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GSU Botanical Gardens by Audrey Smith
Work-intensive lawn alternatives
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    Who doesn’t enjoy a beautifully landscaped and manicured lawn? It serves as your home’s first impression to visitors and makes a great place for the family to gather for leisure time.  But that green lawn takes effort, chemicals, and, of course, money to keep it looking good.     And who really enjoys spending their Saturday mornings mowing? There is a solution. Say goodbye to grass.
    Ground covers or grass substitutes are a group of low-growing plants popular for covering large areas. Some spread quickly; others are planted densely to create a cover. They can transform a high-maintenance lawn or bare area into a showy yard. Ground covers can even direct pedestrian traffic while softening architectural lines of structures or providing contrast with other elements of planting.
    Ground covers are also useful because they will often grow in areas where grass is hard to grow, like steep slopes or banks. Other areas where vegetation is needed to prevent erosion may support sod, yet it is unsafe to mow and maintain.
    Many ground covers colonize, run, sprawl or spread by reseeding.  Before planting, match your location needs to the growing conditions of the ground cover. Some species grow best in full sun, others in shade, and others can survive in just about any conditions. Some grow on steep slopes, and some grow where roots from trees are close to the surface.
    Before choosing a ground cover, make sure it isn’t invasive. English ivy (Hedera helix) is particularly invasive and can quickly get out of control covering everything in its path. Homeowners should also watch out for  ajuga (Ajuga reptans), periwinkle (Vinca major), and Liriope spicata, which can also be invasive. Liriope muscari  is not invasive
    Ground covers can be found in a wide range of colors, sizes and textures. Choose species that are best suited to the dry, hot climate of southeastern Georgia, water availability, light exposure, and soil pH. See the list for some suggestions.
    Ground covers are planted in much the same manner as other perennials and shrubs. Early fall and late winter or early spring are the ideal times for planting ground covers. Plants must develop a strong root system before summer, when temperatures are higher and natural rainfall is not as plentiful.
    To get faster coverage, plants should be planted in staggered rows and transitioned from low to tall in terms of plant height. Periodical fertilizing and watering during dry spells encourage rapid growth. Proper watering and maintenance prevents foliage and root injury, encourages growth, and eliminates competition from grasses and weeds.
    Recently planted ground covers could use a light mulch. Mulches promote cooler soil environments and conserve moisture, especially during the summer. Some hand weeding may be needed. Don’t use herbicides.
    Properly selected, planted, and maintained ground covers complement other plantings and improve landscape appearance while saving time and money. They can easily work as traffic barriers, visual guides, or space definers, but are gaining in popularity as a lawn substitute.
    Audrey Smith is a recent graduate of the University of Georgia's Grady School and is now working in Atlanta.
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