Groundcover as an Alternative to Lawns

Most of us, as homeowners, like to have our patch of green lawn. After all, a lawn is a great way to showcase other landscape features. However, not all garden situations allow for a successful lawn. Deep shade and lawns don’t mix; grass is naturally a plant of open spaces. Under the dense shade of trees or along the north side of a house, grass often fails to perform. Slopes are another issue – they are often too dry for a lawn to be happy, and even if the grass does perform well, you have the challenge of properly mowing it. What’s a gardener to do? Well, thankfully, there are ways around these problem lawn areas: use groundcover plants instead!

As the name suggests, groundcover plants are low growing and form a carpet over the ground. Such plants include both herbaceous perennials and low shrubs. However, to be suitable as a lawn replacement, they should also be rapidly growing, able to out compete and/or suppress weeds, and be evergreen. While they are not mowed, they should stay low enough to simulate a lawn. Ideally, using groundcover plants should reduce garden maintenance. Having said this, even a groundcover bed will require some weeding and watering during the first year or two until it becomes established.

It is often tempting to overplant groundcovers to create a more instant effect. Be patient! Giving the plants some space will actually encourage them to grow faster, since they will be competing less with their neighbours. Most woody groundcovers should be spaced 90 cm apart, while perennial groundcovers may be spaced much closer, at 30-45 cm apart. To aid in their establishment and to encourage overall good health, fertilize them each mid-late May with a granular fertilizer such as 6-12-12 or 10-10-10. Remember to water during dry spells, especially on sunny slopes.

Your choice of suitable groundcover plants depends on the growing conditions of the site. If you are dealing with dense shade, you can choose evergreen perennials such as the following:

bugleweed (Ajuga reptans; blue flowers June),

periwinkle (Vinca minor; blue flowers May and June)

navelwort (Omphalodes verna; blue flowers May and June)

lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis; white flowers May)

Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis)

sweet woodruff* (Galium odoratum; white flowers June)

yellow archangel* (Lamium galeobdolon; yellow flowers June)

variegated bishopweed* (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegata’)

Even our native bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, white flowers June) can make an admirable groundcover.

Unfortunately, the only woody groundcover plant suitable for deep shade is English ivy (Hedera helix or H. hibernica).

*The woodruff, yellow archangel and bishopweed can be invasive under ideal conditions, so use with caution.

If the shade is not too dense, then try these:

creeping cotoneaster (Cotoneaster adpressus, C. apiculatus or C. dammeri) (The first two cotoneaster species noted are deciduous so will lose their leaves in winter but often retain their orange berries.)

dense yew* (Taxus X media ‘Densiformis’)

wintercreeper* (Euonymus fortunei ‘Coloratus’)

bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).

On a sunny slope, there is a different palette of plants to choose from. Among dwarf conifers, you may select:

creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Rug’)

Russian cypress (Microbiota decussata)

The bearberry and wintercreeper are better suited to sun than shade, as are the various creeping cotoneasters.

Among perennials, try the following:

scented geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum; deep pink flowers June)

Biokova geranium (G. X cantabrigiense ‘Biokova’; pale pink flowers June)

yellow archangel

creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia; yellow flowers June and July)

Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum; silvery-foliage and white flowers June)

pussytoes (Antennaria species; silver foliage)

If you have stepping stones or flagstone, then you could try growing the following to spread between the stones. They are low enough to tolerate light foot-traffic and can actually help accent the stonework.

Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum; white, pink or red flowers July-Aug)

creeping speedwell (Veronica repens; pale blue flowers June)

scotch moss (Sagina subulata)

As you can see, in problem areas there are plenty of plants to choose from as alternatives to grass. Whether you garden in St. John’s, Gander, Corner Brook or even Happy Valley-Goose Bay, most of the suggested plants noted above are hardy enough to try.

Don’t let shade or steep slopes be a deterrent to creating a pleasing landscape; try a lawn of groundcovers instead of grass.