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Q:I work as landscape designer for the Suffolk County Water Authority in Long Island, N.Y. We are leaning away from utilizing high-maintenance grass, and are looking for seed sources that would provide short ground cover — grass or flower —that requires no maintenance. Our well sites are built on all kinds after rains, and it has become costly to mow certain properties, but the well operators fear that ticks would become a problem in taller plantings. I am also hoping that the ground cover could be something native to the area. Can you help?
Catherine Antal, Oakdale, NY
A: Suuurrrree—you want fries with that? Sorry, but you DO realize that if such a plant existed—stays healthy AND short, needs no cutting or maintenance, survives without intervention in a wide range of conditions—it would be the planting of choice throughout your region. (And I didn't even mention the 'growing from seed' or native angles.)
The simple truth is that plants GROW. Sure, some ground cover types DO stay short, but many—if not all—of these have requirements that don't mesh with low care. Some need a rich soil, some need an alkaline soil(which you simply cannot maintain over large areas inexpensively), some need a more acid soil that you can likely provide, some need lots of water—and/or need to be started from plants.
And the ones that DON'T need any of those things (ie, low growing mints) are invasive as all get out and you would be arrested and/or shunned for planting them.
That said, here are your best non-grass possibilities, along with their potential problems. All stay under six inches tall and are hardy in your region:
• Roman chamomile; will reach nine inches tall without foot traffic;highly allergenic pollen is related to ragweed.
• Penny royal; should repel ticks and fleas naturally, but it's somewhat toxic nature could pose problems for the water below.
• Pink Panda strawberry; the runners aren't all that aggressive, and it would require a lot of work to get good initial plant coverage.
• Speedwell (Veronica prostrata); Maybe your best choice—if the soil sare dry and infertile and don't get much foot traffic. It produces small blue flowers and can be grown from seed--but some sources say it can reach a foot high (not sure what your height cutoff would be...)
I think the REAL issue here is why you say the grass you're using is"high-maintenance". It shouldn't be. A nice bluegrass/fescue/perennial ryegrass mixture (to make sure that both sunny and shady areas stay covered) shouldn't need to be cut more than a few times a year. The 'secret' is to cut only when the grass reaches around 5" high, and to make sure and leave 3" of nice green growth above ground AFTER you cut. Most American lawns grow much more quickly than that because their owners scalp them badly, and the grass has no choice but to stress itself into growing quickly to try and establish enough green growth to capture enough solar energy to survive. But that new growth looks pretty tall and ratty in spots, so the next weekend…
Instead, use only mulching mowers set at three inches high, and mow once a month. Don't do any additional feeding—'make' the grass send its roots deep in search of food to augment the mulched clippings; this will also insure better drought resistance, and create a think mat of roots that will prevent weeds from getting any kind of foothold. And,of course, further protect the water below.
Some of your specific situations may be appropriate for a ground cover instead, but think about the reality of the situation. To do EVERYTHING you need (including covering the ground in winter to prevent erosion), they'd have to be evergreen, low-growing, non-invasive, not picky about soil, and able to survive long stretches of dry weather without irrigation. If such a plant existed, it would likely already be there thanks to good old Doctor Darwin
AND don't forget the grass that IS already there. To replace it, you'd need to kill that existing sod. That's a LOT of work, and if you turn to chemicals to do the job, what's that going to mean to the water below? Plus, grass is about as weedy as it gets, and any of the existing turf you didn't kill completely would likely quickly out-compete its replacement.
Cut the grass higher.