Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension, P.O. Box 68, LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068  Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Ground Covers Reduce Mowing Time

While there is something inviting about a lush, green, well-cared-for lawn, there is a downside to this luxurious beauty.  The downside is all the upkeep required to maintain a beautiful lawn - regular mowing, edging, fertilizing, watering and pest control.  Let's face it, lawns require a lot of work and sometimes no matter what you do or how hard you try, there are areas, under trees and other shady places, in extremely wet or dry spots, where grass just won't thrive. In other areas, turf may be difficult or dangerous to mow.   Fortunately, ground covers provide an easy and attractive solution all of these problems.

Many ground covers are more adaptable than turf in these problem areas.   Ground covers are typically low growing plants that spread out and cover the soil.   They enhance the beauty and usefulness of landscapes by creating interesting contrasts of textures and colors and often serve as a unifying element in the total planting.  Flowers are pretty, ground covers are practical.  By replacing a part of your lawn with these easy to grow plants you can cut down mowing and reduce or eliminate trimming under trees and shrubs.  In addition to saving time and energy, ground covers can help provide a cooler, more comfortable environment in hot weather.  They help moderate soil temperatures and maintain soil moisture by shielding the soil.  They discourage weeds and some of the more vigorous ground covers may actually crowd out weeds.

The type of ground cover selected should be governed by the practical and aesthetic requirements of the landscape.  The environmental conditions on site should be considered before choosing a ground cover.  Lighting, soil conditions, and location will influence the choice of planting material.  Some ground covers such as pothos, liriope, mondo grass and wandering jew grow well in the shade, where as plants such as juniper, blue daze, lantana, and society garlic perform best in full sun.  Others such as coontie and oyster plant are equally at home in sun or shade.  Soil conditions will also affect the choice of ground cover employed in the landscape.  Ground covers such as aloe, lantana and juniper do best in dry, sandy soils, while some ferns, peperomia, wandering jew, and wedelia prefer moist sites.  Contact the Hendry County Extension Office for a complete list of recommended ground covers.

Since ground covers do not stand alone in the landscape, their effect on surrounding plantings should be considered as well as their place in overall scheme of things.  Just like trees and shrubs, plants used as ground covers vary in color, texture, and growth habit.  Since one of the objectives in planting ground covers is to reduce maintenance requirements, ground cover areas should be kept simple avoiding intricate curves or tight corners that are difficult to maintain.  It must also be kept in mind that some ground covers themselves can become problems.  Wedelia and wandering jew, for example can overgrow their intended boundaries and become weedy pests.  These plants should only be employed in isolated areas where they can be kept in check by sidewalks or other boundaries.

Ground covers are useful as transition plantings between different size plants, such as the area between the lawn and a row of shrubs.  Mass plantings of perennial flowers such as day lilies can be used as ground covers and provide a spectacular show of color at certain times of the year.  Pleasing color contrasts can also be obtained through the use of different ground covers plants.

Planting ground covers begins with thoroughly tilling or cultivating the area to be planted.  This will loosen the soil and eliminate grass and other plants which may interfere with the establishment of the ground cover.  In newly planted areas or areas where previous plantings have done poorly, a soil test to determine soil pH and fertility is advised.  If any problems are discovered they should be corrected before planting. The addition of compost or other organic material to improve soil conditions is highly recommended.  This should be applied in a 2 - 3 inch layer and mixed into the top 6 - 10 inches of the soil.

To keep down weeds and achieve quick cover, plants should be spaced according to the species selected.  Small or slow growing species should be spaced as closely as 3 - 4 inches between plants while larger more vigorous plants may be spaced 2 - 4 feet apart.  Just as for other plantings, plants should be set in well prepared holes at the same depth they were originally growing and watered in immediately after planting.  Newly set plants will require frequent irrigation until established.  Use of a mulch will help to conserve soil moisture and keep down weed growth while the ground cover is being established.  On steep banks or slopes, the use of a plastic geo-fabric may be used to reduce soil erosion, while plants are being established.

Ground covers should be fertilized three times per year, (February-March, May-June, and September-October) using a complete fertilizer such as 12-4-8 or 16-4-8 at the rate of one pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet.  Fertilizer blends having 30 - 50% slow release nitrogen are recommended.  Watering should be done as needed.  Mulching, combined with hand weeding and spot applications of a contact herbicide such as glyphosate will control weeds.

If the prospect of cutting a large expanse of grass is starting to get you down, why not try using ground covers to reduce your work load.  Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

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