Gardening Tips: An alternative to turf lawns and garden mulch

Are you tired of dealing with lawn and garden maintenance issues, expensive water bills, and weeds? If so, please read on for some ideas that may change your mind about traditional turf lawns and ornamental gardens filled with large expenses of mulch.
In Flagler County we are blessed with a climate that encourages outdoor activities and gardening practically year-round. One cannot put the lawnmower, rake, edger, and grass blower away for the winter like our friends and family up north. Tending to a grass lawn, keeping up with expensive watering and fertilizing cycles, and weeding all those flower beds can become dreaded chores very quickly.
If something could be done to reduce or even eliminate these undesirable activities, wouldn’t that free up time for more enjoyable activities? So, it is important to simplify what needs to be done to keep our yards and gardens looking both appealing and inviting.
Ground cover plantings, as both a replacement for turf lawns and as an alternative to mulch in garden beds, is the focus of this article. Plants that grow well in Florida’s Central Region and Cold Hardiness Zone 9A (central and western Flagler County) and Zone 9B (coastal areas of Flagler) should be considered. Also, recommendations from The Florida Friendly Landscaping program (developed by the University of Florida/IFAS Extension Service, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the five Florida Water Management Districts) will be followed.
If your community is governed by a Homeowners’ Association (HOA) you need to check for any rules regarding alternatives to turf lawns. Assuming there are no inhibiting regulations or there is no HOA, the next step is to really take a look at the area you want to change. Select an area that does not have a lot of people or pet traffic: perhaps a corner of your lot, along a fence or shrub line, under a large tree, or the area between the sidewalk and the curb. Also important in this first phase is to start your lawn replacement project at the beginning of the growing season, mid-March or April for Flagler County, if possible.
Once you have decided where and when to start, some manual labor comes into play. There is no shame in hiring a professional because the existing grass, roots (and weeds) need to be removed, the dirt broken up and leveled out. This can be done with a shovel, a rented sod cutter, or by a professional. There are other methods such as using black plastic to cover the area for a period of time, or using an herbicide, all depending on how big an area of turf you want to replace. Remember, the fastest way to get your new ground cover lawn established is to rid the area of all grass and other growth first.
The first criteria for selecting the right plant for your space is to evaluate the area’s exposure to sunlight. Some plants require full sun for successful growth while others thrive in shaded areas. There are also plants that can tolerate partial sun or partial shade. The best ground cover for you depends on your situation.
The next consideration is water. Remember that one of the reasons you are going through this process is to reduce the need, expense, and bother of maintaining a cumbersome watering system and schedule. Plants with a high or moderate degree of drought tolerance would be well suited as selections for your new lawn.
Ground cover plants come in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps you want to consider combining taller plants with lower, spreading varieties, or maybe a flowering ground cover bordered by all green.
Soil pH, salinity, and composition (sandy, clay), rate of growth, flowering vs. non-flowering, plant height, all can factor into your plant selection as you focus on specific ground covers that appeal to you. Two resources to consider as you look for suitable ground covers are Florida-Friendly Landscaping Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape Design and Florida Gardener’s Handbook, both referenced at the end of this article.
Now you are ready to install your new ground cover lawn. Using the specific information for the plant type(s) you have chosen, plant them at the spacing recommended but no more than 12 inches apart, center to center. Mulch in between the individual plants to keep the soil moist and suppress weeds during the first few months.
During the first two months, it will be necessary to water twice a week. After that, be sure to supplement rain showers so that your new planting is watered once a week. Continue once a week rain/watering for 6 months. At this point, the ground cover should be established, and these drought tolerant plants should thrive with normal rainfall.
After the new planting is established, little maintenance is necessary. After all, that is why you decided to transform your lawn from turf to ground cover. Mowing, pesticides, and fertilizers are usually not necessary. However, if there is an extreme drought, some watering may be beneficial.
Another appropriate use of ground cover is in an ornamental garden, replacing the large areas of mulch between plants. The information above can be utilized to bring another dimension to your garden. With all of the colors, textures, flowers, and foliage available in ground cover, you certainly do not have to settle for boring mulch.
In their search for more time, energy, and resources for the important things in life, homeowners are looking for places to redirect their efforts. Lawn and garden care can be simplified without sacrificing visual appeal. Using ground cover to replace turf lawns and garden mulch is a good way to start freeing up some time and resources.