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McCREARY: Great groundcover alternatives to grass


Home gardeners who have replaced their lawns can find themselves spending more time clipping and grooming than they had expected. It's always a challenge to find the right plants and often takes trial and error before we hit upon the ones that fit our tastes and needs.

But there are many attractive, low-maintenance choices that bring year-round pleasure from both foliage and flowers and require far less time and effort to maintain than a lawn.

The best yardscapes combine plants of varying heights, even where a small lawn once grew. In a future column, we'll consider medium and taller species; the selections below are all easy-care, low groundcovers that work well with taller partners.

These usually top the list of favored plants for lawn replacement for several reasons. Their minimal height mimics the scale we knew with a lawn, one of the greatest concerns. They require infrequent attention, and many tolerate light foot traffic.

Use them in combination with shrubs and perennials.

Top choice: Manzanita (Arctostaphylos)

Many low-growing cultivars are California natives that adapt easily to home gardens, i.e., accept moderate water or considerable drought once established and require little to no maintenance. All tolerate some shade, remain under a foot in height, and accept pruning if branches spread farther than expected.

Popular &‘Emerald Carpet' eventually spreads thin stems covered with round-to-oval bright green leaves over a 5-ft area. Dense foliage is the main feature, though small pinkish urn-shaped flowers do appear.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is similar but spreads farther, albeit more slowly. Its cultivar, &‘Radiant,' is similar but flowers more heavily and often sets a quantity of berries.

&‘Point Reyes' spreads widely under 6 inches and reigns as the most heat and drought tolerant.

Walk-on covers

If you expect constant or repeated traffic, stick with a lawn or put in a pathway. But if infrequent footsteps are the issue, go for a mat-forming species that bounces right back.

In sunny sites, creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum, aka T. praecox) quickly spreads to form a tight mat of tiny dark green leaves with tiny pale purple flowers in summer. &‘Elfin' is only 2 inches high while &‘Minus' stays below an inch. All accept full sun and light shade.

The T. praecox forms never need trimming, unless you want to shear off the short stems after flowering, but many other thymes need at least annual mowing and time to recover before regaining their good looks. Woolly thyme (T. pseudolanuginosus) falls into this category and is not recommended.

For small areas or borders along sidewalks, Dymondia margaretae makes a tight mat of green and gray leaves with small yellow summer blooms. It never requires care and takes sun or light shade.

Chamomile, another possibility, will grow quite tall unless you install only the cultivar &‘Treneague,' which never needs trimming and takes sun or part shade.

In shaded sites, creeping stems of ajuga (Ajuga reptans) form a bronzy green carpet that needs annual clipping or mowing after charming, short-stemmed purple flowers finish their bloom. Avoid tall forms such as &‘Caitlin's Giant' and opt instead for low spreaders such &‘Burgundy Glow' or one of the new variegated forms.

If you have difficulty finding a suitable groundcover, ask your neighborhood nursery to order one for you.

Annual events

From a country estate to an historic neighborhood and five other gardens in between, there's something for everyone on the May 11 and 12 Medical Alliance tour "Through the Garden Gate."

Garden visitors will be inspired by colorful flower and vegetable beds, bits of whimsy and turn-around habits, exemplified where a traditional English garden has been transformed into an alluring habitat garden from the owners' passion to save native oaks.

For details and ticket information, visit scmaa.org.

If you plan carefully for next Saturday, May 5, you can catch bargains at two terrific sales. Jail Industries will hold its second and final spring sale from 9 am to noon at 2254 Ordinance Road off Airport Blvd.

And it's the second annual Petaluma Bounty spring sale from 9 am to 2 pm at Bounty Community Farm, 55 Shasta Ave, Petaluma. Tomatoes will be featured along with 50 herbs and 25 different winter squash with prices beginning at $2.

Petaluma Bounty, www.petalumabounty.org, supports an urban community farm and distributes food to seniors and non-profits.

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.