Mow or less

Wild Ginger

Not in the pot: Wild ginger is a prolific, shade-loving ground cover — but some authorities warn against culiniary use. photo by Cecil Bothwell

After a summer spent inhaling two-cycle motor fumes or repeatedly whacking your favorite extension cord with a rotary blade, you’re undoubtedly ready to adopt a new landscaping strategy. To wit: no more lawn.

Ah, but grass is a stubborn foe, and neighbors are apt to look askance if you tear out that turf. What to do?

I suppose you’ll have to endure the sods next door. But here’s a plan for dealing with the sod in your yard:

First, mulch. If you’re in a hurry, spread clear polyethylene (at least 6 millimeters thick) over the area to be de-lawned, and anchor the edges with dirt or clumps of sod. Sunny days and lack of water should kill the grass in about a month.

If you’re the more patient type — or averse to plastic products — an organic alternative will do the job while also building soil. This fall, rake leaves onto your yard instead of off it. Add weeds, your neighbor’s grass clippings, potato peelings — anything vegetative — and ballast it with dirt, peat moss, bagged mulch, dry manure or sand. If a blade of grass rears its sun-hungry head, mulch it into submission.

Another approach is to cover the yard with several layers of newspaper and then overlay it with leaves. This recipe can really rile neighborhood-association sorts, so be sure to keep the paper damp enough that it doesn’t blow away and cause a ruckus.

While your neighbor is huffing and puffing behind a mower, you can sit on the porch reading garden catalogs, sipping pink lemonade and watching your mulch do its thing. This alone will make your seasonal resolution worthwhile.

Next, you’ll want to plant something low-maintenance, attractive and noninvasive. (Repeat after me: “I will not plant English ivy. I will not plant English ivy.”) I’m currently engaged in what will surely be a multiyear battle to rid my yard of this tenacious tree killer — a foe far more intractable than even the native poison ivy with which it happily coexists. The principal question, of course, concerns which plants you’d like to see in your yard — closely followed by which subsidiary benefits you hope to gain from your blood, sweat, toil and tears.

A good ground cover will keep weed seeds from germinating, discourage perennial weeds from invading, prevent erosion, provide wildlife habitat and potentially deliver edibles and pharmaceutical herbs. (You’ll do yourself and the rest of us a favor if you give native species preference.)

But the choices can be overwhelming, with some sources listing literally hundreds of candidates. One way to winnow the field is to sort the possibilities into four subcategories based on sunlight requirements and plant height.


* Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), an evergreen shrub that measures about 4 inches tall by 3 feet wide, is a good plant for sunny banks with acid soil. The fruit is edible.

* Northern mountain cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) is another evergreen shrub for acid soils. It grows in full sun or light shade in coniferous woodlands. Rather slow-growing at first, fully developed plants stand 1 foot high by 3 feet wide. Its acid-flavored fruits, which are said to taste better after a frost, are used like cranberries. Vaccinium praestans is a deciduous member of the genus with a fairly large, delicious fruit that tastes like a strawberry. About half as tall as its mountain cousin, it grows well in shady, moist, acid soil.

* Sedum‘s numerous species can be used as low ground cover in sunny locations. They are all very drought-tolerant, growing well on hot, dry banks.

* Strawberries (Fragaria species) can be used for ground cover. Some of them bear delicious fruits, somewhat smaller than cultivated strawberries. They grow best in sunny locations with well-drained soil but will tolerate some shade.


* Brambles (raspberry, blackberry, etc.) are weeds if you hate them, treasured fruit sources if you love them. Thornless varieties are available for the timid.

* Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) is a 3-foot-tall multistemmed, woody shrub with a distinctive trifoliate leaf. It turns from orange to red to bronze in the fall. This plant is in the cashew family and will quickly cover a bank. Fragrant sumac prefers light shade or full sun and grows in poor-to-average soil.

* Southern bush-honeysuckle (Diervilla sessilifolia) is a low-growing, suckering shrub. The foliage is red in fall and offers a spring-and-summer bloom of yellow flowers. An excellent choice for banks, it fills in well and tolerates a range of sun exposures.

* Sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina) is at least 80 million years old and native from Nova Scotia to North Carolina. It’s a multibranched shrub that can reach 3 feet in height. The foliage is slightly aromatic and, as an added bonus, sweet-fern fixes nitrogen in the soil.


* Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) does well in a woodland and is also good under shrubs in the garden. It requires a humus-rich soil.

* Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) is a great native plant from Pennsylvania south to Georgia. Foliage is evergreen, 3 to 6 inches tall. The lovely springtime flower blooms in dense clusters. It tends to form solid mats, must be kept free of debris in winter, and grows best in partial shade.

* Creeping dogwood (Cornus canadensis) is a perennial that grows well amid light, acid woodlands that include conifers. The fruit has a pleasant taste.

* Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) grows only about 6 inches tall and spreads fairly quickly in moist, acid soils in shade or semishade.

* Creeping barberry (Mahonia repens) is very similar to the related Oregon grape (see below) but lower-growing and quicker to spread. In autumn, the leaves turn a lovely array of colors, from bronze to purple to yellow.


* Golden saxifrage (Chrysosplenium ioense) is a native perennial that prefers a shady location and does well in wet woodlands. About 1 foot tall, it creeps slowly to form a good carpet. The leaves are tasty in salads.

* Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctiloba) is a deciduous fern that spreads rapidly on a creeping rootstalk. It grows up to 3 feet tall and easily forms large masses.

* Salal (Gaultheria shalloni) is an evergreen shrub, native to the American West, which grows about 4 feet tall. It does well in acid soils and under coniferous trees. Its fruit has a pleasant flavor.

A little mulch, a little work, and — bingo! You can park the lawn mower in the garage and park your carcass in the hammock.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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