Hillsborough Extension Garden Blog

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Gorgeous Ground Covers! September 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 11:55 pm
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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

Source: Texas A&M University

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.


Source: University of Florida IFAS

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.


Source: Texas A&M University

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.



Source: University of Florida IFAS

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.



Source: Clemson University

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.


9 Responses to “Gorgeous Ground Covers!”

  1. paul Says:

    great site , thank you!!

    can you update the article on “ground coverings” and put a link to a picture of each plant mentioned. I am done with the whole”grass thing”. ;). Also,
    what r the best / durable wild flowers for a “shady area?


    • mdabreau Says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Paul. Glad to know someone’s actually reading these posts! 🙂 I’ll add some photos to go along with the plant descriptions.
      As for wildflowers, there are a couple of sources I can recommend to find plants that will be suited to your individual site conditions. There is a searchable plant database of Florida-friendly plants at http://floridayards.org/fyplants/index.php. You can specify your location, the type of plants you’re looking for (in your case probably native, but it doesn’t have to be), and other variables like light conditions and water requirements. The search engine will generate a suggested list of plants, along with descriptions and photos. The Florida Museum of Natural History also has a search option on their website for wildflowers, and you can specify the county in which you live – http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/wildflower/searchWildflowerComprehensive.asp. Finally, the Southwest Florida Water Management District has an online publication of sample wildflowers from Florida’s natural areas – http://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/recreation/species/wildflowers.pdf. There are no details about the characteristics or needs of these plants, but you can always look up individual species for more information using the Internet. Good luck!

  2. dory Says:

    I totally agree that we waste too many resources on trying to grow turf. But what’s a homeowner to do who wants to follow Florida-friendly principals by having less turf, when the HOA doesn’t see the benefit and only cares about aesthetics? Even though there are state statutes in place, unless you want to take them to court, your hands are tied. It doesn’t make sense.
    One frustrated treehugger
    Winter Haven, FL

    • mdabreau Says:

      You’re not alone in your frustration, Dory, but many HOAs are modifying their covenants and restrictions to allow homeowners the flexibility to choose plants that are better suited to their individual site conditions — i.e. Florida-friendly. The recent Florida-Friendly Landscaping legislation was intended to open the lines of communication between homeowners and their HOA boards. In some cases it has worked splendidly. In other cases, there’s still work to be done. The University of Florida Extension Service has an individual specifically dedicated to Polk and Hillsborough counties, whose purpose is to help address some of these issues with communities. Call (813) 744-5519 x142 for more information.

  3. Ben Freda Says:

    Very well done, enjoyed your input.

  4. Mary Says:

    When I saw your article and photo, I was hoping you would mention some native Florida grasses which could be used instead of lawn grasses. There are several which stay low such as Elliott’s lovegrass (Eragrostis elliottii), dwarf Fakahatchee (Tripsacum floridanum) and sedges which make a beautiful groundcover, eventually choking out weeds. Once established, these require no additional irrigation and maintenance is a breeze – just cut the grasses back, once, in May. The whole concept of “meadow gardening” is new to Florida. Adding wildflowers such as Coreopsis, blue curls, Jacquemontia, to the bed with native grasses, adds additional interest.

    • mdabreau Says:

      Hi Mary. These ornamental grasses you mentioned are definitely recommended by the Florida-Friendly Landscaping program. My post was only a sampling of the many excellent ground covers available to homeowners. Your comment has inspired me to do another post on a variety of native and non-native ornamental grasses for this area… thank you!

  5. Saralee Silverglade Says:

    I would like to eliminate regular turf in my backyard it is fullsun. It is an area that my Grandchildren play soccer and baseball. So I’ve been looking for a turf alternative that can withstand running but not a hazzard to do so. I know there are some new an improved artifical turfs but if there is a plant that would work that would be even better.

    • mdabreau Says:

      As a ground cover, turf can tolerate foot traffic better than any other plant. The warm-season grasses grown throughout Florida are generally more wear tolerant than cool-season grasses grown in northern climates. According to the University of Florida IFAS Extension, a typical ranking of wear tolerance of our warm-season grasses is as follows:
      1. zoysiagrass
      2. seashore paspalum is equal to bermudagrass
      3. St. Augustinegrass
      4. bahiagrass
      5. carpetgrass
      6. centipedegrass

      In some cases, a species may have one cultivar (or type) that exhibits good wear tolerance and another with poor tolerance. For example, seashore paspalum cultivars “Sea Isle 2000” and “Sea Isle 1” both have excellent wear tolerance, while wear tolerance of the cultivar “Adalayd” is poor. These differences exist due to genetic differences within a species and differences in rate of re-growth.

      If you are trying to maintain a Florida-Friendly Landscape, artificial turf is not recommended, since the goal is to have low-maintenance plants that provide a benefit to the environment. Colorado State University Extension says: Because it is not a living, transpiring plant, artificial turf does not provide the cooling effect of a living lawn and becomes quite warm on a sunny day. On hot days, there is often a distinct hot rubber odor. The carpet/topdressing combination does allow water to infiltrate underlying soil. There is no research to document effects on soil microbes, earthworms, or insects or to the health of landscape plants with roots growing under the carpet.

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