The Q&A Archives: Turfgrass Substitute

Question: Please advise for a front yard 20ft long about a 10foot steep hillgoing up to house. Has a one and a half foot retaining wall by street. Difficult to cut grass with weedwhacker! Please give good advice for an inexpensive way to fix. Thanks Eve

Answer: I would steer away from grass and instead plant a native groundcover. Native plants are those which are adapted to your local soils and climate and as such are relatively maintenance free. Here are a few suggestions:

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi: Bearberry is an evergreen shrub growing about 10cm tall and eventually 1 metre wide. A good plant for sunny banks, it requires an acid soil. The fruit is edible.

Asarum canadense: This low-growing herbaceous species does well in a woodland, it is also good under shrubs in the garden. It requires a humus-rich soil. The root can be used as a ginger substitute. A. caudatum, A. europaeum and A. shuttleworthii can be used in the same way.

Campanula poscharskyana: A low-growing evergreen herbaceous plant, this lovely little Harebell spreads very rapidly to form a very good cover in a sunny position. The mild-flavoured leaves can be harvested all year round to be used in salads.

Chamaemelum nobile: Chamomile is a delightful herb to grow in the garden, the cultivar 'Treneague' is a non-flowering form that remains compact and spreads slowly to form a good ground cover in a sunny position (it is sometimes used as a lawn). It needs quite a bit of weeding until it is established, and occasional weeding even when established. Chamomile is a superb companion plant, enhancing the health of plants growing close to it. Many species of bulbs grow well through the chamomile.

Chrysosplenium alternifolium: Golden saxifrage is a native perennial for the bog garden. It prefers a shady position, doing well in wet woodland. About 30cm tall, it creeps slowly to form a good carpet. The leaves are nice in salads. C. oppositifolium is a similar species with the same uses.

Cornus canadensis: Creeping dogwood is a perennial that grows well in light acid woodlands, including amongst conifers. The fruit has a pleasant taste though it is not highly flavoured. Our native C. suecica, the dwarf cornel, has similar uses.

Empetrum nigrum: The crowberry is a native evergreen shrub growing about 30cm tall and spreading slowly. It requires an acid soil and does well in exposed positions. The fruit is not highly flavoured but is acceptable after a frost. Most other members of this genus can be used in a similar way.

Fragaria species: There are many species of strawberry that can be used for ground cover. Some of them have exquisitely flavoured fruits, though they are somewhat smaller than the cultivated strawberries and are often not borne freely. My favourites are F. moschata and F. viridis. They grow best in a sunny position in a well-drained soil but do tolerate some shade. They spread very freely by runners, quickly forming a dense mass of vegetation and swamping out any small plants.

Gaultheria shalloni: Shallon is an evergreen shrub that grows about 1.2 metres tall. It does well in acid soils and under coniferous trees. The fruit is very freely borne and has a pleasant flavour. G. procumbens, Wintergreen, only grows about 15cm tall and spreads fairly quickly in moist acid soils in shade or semi- shade. The fruit has a remarkable flavour, tasting like germolene - some people love it, others are less sure! An essential oil from this plant is used in the linament 'Oil of Wintergreen'.

Hosta species: Most, if not all, hostas can be used for ground cover. They vary in height and width and all do well in woodland conditions (where they produce better foliage but don't flower so well) as well as in sunny positions (where they flower better but the leaves can get scorched). The plants are rather susceptible to slug damage. The petioles (leaf stems) can be eaten raw or cooked, they are somewhat fibrous but have a sweet flavour.

Houttuynia cordata: This is a rampant-growing herbaceous plant, though it dies right down in the winter. It succeeds in moist and wet soils as well as in shallow water. The leaves have a very strong scent of oranges and can be used in salads. Sometimes they have a pleasant flavour, at other times the same plants are not so pleasant. We are not sure of the reasons for this. There are a number of very ornamental forms with multi- coloured leaves.

Liriope graminifolia: This evergreen perennial is about 30cm tall. It is rather slow to spread but eventually forms a good dense cover in a shady position and is drought tolerant. We have not yet tried eating this species, but the root is said to be eaten in China and Japan, where it is also used medicinally. Other members of this genus can also be used.

Mahonia aquifolium: Oregon grape is a very easily grown evergreen shrub about 1.5 metres tall that tolerates most soils and positions, even dense shade. It spreads slowly by suckers.The plant produces edible flowers in late winter, the fruit is ripe in late summer and, though somewhat acid and full of seeds, is quite pleasant eating. M. repens is very similar but lower growing and spreading more rapidly.

Montia sibirica: Pink purslane is a short-lived evergreen perennial about 20cm tall that self-sows freely and forms a dense ground cover. It can succeed in sunny positions and even in the dense shade of a beech wood. The leaves can be eaten in salads.

Best wishes with your landscape!

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