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372-Groundcover Solutions for Difficult Spaces and Turf Lawn Reduction

| Grow, Podcast

Groundcover plants require far less maintenance than a turfgrass lawn and can also offer erosion control and ecological services, among many other benefits. To discuss groundcover solutions to lawn troubles, joining me this week is Kathy Jentz, author of “Groundcover Revolution.”

Kathy is the editor and publisher of Washington Gardener magazine and the Green Media columnist for the Mid-Atlantic Grower newspaper. She is also the host of the GardenComm 2023 Laurel Media Awards Gold Award-winning podcast “GardenDC,” and she edits the quarterly Water Garden Journal, the official publication of the International Waterlily & Water Gardening Society. She has had a lifelong connection to gardening, but it was only recently on her gardening journey that she made her entrée into groundcovers and used them to solve a problem she had encountered.

 

Groundcover Revolution by Kathy Jentz

 

Kathy believes that growing plants should be stress-free and enjoyable. Her philosophy is “inspiration over perspiration.”

All of Kathy’s grandparents were gardeners. She admits that as a child she didn’t love gardening. “It was more like a chore, especially having to haul water to my parents’ garden plot,” she recalls.

Her maternal grandparents lived in Germany, where they had an allotment — like a community garden plot but with a 99-year lease. Their allotment had space for a small outbuilding and a cistern, plus permanent fruit trees and bushes.

“They spent most of their weekends or holidays there. So whenever we would go to visit, that’s where I hung out — mostly played with the gnomes,” she says.

Her paternal grandparents were farmers in Northwest, Indiana. “They had chickens and cows, but by the time I was born, it was basically lots and lots of corn fields, and then a small vegetable garden that they used for themselves,” Kathy says. They sold excess vegetables to the local grocery store and people who stopped by, and they also had a large apple orchard. She didn’t work on the farming aspect of the farm, but she enjoyed selling apples for a nickel apiece.  

Discovering Groundcover

After living in apartments for a while — without even balcony space to grow on — Kathy got a condo with a generous-size walkout patio where she could raise plants.

“I just bought tons of containers, stuffed them full of flowers. And my whole goal was just to have lots of cut flowers inside the condo,” she says. She wasn’t even thinking about growing food or herbs then.

She eyed the space outside her patio and began growing flowers on the bare ground. “I started to really exceed the boundaries of where I was allowed to garden,” she says. And that’s when the condo board came to me and said, ‘Kathy, we love it. Everything’s beautiful, but this isn’t yours.’”

She realized what she really needed was a small house with some gardening space around it. She found a house by Tacoma Park, Maryland, on the Washington, D.C.,–Silver Spring, Maryland, border. She lives between two subway stations and next to a community college. One side of the house has full sun, and it had just lawn from the foundation to the sidewalk when she bought it. The opposite side has old oak trees that were covered in poison ivy and English ivy. She is still battling the invasive English ivy to this day.

During her first summer there she had a reel mower, and she struggled to keep up with the fast-growing grass. She didn’t buy the house so she could do the back-breaking work of maintaining a lawn, so she paid a small fee for the delivery of municipal leaf mulch that she could put down over the turf.

She had the option of three, seven or 10 yards of mulch, and she picked the middle option, not realizing how much mulch seven yards really is. She was surprised to receive a dump truck full of leaf mulch. She spent the summer working on lasagna and layer gardening. 

 

ornamental grass

Clumping ornamental grass is an attractive alternative to turfgrass, and regular mowing is not required. (Photo Courtesy of Kathy Jentz)

 

Kathy planted lilacs, rhododendrons and other shrubs with big growing beds around them, using the methods she describes in her book. She joined neighborhood meetings, local plant swaps and Yahoo! Groups to grow her plant collection. When she saw in a catalog that a plant is an aggressive spreader, she bought it. 

She wanted anything she could find to get rid of the lawn, but wasn’t thinking about the word “groundcover” at that point. She flipped her whole yard from turf to groundcover plants in a year — which she does not recommend. “In my book, I definitely recommend the slow and steady method, doing one bed at a time and not being so crazy and gungho as I was,” she says.

Start with a small bed, or if you have a bed already, double the size of it over a year or two.

