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 Get Off The Grass - Groundcovers For Problem Places

 By Jean Fritz

Why fight nature? If you’ve got an abundance of shade, thin, sandy soil, or other lawn challenging conditions, keep your sanity and your budget intact this season and install groundcover plants instead of attempting to reestablish a lawn.

Groundcovers have the advantage of requiring fewer pest controls to stay healthy and look good. Maintenance is also minimal, as most of the plants are either slow-growing or naturally dwarf. Many will accept “weed whacker” pruning periodically and if they start to break out of their bounds, the errant plants may need to be dug. Most require an application of time-released fertilizer once a year. Wouldn’t it be nice to cut your chemical bills to nearly nothing?

The most ubiquitous groundcovers are Baltic ivy and pachysandra, but these aren’t the only options available. Be creative! Groundcovers can be woodland natives, low-growing evergreens, or herbs.
Some options for shady areas are: Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadensis), Lily of the valley (Convallaria sp.) bloodroot (Sanguinaria) one of the many cultivars of hosta, or even the unattractive-sounding dead nettle (Lamium maculatum). These plants grow quite vigorously in shady, moist conditions, stay low-growing, and offer the additional benefit of flowers, although in the case of wild ginger, they may be inconspicuous. In addition, their leaves span the gamut of green shades available on nature’s palette; hosta and dead nettle also offer two-toned or silver-toned foliage.

Sunny spots with thin, sandy soil can support low growing evergreens such as creeping juniper, Mugho pine, and false cypress quite nicely. These plants take their sweet time about growing but once they’re established, they are as permanent as the house they were planted to accent. The junipers also produce small berries, which are a treat for the birds and serve as an ingredient in Alsatian choucroute for the very adventuresome cook.

The original plant used for “lawns” was creeping thyme (Thymus serphyllum). This creeping beauty is ideal for high-traffic areas, responding to the onslaught of pedestrian footfalls with heavenly fragrance. Many people grow creeping thyme as a filler in flagstone or brick walkways, but there’s no reason to limit it to small spaces. Another herb that is popular as a groundcover and adapts to either sun or shade is sweet woodruff (Asperula odorata). The plant has a fernlike appearance, and the leaves smell like new-mown grass or hay. In the spring, it boasts dainty white flowers that are used to flavor German May wine.

Finally, if you believe you are a brown-thumbed gardener and nothing will work for you, take heart. There are two groundcovers that grow in sun, shade, sand, clay, and are virtually indestructible. These are the golden moneywort (Lysmachia mummularia aurea) and bishop’s weed (Aegopodium variegata). Golden moneywort is a golden-leaved, low-growing creeper. It starts to color up in early spring, once the temperatures reach the mid-60s, and retains its golden hue until hard frost hits. Like most lysmachias, it is very invasive, and can choke out unwanted weeds within two to three seasons. Bishop’s weed stands about 12” tall, and offers succulent, palmlike leaves in either deep green or variegated hues. Its flowers resemble those of Queen Anne’s lace. And from personal experience, I can attest that it comes back stronger after burning, tilling, chopping and applications of glyphosphate herbicide. Perhaps you can kill this stuff with kindness, but nothing else works.

Using groundcovers may take you out of the “best lawn” competition with the neighbors, but they will be green with envy when your time is spent grilling and lounging rather than mowing, watering and fertilizing.

About the Author
The author is a farmer and freelance writer. You can take a virtual tour of her farm at

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