun to part shade

Maidenhair fern — shade in moist, rich woodland soils with limestone and humus

Purple-flowering raspberry — sun to part shade, 4 feet and taller, blooms spring through fall

Virginia rose — sun, provides food for birds and brilliant red fall foliage

Creeping juniper — full sun, good for poor, rocky soils on slopes or well-drained areas

Wild strawberry — full sun to part shade, spring blooms, edible fruits

Bearberry — full sun, in well-drained gravely soils, food for wildlife and brilliant red fall color

Virginia creeper — full sun to part shade, berries for birds, brilliant fall color

Sweet fern — full sun to part shade, well-drained, sandy soils

Wild strawberry spreads and fills in quickly in full sun or part shade. This low-growing native ground cover provides springtime blooms and tiny sweet fruits for you or for wildlife. Replacing grass with native ground covers can be a win-win situation for all. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
Canada windflower (anemone) can be aggressive, but what a beauty, with airy early summer flowers and lovely foliage all season long to replace turf with native plants. Perfect for partial shade. (Photo by: Lynette L. Walther)
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