For The Answer
By Calvin R. Finch, PhD, SAWS Conservation Director, and Horticulturist
Week of September 12, 2005
“Easy Care Landscape”
The most difficult part of the landscape to care for is the lawn. It must be mowed weekly, irrigated regularly, fertilized, and treated for pests if it is to look its best. The less lawn you have, the less maintenance is required for your landscape. The usual way to reduce lawn is to have more hardscape like patios, decks, and paths; to plant more shrubs and perennials within a mulched bed; and to replace lawn with groundcovers. There are a large number of groundcovers from which to choose. Some have more shade tolerance than any lawn grass, many are evergreen, and several have showy blooms that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
The most popular, and probably the most versatile groundcover, is Asiatic jasmine. It tolerates sun or shade and can be manicured at several heights or let to grow naturally in rolling mounds at about 1-foot tall. The evergreen shiny foliage is dense and attractive. When winter temperatures fall into the 20’s some plants may defoliate, but they will re-grow in the spring. Jasmine is not a favorite deer food, so it survives even in neighborhoods with the pests. The most negative thing about jasmine is that it takes several years to become established. To reduce the fill-in period, use 1-gallon plants planted on 18-inch centers. They often are on sale at area nurseries in the autumn.
English ivy is not as versatile as jasmine, but it spreads much more quickly. Rooted cuttings planted on 2-foot centers can often fill in within the first growing season. Deer love English ivy and it cannot tolerate the sun, so use it in dense shade where the deer are absent.
Dwarf Mexican petunia (also called dwarf Ruellia) has an attractive blue, white or pink bloom that attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Deer will eat irrigated dwarf Mexican petunias in most neighborhoods. It seems to be more palatable to deer than Asiatic jasmine, but still survives in some situations with the hungry pests. Dwarf Mexican petunia will grow in sun or shade, but blooms best in the sun. The plant spreads fast but does not take over the neighborhood. The foliage is dark green. A bed will reach 1-foot high. Dwarf Mexican petunia is a good xeriscape plant.
Blueshade Ruellia is related to dwarf Mexican petunia and has some of the same characteristics in terms of drought tolerance, fast growth, shade tolerance, and attractive blooms. The major difference is the leaf shape and growth habit. Blueshade Ruellia has a small mouse ear-type leaf as compared to the Mexican petunias long pointed strap-like leaf. Blueshade Ruellia grows more like a vine than Mexican petunias which as a vertical growth pattern.
Another family of groundcovers that will grow in shade too dense for St. Augustine grass includes monkey grass and liriope. Select the height that suits your taste from 3 – 4 inches tall for the dwarf mondo grass to 18- or 20-inches tall for giant liriope. Once established, these groundcovers require almost no maintenance and they look like grass. Monkey grass and liriope do not work in full sun and deer will eat them. They are evergreen and another low-water-use groundcover. Obtain rooted starts from another bed or from the nursery.
Prostrate rosemary is an evergreen groundcover for full sun that deer will not eat. It reaches 1-foot tall. The upright version also makes a good groundcover if you want a taller plant (about 2-feet tall). Rosemary is such a low water use plant that the easiest way to kill it is to over-water. It is sometimes infested with spider mites.