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Bring me the broomstick of the Least Wicked Ground Cover of the North!
Q:I work as landscape designerfor the Suffolk County Water Authority in Long Island, N.Y. We areleaning away from utilizing high-maintenance grass, and are looking forseed sources that would provide short ground cover — grass or flower —that requires no maintenance. Our well sites are built on all kinds ofterrains, and it has become costly to mow certain properties, but thewell operators fear that ticks would become a problem in tallerplantings. I am also hoping that the ground cover could be somethingnative to the area. Can you help?
                              Catherine Antal, Oakdale, NY

A: Suuurrrree—you want frieswith that? Sorry, but you DO realize that if such a plant existed—stayshealthy AND short, needs no cutting or maintenance, survives withoutintervention in a wide range of conditions—it would be the planting ofchoice throughout your region. (And I didn't even mention the 'growingfrom seed' or native angles.)
The simple truth is that plants GROW. Sure, some ground cover types DOstay short, but many—if not all—of these have requirements that don'tmesh with low care. Some need a rich soil, some need an alkaline soil(which you simply cannot maintain over large areas inexpensively), someneed a more acid soil that you can likely provide, some need lots ofwater—and/or need to be started from plants.

And the ones that DON'T need any of those things (ie, low growingmints) are invasive as all get out and you would be arrested and/orshunned for planting them.
That said, here are your best non-grass possibilities, along with theirpotential problems. All stay under six inches tall and are hardy inyour region:
• Roman chamomile; will reach nine inches tall without foot traffic;highly allergenic pollen is related to ragweed.
• Pennyroyal; should repel ticks and fleas naturally, but it's somewhattoxic nature could pose problems for the water below.
• Pink Panda strawberry; the runners aren't all that aggressive, and itwould require a lot of work to get good initial plant coverage.
• Speedwell (Veronica prostrata); Maybe your best choice—if the soilsare dry and infertile and don't get much foot traffic. It producessmall blue flowers and can be grown from seed--but some sources say itcan 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/perennialryegrass mixture (to make sure that both sunny and shady areas staycovered) 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 tomake sure and leave 3" of nice green growth aboveground AFTER you cut.Most American lawns grow much more quickly than that because theirowners scalp them badly, and the grass has no choice but to stressitself into growing quickly to try and establish enough green growth tocapture enough solar energy to survive. But that new growth lookspretty tall and ratty in spots, so the next weekend…

Instead, use only mulching mowers set at three inches high, and mowonce a month. Don't do any additional feeding—'make' the grass send itsroots deep in search of food to augment the mulched clippings; thiswill also insure better drought resistance, and create a think mat ofroots 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 coverinstead, but think about the reality of the situation. To do EVERYTHINGyou need (including covering the ground in winter to prevent erosion),they'd have to be evergreen, low-growing, non-invasive, not picky aboutsoil, and able to survive long stretches of dry weather withoutirrigation. If such a plant existed, it would likely already be therethanks to good old Doctor Darwin
AND don't forget the grass that IS already there. To replace it, you'dneed to kill that existing sod. That's a LOT of work, and if you turnto chemicals to do the job, what's that going to mean to the waterbelow? Plus, grass is about as weedy as it gets, and any of theexisting turf you didn't kill completely would likely quicklyout-compete its replacement.
Cut the grass higher.

©2004 Mike McGrath

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