by Laurel Schiller Dan Walton
There are two ways to consider groundcovers. The usual way is to define them as perennial plants that "hug" the ground and spread quickly by underground rhizomes or by rooting at each node. A second way is to consider them as lawn alternatives. Shrubs, saw palmetto, clump grasses, wildflowers or even trees can be considered groundcovers using this concept. We suggest the broader approach to replacing turf on your property for several very good reasons.
Ideally, the best low groundcovers would be those that so thoroughly cover the ground that weeds are effectively excluded. They would also be green all year, and not be so invasive that it would be difficult to contain them in the desired area. They would thrive on natural rainfall and not require the use of pesticides or fertilizer. Often, however, groundcovers are not a low maintenance substitute for open expanses of lawn. They are more like turf than not. Some need to be edged regularly or they will spread through and sometimes over plant beds as well as across driveways, sidewalks and stone paths. Others need to be mowed or hand-weeded at least for the first few years until the groundcover can become thick enough to outcompete weeds that seed between plants. And, like lawn, many prefer sunny areas and will become thin and straggly in the shade. Alternatively, those that prefer shade will become stressed and turn yellow in too much light.
From an esthetic stand point, why substitute one expanse of low growing plant material for another? Perhaps it would be better to expand your flowerbeds, plant more trees and shrubs and mulch around them and slowly reduce the lawn to paths between your landscape beds. Over time the paths will also be shaded out and you can replace the remaining turf with mulch. Or, do the above, but leave some open expanses of mulch and plant small areas of clump grasses, wildflowers or groundcovers on the edges to create a woodsy, naturalized, informal look.
Now, having said the above, low growing groundcovers like mimosa, perennial peanut and Asiatic jasmine can do well if used wisely and sparingly. The Florida House at Beneva and Proctor in Sarasota on the grounds of the Sarasota Technical Institute has planted all three species in demonstration beds. Out in front of the building Perennial Peanut has been planted in an area where turf did very poorly. Three growing seasons later this groundcover grows luxuriantly there and Master Gardeners have told me that they pull only the occasional weed. Perennial peanut doesn't like saturated soils and it will turn brown for short periods of time in winter after cold weather. Mimosa is more rampant than peanut but covers quickly and works well in situations where it can be mowed to remove spent blooms and keep weeds from coming through. It also will burn after frosty nights and looks sparser in cold weather because the leaflets close up. Asiatic jasmine, though a slow grower, will cover the ground in moderate to deep shade where little else grows.
The bottom line is be careful. Start slowly by removing the grass in a small area and trying "groundcovers" in the broadest sense. Remember that all plants "cover ground". Don't despair. Just about anything planted and growing is better than sterile, energy intensive turf.