Kathy starts by weedwhacking the grass down to as close to the ground as possible and leaving the cut grass there, because it contains good nutrients to feed the soil. “That’ll stay in place and decay, and whatever weeds are in there, that’s fine because they’re all going to decay,” she says. Kathy did try “sod busting” a few areas with a shovel but was not a fan. “That’s the most thankless, horrible task,” she says.

If you do wish to convert a large area quickly, she recommends renting a sod cutter.

Whether removing turf completely or just mowing it down, the next step is to layer organic materials on top. Partially composted shredded leaves, finished compost and pine straw (pine needles) are all good options. Organic mulch will suppress the growth of grass and weeds and will improve the soil as it decomposes.

Defining Groundcovers 

Groundcover plants are often considered to be low height, between 3 and 6 inches tall. Kathy expands the definition to be anything that outcompetes the weeds and doesn’t necessarily need to be steppable, such as a tall perennial or lower shrub. 

Groundcovers vs. Meadows

A mini-meadow started by seeds or plugs will grow eventually to cover the ground, Kathy says, though she adds that when she thinks about groundcover, she thinks more about monocultures — something that can quickly spread, like lamb’s ear or low-growing Sedum, with a base of foliage and nice flowers that come up.

Successful groundcover planting requires picking the right plant for the right place, whether it’s full sun or shady, dry or wet. A meadow is more uniform, Kathy points out — it’s expected to be sunny throughout with even ground. But there are groundcover plants for all types of situations, and groundcovers work well on slopes to prevent erosion.

It’s not fun mowing a hill, so groundcovers are a utilitarian solution on a slope.

A meadow typically takes three years to become established and is designed to attract as many pollinators as possible. They tend to peak after a few years and then need to be replenished with new plants.

Kathy says during the first three years when a groundcover is filling in, some maintenance and weeding may be necessary. Then once it has filled it, it’s a lower maintenance alternative to lawn. “It’s the opposite of grass, where you’re having to maintain it all the time mowing, fertilizing,” she says.

 

Groundcover solutions for a slope

Groundcover plants offer solutions for slopes. (Photo Courtesy of Kathy Jentz)

 

Lawn-Replacement Groundcovers

Years ago, I visited a couple’s property for a television show I was filming. From a distance, their yard appeared to have a well-kept turf lawn. On closer inspection, the lawn was actually composed of mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus), also known as dwarf lilyturf.

They had planted plugs, 4 inches on center, and by the end of the third year the mondo grass had completely filled in. They mowed it once a year to clean off the brown tips but never watered it or fertilized it. It was forever green and 2 inches tall.

Kathy says if you are living within a homeowners association (HOA) or in a strict town or village that requires grass out front, lawn-replacement groundcovers that look just like grass may be the solution. 

 

Ophiopogon intermedius

Ophiopogon intermedius, or Aztec grass, much like mondo grass, is a groundcover that stays green, flowers and doesn’t require frequent mowing.

 

Ecological Value Potential and Side Benefits of Groundcovers

Groundcovers can have a lot of ecological value in addition to their utilitarian value. In her book, Kathy lists groundcover plants’ benefits, such as pollinator interest, wildlife habitat and which plants can be eaten by humans, like strawberries.

“Most groundcovers will have multiple benefits,” Kathy says. “Like they’re not just erosion control, but they might also be deer resistant, drought tolerant. And so I rate them for all of those.”

Another benefit of groundcovers is “soft landings” — the idea of putting groundcovers under large trees so insect larvae and baby birds will not land on a hard, impenetrable surface.

 

Photo Courtesy of Kathy Jentz

Groundcovers for Difficult Areas

Landscape areas that are in deep shade are not suitable for turf, Kathy says. Damp areas, likewise, are not good for growing grass. But she says that shady, damp areas offer the opportunity to grow some fun groundcovers.

Kathy loves to grow Canadian ginger in these types of areas. She says it’s beautiful, with spade-shaped leaves and a little flower that comes in the springtime.

In a sun-baked area with horrible soil, Kathy recommends using native Sedum and Opuntia, the prickly pear cactus, a native with edible fruit plus beautiful yellow flowers that pollinators love. 

Turfgrass will struggle in bad soil even if it gets full sun, but the right groundcover will thrive in bad soil and make the soil better.

