Ditch That Lawn — Go for Easy-Care Groundcovers

If you're bored silly with mowing the lawn ... or have tough spots where mostly weeds grow — a groundcover might be just for you.
What's in a name? A groundcover is a perennial plant used en masse for its visual wallop — and to crowd out weeds. Many are gorgeous perennials that gardeners have used in flower borders for years. Now we're finding that some are top performers in the "tough sites" department too.
Fewer weeds means less herbicide use. Good news for you ... and the environment.

Try these crowd pleasers:

Goldenrod 'Golden Fleece': A new take on goldenrod, an American native. Covered in late summer with stunning golden, spiky flowers; dark green foliage. This dwarf (for a goldenrod, that is) tolerates drought, loves sun. Grows 1 ½ to 2 feet tall.

Butterfly Weed: Another great-looking native. And yes, butterflies flock to its clusters of bright orange flowers in summer. Needs full sun. Drought-tolerant. Grows to 2 feet.

Lady's Mantle: Looking for something bold? A froth of lime-green flowers in mid-summer rise above soft, gray-green pleated leaves-leaves that holds drops of glistening dew in their folds. Takes full sun or part shade. Likes moist soil. Clump-forming, 12 to 18 inches tall.

'Chocolate Veil' Coral Bells: Speaking of bold ... here's a substantial plant with deep burgundy foliage. Clump-forming; grows 2 feet tall.

'Walker's Low' Catmint: A blue-ribbon winner — the Perennial Plant Association's Plant of the Year for 2007. Long-lasting blue flowers; soft gray-green leaves. Pest resistant. Spreads reliably even in poor soils. A magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies (but not cats!). Tolerates drought. Easily reaches 2 feet tall. (The name refers to a place in England — not to its growth habit.)

Aster 'Snow Flurry': Got a spot for a groundcover that's hardly higher than your ankle? This heath aster is blanketed with white flowers in September. Forms dense, low clumps. Full sun to part shade. Drought tolerant. Grows 6 inches tall.

Creeping Phlox 'Emerald Blue': Here's another low-lying beauty, a native phlox smothered with pretty blue flowers in spring. Evergreen, mat-forming foliage. Needs full sun and moist soil. Grows 6 inches tall.

Give them the right stuff:
Even tough plants need TLC when you put them in the ground. You're expecting your groundcovers to do a tough job — weeds are weeds because they're aggressive and adaptable.
So give your plants a boost.
• Test the soil — what nutrients do your plants need?
• Till in organic matter — compost is best. Pull out runners of established weeds as you go.
• Plant on a cloudy day; provide shade as needed
• Water them well — and keep watering until they're established.
• Keep the weeds out while your groundcovers are filling in! Don't expect them to work miracles — your plants need to become well established before they can stand up to weeds.
Once established, your plants should require little in the way of weeding. And think of it — no more mowing.

Gardening hint: Mulch is your friend. Newspaper covered with 3 inches of shredded bark mulch works wonders in the "keep-weeds-out-while-your-plants-are-young" department. Find mulch at your garden center.

Learn more:

For sustainable ways to manage pests that reduce environmental, health, and economic risks check out Integrated Pest Management website.

For more gardening info, go to Cornell University's Gardening Website.

Brian Eshenaur is an Ornamentals IPM specialist with the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program at Cornell University. Brian has nearly 20 years of experience in horticultural education and diagnosis of plant problems. His current projects include promotion of weed suppressive ground covers and evaluation of alternative herbicides for control of annual and perennial weeds in ornamental gardens.