If you’re like me, growing turfgrass is often more of a hassle than anything else. Regardless of the species you plant, none tolerates shade well and it can seem like there is a never-ending list of chores and expenses that accompany lawn grass: mowing (at least one a week during the summer), fertilizing, and constantly battling weeds, disease and bugs. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were an acceptable alternative, at least for the parts of the lawn that get a little less foot traffic or are shady? Turns out there is! Enter the wonderful world of perennial groundcovers!
Perennial groundcovers are just that, plants that are either evergreen or herbaceous (killed to the ground by frost, similar to turfgrass) and are aggressive enough to cover the ground quickly. Once established, these solid masses of stylish, easy to grow plants serve many of the same functions traditional turf lawns do without all the hassle: choke out weeds, provide pleasing aesthetics, reduce erosion and runoff, and provide a habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife.
The two most common turfgrass replacements found in Northwest Florida are Ornamental Perennial Peanut (Arachis glabra) and Asiatic Jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum); though a native species of Mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa) is gaining popularity also. All of these plants are outstanding groundcovers but each fills a specific niche in the landscape.
Perennial Peanut is a beautiful, aggressive groundcover that spreads through underground rhizomes and possesses showy yellow flowers throughout the year; the show stops only in the coldest winters when the plant is burned back to the ground by frost. It thrives in sunny, well-drained soils, needs no supplemental irrigation once established and because it is a legume, requires little to no supplemental fertilizer. It even thrives in coastal areas that are subject to periodic salt spray! If Perennial Peanut ever begins to look a little unkempt, a quick mowing at 3-4” will enhance its appearance.
Asiatic Jasmine is a superb, vining groundcover option for areas that receive partial to full shade, though it will tolerate full sun. This evergreen plant sports glossy dark green foliage and is extremely aggressive (lending itself to very rapid establishment). Though not as vigorous a climber as its more well-known cousin Confederate Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), Asiatic Jasmine will eventually begin to slowly climb trees and other structures once it is fully established; this habit is easily controlled with infrequent pruning. Do not look for flowers on this vining groundcover however, as it does not initiate the bloom cycle unless allowed to climb.
For those that prefer an all-native landscape, Sunshine Mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa), also known as Sensitive Plant, is a fantastic groundcover option for full-sun situations. This herbaceous perennial is very striking in flower, sending up bright pink, fiber-optic like blooms about 6” above the foliage all summer long! Sunshine Mimosa, like Perennial Peanut, is a legume so fertility needs are very low. It is also exceptionally drought tolerant and thrives in the deepest sands. If there is a dry problem spot in your lawn that receives full sun, you can’t go wrong with this one!
As a rule, the method of establishing groundcovers as turfgrass replacements takes a bit longer than with laying sod, which allows for an “instant” lawn. With groundcovers, sprigging containerized plants is most common as this is how the majority of these species are grown in production nurseries. This process involves planting the containerized sprigs on a grid in the planting area no more than 12” apart. The sprigs may be planted closer together (8”-10”) if more rapid establishment is desired.
During the establishment phase, weed control is critical to ensure proper development of the groundcover. The first step to reduce competitive weeds is to clean the site thoroughly before planting with a non-selective herbicide such as Glyphosate. After planting, grassy weeds may be treated with one of the selective herbicides Fusilade, Poast, Select, or Prism. Unfortunately, there are not any chemical treatments for broadleaf weed control in ornamental groundcovers but these can be managed by mowing or hand pulling and will eventually be choked out by the groundcover.
If you are tired of the turfgrass life and want some relief, try an ornamental groundcover instead! They are low-maintenance, cost effective, and very attractive! Happy gardening and as always, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office for more information about this topic!