 

Sedum

Low-growing sedum makes for a hardy groundcover. (Photo Courtesy of Kathy Jentz)

 

Fast-Spreading and Invasive Groundcovers

Kathy’s book rates groundcovers from slow spreaders to fast. Fast spreaders can achieve groundcover quickly, while slow spreaders require patience or  can be planted more densely so gardeners don’t have to wait for plants to grow in.

Maybe plants considered aggressive and invasive today were once purposely imported to the United States and advertised as fast-growing groundcovers. The growth and proliferation habits that were touted as benefits are the reasons they grew so out of control. For instance, planting kudzu, now known as “the vine that ate the South,” was once subsidized by Congress.

If a groundcover is listed as an invasive plant in your state, nurseries are unlikely to carry it, and you should refrain from propagating it or encouraging it yourself. 

Groundcover Propagation

There are many groundcovers that you can propagate confidently without fear of them growing out of control. Propagation saves money and covers more ground more quickly. Opuntia and Sedum root easily on their own from a piece broken off the parent plant. Others will require digging and dividing, such as clumping sedges (Carex).

Planting Groundcovers from Nurseries

Some groundcovers do better from seeds, and some do better from plugs, Kathy says. She recommends using the smallest size you can find. Even when planting shrubs, she says to choose nothing bigger than a quart-sized container plant.

“A lot of times you’re working amongst tree roots,” she explains. “So, A, it’s going to be tough getting it in there, and, B, when you start with the smaller plug or plant, in a few years it’s going to catch up to that larger gallon-size.”

Gallon plants are more expensive and have a harder time acclimating to a new space than a plant that started small. Smaller plants catch up to gallon plants and then exceed them. 

 

Plugs or quart-size plants will mature within a couple of years, catching up to and surpassing gallon-size plants.

Plugs or quart-size plants will mature within a couple of years, catching up to and surpassing gallon-size plants. (Photo Courtesy of Kathy Jentz)

 

Reduce Your Lawn Day

The inaugural Reduce Your Lawn Day was held on May 20, 2024. The mission of Reduce Your Lawn Day is to educate, inspire, and convert the underutilized spaces in our yards for a better world. 

“If you go to ReduceYourLawnDay.org, you can find out more information,” Kathy says. “You can fill out a pledge. You don’t have to be a homeowner. You could be a church, a business — anything that has an excess of turfgrass lawn.”

Kathy says any turf that you only walk on to maintain it — to mow it, to fertilizer — doesn’t need to be lawn.

“It could be a food garden for the hungry. It could be a mini meadow like we talked about. It could be groundcovers. …  That’s your day to stand back, look at that and say, does that need to be lawn there? Could that be something else?”

 

Groundcover garden

Groundcover plants can succeed in shady areas where turfgrass struggles. (Photo Courtesy of Kathy Jentz)

 

If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Kathy Jentz on groundcover solutions, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

How have you implemented groundcover solutions in your yard? Let us know your experience in the comments below. 

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 103: How to Create a Backyard Meadow: Simple Steps for Success No Matter the Space

Episode 180: Growing and Using Ornamental Grasses in the Landscape, with Brie Arthur

Episode 234: Converting Lawn into Meadow

Episode 284: Gardening Sustainably in a Changing Climate

Episode 366: How Gardeners Can Adapt to Climate Change, with Toni Farmer 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.

Earthbound Expeditions: Discover South Africa with Joe Lamp’l

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

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joegardenerTV YouTube

Growing a Greener World®  

Groundcover Revolution: How to Use Sustainable, Low-Maintenance, Low-Water Groundcovers to Replace Your Turf” by Kathy Jentz

The Urban Garden: 101 Ways to Grow Food and Beauty in the City” by Kathy Jentz and Teri Speight

Gardens of the World” by Kathy Jentz and Taraneh Ghajar

Reduce Your Lawn Day

Kathy Jentz on Instagram: @wdcgardener

Kathy Jentz on X: @wdcgardener

Washington Gardener Magazine

Washington Gardener Magazine on Facebook

Washington Gardener on YouTube

GardenDC podcast

Washington Gardener blog

Washington Gardener on Pinterest

Washington Gardener on TikTok

Pure Protect Deer Repellent by Heirloom Roses – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com    

Dramm – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

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Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice, Farmer’s Defense, and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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