Nancy Brachey

Where grass won’t grow, choose ground covers

Japanese painted ferns are among the most beautiful ferns and can be used as a ground cover, possibly mixed with Lenten roses
Japanese painted ferns are among the most beautiful ferns and can be used as a ground cover, possibly mixed with Lenten roses AP File Photo

Practically everybody’s got one. You know, that space where, despite your best efforts, grass flatly refuses to take hold and grow. Various reasons exist for this problem. Constant food traffic is an obvious one. But others are related more to the amount of shade, the slope of the land, the presence of shallow tree roots and other environmental factors.

Lucky for us, a number of attractive ground covers are in the marketplace and make ideal substitutes for grass. Most are evergreen, meaning they look the same pretty much all year, such as mondo grass, Vinca minor and various creeping junipers, the latter being a top choice for sunny slopes too steep to mow and where grass does poorly.

The amount of sun you have will play a large role in making your choices. Because shade is often the main reason for moving away from grass and to ground covers, the selection of shade-tolerant plants in garden centers is good.

Among them are the ever-present liriope, better known as monkey grass, and ajuga which comes in different colors of foliage, from ordinary medium green to variegated with markings of cream and purple to a deep brown. Dwarf mondo grass is a top choice because it remains short and vertical, and Vinca minor is notable for its short, spreading foliage and early spring flowers in periwinkle blue or white.

Two well-known ground covers, English ivy and Vinca major, are extremely invasive, hard to get rid of and should not be on your list. If you are tempted by English ivy, grow it in a pot or hanging basket.

There is a great selection of these plants for full or partial shade in the garden marketplace. These include evergreen Christmas fern, various, shorter species of dryopteris, such as the leatherleaf wood fern and autumn fern. Though some hardy ferns are not evergreen, the foliage usually lasts well into cold weather.

In my view, the top choice for an evergreen ground cover is Lenten rose. This outstanding plant seems to perform well even amid the shallow roots of a nearby willow oak tree, a difficult environment. While the plants are about the same height, usually 1 to 1 1/2 feet, the plants stand out individually if you space them properly, about 2 feet apart. The effect is of ground cover even if you see space between them. Vigorous new growth and fresh flowers appear in late winter to start the year off beautifully.

And do not overlook hardy ferns. Some are evergreen, some deciduous, and well-suited for full or partial shade, even amid tree roots. Many choices exist, some plain, some frilly, others very frothy. They look very nice when mixed with Lenten roses for contrast in shades of green and texture.

Making these choices and setting out these plants in spring is a rewarding thing, especially when it means an end to your constant struggle to grow grass in difficult places

Nancy Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com

Ask Nancy

Q. I want a dense hedge to grow as a barrier. It can grow high since there are not power lines for it to run into. What would make a good choice?

A. There are many but the Nellie Stevens holly has been among the top choices for evergreen hedges for many years. It can get very tall, possibly 15 to 20 feet, over time. The glossy green leaves and red berries on a dense plant are very attractive.

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