Given the challenges with the persistent drought and the concern about using too much water, many people are considering getting rid of their lawns. ESC encourages people to reduce water usage in their landscapes. (See our previous blog post regarding ideas for responsibly modifying an irrigation system.) The issue of water is real, and it’s expected to become more pressing in the future. While the latest rating by the U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that Travis County is no longer in an “Extreme Drought,” we are still in moderate to severe drought conditions. (http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/DM_state.htm?TX,S) The worst-case scenario would be the “Megadrought” category, which would happen if our rainfall drops to 13 inches for two decades, in which case lawns would probably be banned. (In 2011 Austin recorded 9.8 inches.) This is not going to happen any time soon, but it is a possibility in the future, and it’s the scenario that water planning experts use when they create planning models. You can read about the current and potential water issues in a new in-depth report issued on February 6, 2012 by Susan Combs, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, titled “The Impact of the 2011 Drought and Beyond.” http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/drought/pdf/96-1704-Drought.pdf But back to your lawn. If your area is sunny, you always have the option of using buffalo grass. The harder challenge is to find substitute ground cover for shady areas. There is not an easy solution, especially if what you’re looking for is a place to play croquet. But if what you want is a low-growing ground cover that is native and doesn’t require extra watering, fertilizing, or pampering, here are some species you should consider.
Ground Cover in Sunny Areas
Buffalo Grass (Buchloe Dactyloides) If you have a sunny area, Buffalo Grass sod can be installed as a standard-looking lawn. It doesn’t have to be mowed, because it never gets higher than about 4”-6”. Perhaps a mowing just before spring, to cut down last year’s growth, but even that is not necessary.
Low-Growing, Mowable Ground Cover for Shady Areas
Prostrate Lawnflower (Calyptocarpus vialis) Also known as Horseherb, this low-growing herbaceous plant is an excellent ground cover that can take moderate foot traffic. It grows in sun or shade, can grow up to about 8 inches if left alone, but you can keep it mowed to 2” to 4”. It is semi-evergreen, so to keep your area with green through cold seasons, you might want to include some scattered companion plants that have low rosettes during winter. You can choose companion plants from some of those listed below. Prostrate Lawnflower is in the sunflower family and is attractive to small insects. White Avens (Geum Canadensis) White Avens is a semi-evergreen, shade-tolerant ground cover that has a winter rosette which stays low to the ground (about 2”-4”) until it sends up its flower stalk. Then its array of white rose flowers can reach a height of about 18”. You need to let the flowers go to seed before mowing it because the plants are not long lived and need the seed source to keep a colony going. It is not usually available at nurseries, but you should ask your local nursery to stock it. If enough people ask for it, hopefully this underused plant will become as popular as it should be. It’s in the rose family and is attractive to pollinators. Yellow Groundsel (Senecio obovatus, or Packera obovata) Yellow Groundsel is another plant that has a winter rosette. Its flower stalk and yellow flowers can get up to 1’-2’, depending on the depth of your soil. You can mow it to the height you prefer after its flowers have gone to seed. It is evergreen and its leaves are an attractive deep, glossy green. The yellow sunflower-family flowers are an insect attractant. Cedar Sage (Salvia roemeriana) Cedar Sage also has a winter rosette. When it starts to grow its flower stalk and beautiful bright red flowers, it can get to 2’ high. After the seeds have matured and dropped, you can cut it back to the low growth. These plants might not handle mowing too well. The flowers are good hummingbird food. Frog Fruit (Phyla incisa) Frog Fruit grows in sun, half shade or shade, in many types of soils, and can handle foot traffic. You shouldn’t mow when it’s flowering, but after the seeds have matured, it can be mowed back. A little extra water keeps the growth thicker, but it can tolerate neglect. It is in the Verbena family and the small white flowers are attractive to insects.
Mid-Height Ground Cover for Shady Areas
A few species that are a bit taller, but are good shady-area ground cover, are listed below. Heartleaf Skullcap (Scutellaria ovata): Mint family, winter rosette, blue flower (insects,hummingbirds), 1-3’. Pigeon Berry (Rivina humilis): Pokeweed family, semi-evergreen, red berries (birds), 1-3’. Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus): Mallow family, semi-evergreen, red flowers (hummingbirds,butterflies), red edible fruit, 2’-4’. Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata): Mallow family, winter rosette, purple or white flowers (insects, butterflies), 1’. Inland Seaoats (Chasmanthium latifolia): Grass family, perennial, attractive seedhead (birds), 1’-3’. Webberville Sedge (Carex sp.): Sedge family, perennial, attractive clumps, 6”.
Written by Judith Walther