Question: There are places in my yard where I can't get grass to grow no matter how many times I reseed it. Can you give me suggestions for how to cover these bare spots? -- L.J., Rockford
Answer: Just because turfgrass is the most widely planted groundcover in today's landscape, it doesn't mean it's the best one. Personally, I think turfgrass is highly overrated, as much maintenance is required to cultivate the perfectly green lawn carpet. There are other groundcovers that are easier to grow and will add different colors and textures to the landscape. Groundcover plants not only cover up unsightly bare spots, but they provide dense soil cover, retard weed growth and prevent soil erosion. There are many varieties of groundcover plants suitable for both sunny and shady areas. They range in height from an inch to over four feet tall. They can be woody or herbaceous, clumping or running, evergreen or deciduous.
To solve your groundcover problem, it's essential to choose plants that match the site conditions, then prepare the planting bed and make sure that there is a water source for the newly planted area.
Choose the Plants
Consider the height, light conditions, foot traffic and water requirements when choosing plants. Some suggestions for shady areas include these relatively short plants: ajuga, sweet woodruff, lamium, epimedium, wild ginger and pachysandra. For taller plantings, choose from the many varieties of fern or heuchera (coral bells) that thrive in shady areas and can be clumped to cover bare areas under trees. For sunny areas, consider these shorter plants: lily turf, creeping thyme, lamb's ear, soapwort and Carpathian bellflower. Daylilies and ornamental grasses are excellent for sunny, dry locations where height is needed.
Prepare the Site
Time spent preparing the site really pays off. Don't skip this step! Pay special attention to removing all the weeds. If you are not in a hurry, the best way to do this is to spray the area with a nonselective herbicide like Roundup, cover the entire area with a sheet of heavy black plastic, mulch deeply and leave it alone for two to three months. When the weeds are gone, till the area to a depth of 6 to 8 inches and add organic matter (compost) to improve the soil tilth. Now, apply a pound of all purpose fertilizer (5-10-5 or similar) for every 100 square feet. It is best to wait a few weeks to plant to see if any perennial weeds will reappear.
Plant the Site
Most groundcovers should be planted in spring or fall. If you prepare your site in the fall, leave it covered all winter and you will be almost assured of an excellent planting bed in the spring. Fall planting may require mulch to prevent frost damage and heaving of the roots. Summer planting is not recommended due to excessive heat and water requirements. The depth and spacing of the plants depends on the variety. Search online or ask a nursery professional for the planting guidelines of each plant you choose. For best results, plant groundcovers in a staggered or diamond pattern. Space fast growing plants further apart than slow growers. If planting on a slope, lay down a fiber netting first to hold the soil in place. Mulch and water new plantings for an entire season. Once established (after at least two growing seasons), most groundcovers require a minimum amount of maintenance. Keep the weeds out, and water only during the dry periods in summer and fall.
Groundcovers can be the "unsung heroes" of the garden by filling in the bare spots and bringing unity to the landscape with their varied colors, forms and textures.
This week's answer comes from Judy Penticoff, University of Illinois Master Gardener, Winnebago County.