Florida offers the perfect conditions for many types of grasses and ground covers, but in the never-ending attempt to create the perfect lawn, all too often many other great ground covers are overlooked or ignored.
There are many benefits to a healthy lawn, including atmospheric cooling and oxygen production. From a practical perspective, no other plant can withstand as much foot traffic as turf.
But many people spend a lot of blood, sweat, tears and money to have those sweeping, well-manicured green lawns. The “perfect” lawn requires energy-intensive mowing, regular fertilization, irrigation, and, at times, expensive pest and disease control. This translates into four times the energy costs compared to a landscape that only uses turf in small, functional areas and low-maintenance vegetation elsewhere.
One of the biggest complaints about turf is its inability to grow in shady areas. Even the most shade tolerant varieties require at least four to six hours of sunlight each day. Many other available ground covers require a fraction of the upkeep and are more adaptable to a wider range of environmental conditions.
A ground cover is any low-growing plant that can be used to cover an area in the landscape. And as part of having a passive, energy-saving landscaping, ground covers can provide a surprising amount of residential energy savings during Florida’s months of high temperatures.
The average length of time for most ground covers to become established in the landscape is two years, but some, more aggressive species may take less time. During this period, a regular program of irrigation, fertilization and weed control ensures strong, rapid growth.
A three inch layer of mulch helps to retain moisture in the soil and make it more readily available to new plantings. Mulch also helps the spread of ground covers that root along their stems. Once established, many ground covers need only an occasional trimming to keep them tidy and within their designated area.
The following are a list of great Florida-friendly ground covers that can add a little pizzazz in the landscape. All of these can grow in zones 8 through 11, which covers the length of the State.
Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) is a fast grower adapted to any type of Florida
soil and pH, although it’s not very salt tolerant. It produces purple/blue flowers from spring through summer. Although this plant performs best in partial shade, bugleweed will grow in full sun or shade. It has medium drought tolerance, so a consistent irrigation schedule is recommended. It is susceptible to southern blight and crown rot in soggy soils, so make sure it is planted in an area with good drainage.
Caladiums (Caladium x hortulanum) provide fantastic perennial color –including red, rose, pink, white, silver, bronze, and green – in the sun or shade. Leaves die back naturally in cold weather but will return in the spring. There are many traditional as well as new varieties available in retail nurseries. They work well in mass groupings under trees or as borders along sidewalks and pathways.
The cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) is as hardy as its name suggests. Although a slow grower, it can tolerate deep shade better than most plants as well as a wide range of soil types and pH. Cast iron plants will grow to a maximum height of 3 feet, but will typically stay much shorter. Certain varieties will offer some spotting or striping on the leaves, but in general, this plant is a wonderful choice for a deep green addition to a shady area in your yard.
Ferns are well-known plants for shady areas, but holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) will grow in full sun as well. It will tolerate dry to moist soils, but will not tolerate long periods without rain or supplemental irrigation. It has a medium growth rate and will spread three to four feet per plant. Holly ferns are relatively pest free plants, but keep an eye out for scales, mites, mealybugs, snails and slugs. It is not salt tolerant.
The autumn fern (Dryopteris spp.) is built for shady spots with well-drained, acidic soils. A native Florida plant that grows slowly, this fern will do well in the landscape once established. It is also a great plant to use for cut foliage in floral arrangements.
Also known as dwarf lilyturf or dwarf liriope, mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) is a hardy, albeit slow-growing, ground cover for shady areas. It has medium salt tolerance, so it may do better on coastal areas that most of the other ground covers mentioned here. Dwarf varieties do well as “fillers” in-between stepping stones in the landscape.
For additional suggestions of ground covers specific to your location in the state, try out the Florida-friendly searchable plant database on http://FloridaYards.org or visit the University of Florida at http://SolutionsForYourLife.com, keyword: ground covers.