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Stop slaving over your lawn

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[Times photos: Pam Royal]
Pinellas Technical Education Center uses namu for its ground cover. This patch has recovered from the drought and adds green to the parking lot.

By JOHN A. STARNES JR.

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2000


Grassless lawns are a beautiful alternative to water-feed-mow.

Until recently, many Central Florida homeowners were married to the pursuit of the perfect green lawn, usually of St. Augustine grass. We slaved endlessly against hordes of bugs and fungi and droughts, and we dumped tons of water and fertilizer and pesticides so we would have to mow and edge the lawn even more.

In response to this year's drought, which ravaged so many lawns, and to our growing desire to enjoy our lives more, a lot of folks are indulging in beautiful, very low-care grassless lawns. Imagine a luxurious living carpet that needs mowing two to three times a year at most, one or two feedings a year and only monthly watering during the spring drought.

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Blue daze
Alternative lawns were once thought the province of hippies, but you've likely noticed some very fine homes and condominiums in upper-crust neighborhoods with a wedelia or Confederate jasmine lawn gracing the property. Both plants do well in full sun and light shade. If they are mowed a few times per year, they grow so thickly they choke out most weeds. Both are immune to chinch bugs, mole crickets and the ravages of drought if given a deep monthly watering.

Wedelia produces a rich green mat topped by cheery little yellow daisies. Confederate jasmine is a very dark rich green, low-growing ground cover that bears wonderfully fragrant star-shaped pure white blooms.

Each tolerates light foot traffic and appreciates soil that is not too terribly acid (as is so much of Central Florida soil). A soil test with your Cooperative Extension Service can tell you the exact numbers, but an old farmer's trick is to look for a predominance of acid-loving weeds such as sorrel, oxalis (both taste sour and are used in "wild" salads), sedge grass, dollarweed and sandspurs.

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Beach morning glory
Another beautiful ground cover perfect for seaside yards in particular is our native beach morning glory; perhaps you've noticed the gorgeous pinky-purple trumpets covering beautiful green vines at the beach or in someone's yard. Granted, the foliage is a little coarse, but it will readily colonize native beachside sandy soils even if ignored. Once established, it is aloof to droughts.

Starting a grassless lawn is easy. Just neglect your lawn for a few months. Or kill it in place with cardboard and mulch. Or if you are comfortable with this, spray it with a glyphosate spray herbicide and wipe the slate clean.

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Variegated Confederate jasmine
You can also sprig one of these vigorous ground covers into your existing gnarly lawn and let them blend together. The grass will suffer, and the ground cover will advance as you limit water, fertilizer and insecticide. To keep costs low, buy a couple dozen plants of either wedelia, Confederate jasmine or beach morning glory in 1-gallon pots, and space them evenly throughout your lawn area. As they get established and send out runners, you can snip off the ones with roots and sprig them into empty spots.

In a year's time, you can have pretty decent coverage. All plants prefer some fertility in the soil, so consider a spring and fall feeding of a good organic such as Ringer Lawn Restore, fish meal from a feed store or a few bags of dried poultry manure.

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Confederate small leaf jasmine (miniature)
If your soil is very acid, a light sprinkling of all-natural dolomite (dolomitic limestone) every March is a good habit to get into.

A cheap and easy way to add organic matter to sandy soil is to scatter alfalfa pellets all over your grassless lawn. Buy them in 50-pound bags at your favorite feed store. I also like to bring home the bags of oak leaves people set out on garbage day each spring and scatter them as a 2-inch deep mulch. This will help choke out the grass while encouraging your ground cover to grow even more vigorously by keeping the soil damp and cool.

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