Lawn Substitutes

“I have a spot in my yard where the grass won’t grow!”  This is not an uncommon complaint. Often several attempts are made at laying sod, plugging or seeding to get the ground covered with a traditional lawn grass. In the end- same results. Thin, unattractive, struggling grass with copious amounts of bare soil and usually a crop of weeds.

Typically the problem is not with planting technique, type of turfgrass or some unrelenting pest that causes these results. It is usually a lack of sufficient sunlight to grow a healthy lawn. Even St. Augustinegrass, the most shade tolerant of the types we can grow, needs at least 4 hours of direct, unfiltered sun to be healthy and vigorous.

Instead of struggling, trying to grow what doesn’t thrive in your particular conditions, try thinking about your landscape in a different way. Often the areas where we struggle to grow grass are rarely used for regular foot traffic. Why not look at an alternative cover for the ground, and turn a liability into a beautiful asset.

Recently I attended a tour of many home landscapes in Dallas that were

Mondo Grass Lawn

designed by some of the leading landscape architects of this region, and some that were designed by the homeowners themselves. Many had the same issue with large trees dominating the grounds, casting cooling shade, and abundant shadows. In several cases, traditional turfgrass was limited to very small areas, or non-existent.

Hardscape was frequently used including crushed stone, pavers, attractive patterned concrete, and flagstone. Areas were also dominated with large sweeps of shrubs and perennials, punctuated with both traditional and quirky art objects, both collected and fabricated. We visited more than one yard where there was no grass at all.

One home landscape that was particularly attractive had a very shady front yard dominated by a couple of large oaks. The owner created wide beds of shrubs and understory trees, and instead of turfgrass between the planting areas, he used large swaths of mondo or monkey grass (Ophiopogon japonicus). Yes, plain-old monkey grass. It was dark green and lush, uniform in appearance, a perfect ground cover for the area.

St. Augustine (left) and mondo (right)

In other parts of his yard, he used St. Augustine grass in the sunny spots, but where it transitioned into shaded areas, he again used mondo grass. In some spots he had mowed the mondo high to make it a little more uniform. The owner said he mowed it once or twice a year if it became too ragged in appearance. It was a very nice effect, providing a nice border and contrast to the lawn.

The traditional wall-to-wall lawn often does not thrive in our densely shaded east Texas neighborhoods. Besides shade, other problem areas include rocky hillsides, narrow strips between homes, between the sidewalk and the drive or street, and areas too large to be managed easily as a lawn. Ground covers may be the answer to many of the problem spots in your yard.

Before making you’re your plant selection for a lawn substitute, learn about the growth habit of the ground cover you are interested in. Some are very aggressive and can quickly spread out into areas where the ground cover is unwanted. Others are slow growers and are best suited for smaller spaces. Some vines can be used as ground covers, but can also engulf trees, fences and other objects in the planting bed. Those types work best when they are confined by walks or other borders with no trees to climb onto.

Other plants are perennial, meaning they disappear in the winter but come back every spring. Hosta and some are examples of perennials that are sometimes used as ground covers.

Here are some options for ground cover plants for the East Texas area:

Options for shady areas include ajuga, Asian jasmine, English ivy, ferns (many types and varieties available such as holly fern, wood fern, painted fern, maidenhair fern, autumn fern, etc.), liriope, mondo grass (or monkey grass), golden moneywort (Lysimachia), pachysandra, purple wintercreeper (Euonymus), vinca (Vinca major), Japanese sweet flag (Acorus) and some species of Carex.

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