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AMY DISMUKES: A home grown tradition — groundcover options

AMY DISMUKES: A home grown tradition — groundcover options

No surprise, it’s hot in the Tennessee.

We Southerners often combat the heat by planting shade trees. Trees provide us not only with shade and hopefully a lower electricity bill, but also recreation, added character to a landscape, and dependent on the species, edible nuts and fruits as well. Too many large shade trees can also deter the growth of turf grass.

Because turf is a sun plant, the shade provided by trees can be an issue. If you’re working with shade as a deterrent in the landscape, you have options.

A NATIVE PERENNIAL SHADE BED is a perfect turf grass alternative. Natives have evolved over time with the local habitat for optimal survival. This doesn’t mean they don’t get sick or have issues, but that they’re better equipped to deal with it. They can also provide food and habitat for local birds, pollinators, etc.

Native plants will generally thrive in their native zone, resulting in lower maintenance beds.

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Check out your local native garden center, Co-op or native plant society for recommendations on plants that perform well in your area. Consider plants that require minimal pruning or staking, if by the grace of Louise anything fitting that description should cross your path. Generally, a happy plant is going to outgrow its specs. Also, consider spacing, as perennial plants do tend to grow and ‘give back’ by multiplying or spreading, so they’ll need to be divided occasionally to maintain their health. Just consider it free plants.

SHADE-LOVING GROUND COVERS sprawl across the ground but don’t grow tall, eliminating the need to mow, providing another alternative to grass. This category includes low-maintenance plants that spread quickly, smother weeds and fill in pathways. Just make sure you leave yourself a pathway should

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Corsican mint // AMY DISMUKES

you have a large garden bed in mind.

Our climate and the layout of your landscape will be the determining factor in which ground covers will work best on your site. A sunny location boasts many options. A few favorites include: ajuga or bugleweed, catmint, threadleaf coreopsis, sedge grasses, dwarf plum yew, lamb’s ear, fernleaf tansy, creeping phlox, brass buttons, creeping jenny, creeping red thyme, creeping oregano, dragon’s blood sedum, etc.

Shady sites also have a list of low light lovers. Sweet

Creeping thyme // AMY DISMUKES

woodruff, Solomon’s seal, native ferns, heuchera aka coral bells, wild ginger, jack-in-the-pulpit, hosta, trout lily, twinleaf, St. John’s wort, hosta and less-aggressive mints are just a few that come to mind.

Shade-loving perennial ground covers thrive in shade beds, where they’re able to grow into a woven canopy of leaves and stems. They can also greatly reduce water usage as they generally require very low levels of moisture.

Mints are a good shade groundcover option if you’re

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OK with a little wild and woolly. Mostly, they prefer dappled light versus the beat down they receive in full sun. Corsican mint is a relatively well-behaved creeper. It not only smells good, but also makes an excellent flowering grass alternative. Corsican mint as a groundcover does well in low-traffic areas and is excellent for a slope. It can handle light steps but won’t tolerate excessive foot traffic.

Creeping red thyme is an ideal ground cover for high-traffic areas. This versatile fella needs no mowing, little watering and little care, growing only 4” tall. It

Varigated Solomons seal// AMY DISMUKES

loves neglect and can grow just about anywhere, sun, shade or a bit of each.

While I won’t tell you to use clover, it is said to be an easy lawn alternative that dually functions as a green cover crop, fixing Nitrogen in the soil. Clover grows quickly, suppresses weeds and increases porosity of the soil due to its deep roots.

Ornamental Grasses are fairly low maintenance other than the annual shearing they require in order to shed the old growth. For the most part, ornamental grasses are drought-resistant and will grow well in sunny areas with little care. They’re a good choice for a ‘no mow’ lawn.

EVERGREEN MOSS remains green all year long, thrives in the shade and grows well in virtually any soil. Super soft, moss is a low-maintenance option if you’re looking for alternatives to grass that really doesn’t take much effort after you install. Mosses requires no mowing, watering, fertilization or pest prevention and minimal weeding. All you do is watch it grow. Most gardeners don’t realize there are many varieties of moss available for groundcover. Different species provide an endless shade of green.

Rock Gardens aka zeroscaping is a super cool grass alternative. Basically, remove it all and install heat-zone plants whose roots can withstand the warmth that will radiate from the rock bed. Be careful when making your selections as not all plants can tolerate rock. A few of my favorite heat plants include: Arkansas blue, Shenandoah switchgrass, river oats, sedges and sedums.

And of course, last and hopefully always least, artificial turf.

You can’t get much more low maintenance than artificial turf! I can see its benefit and draw. I can also see the scrubbed knees and stubbed toes, adults and children alike. Astroturf hurts folks, however, artificial turf has shifted into a modern, eco-friendly, softer landscaping option. It requires no mowing, watering, fertilizing or weed control, and its many varieties are incredibly lifelike. You have to inspect it very closely to tell it’s not real grass.

With just a little planning and some thoughtful planting, you can create a lush green yard that works with your space, providing you with a gorgeous space to enjoy. And best of all, you’ve got plenty of grass alternatives to choose from!

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Amy Dismukes

“A Home Grown Tradition” is written by Amy Dismukes, the TSU Nursery Production Specialist at the Otis L. Floyd Nursery Research Center in McMinnville. Amy is a graduate of Auburn University, where she received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts, a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Master of Agriculture in Plant Pathology and Entomology. Amy worked as the Horticulture Extension Agent for Williamson County, Tennessee for almost six years before transferring to Nursery Production. She provides educational training regarding best management practices and issues with insects, plant diseases, soil and weeds. Amy is a frequent guest speaker for professional, garden and horticultural associations and commercial pesticide workshops/conferences. Email any questions to Amy at


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