Groundcovers can replace lawns… and mowing

Is there a groundcover that doesn’t need mowing, is kid-friendly but uninhabited by critters and insects? That’s a tall order as this reader finds out…
QUESTION: “We recently moved and purchased 5 acres but we only plan on a small garden for now. I really don't want to spend time mowing right now. Is there a short ground cover which the kids could play in?
”I am reading things about snakes, chiggers and ticks. I want my kids to be safe, yet I would like to keep the mowing to a minimum. Any suggestions?” – Linda
ANSWER: Most groundcovers will attract those unwanted elements, although they can be present even without the habitat that groundcover provides. Outside dogs and cats will help to keep the snakes at bay, but chiggers, ticks and other such critters are all around.
Any groundcover will take several years at best to fill in a large area such as you describe. There are chemicals that can be sprayed on the ground to help reduce the tick and flea population, but with children in and about the yard, you probably wouldn’t want to use it.
Here’s a compromise suggestion. Mark out a reasonably small area close to the house and seed or sod it to provide a “kid friendly” lawn. You could then put down some groundcover over much of the remaining area, so you only have to keep the kids’ play area mowed.
If you’re looking for a low-growing groundcover, you could try Wooly Thyme. It’s a fast spreading thyme with no scent or flavor, but it makes a very attractive soft carpet of hairy grayish foliage topped by bright pink flowers in summer. Wooly Thyme thrives in dry well-drained locations that receive full sun. It is a hardy evergreen that grows 2 - 5 inches high.
You could also look at Wooly’s cousin, Creeping Red Thyme, valued for its fragrant foliage and a profusion of beautiful red flowers all summer long.
Another possibility: Pennsylvania Sedge Grass, a good groundcover that could be a good choice if you have any damp shady areas under tree canopies.
But again, most groundcovers aren’t particularly suitable play areas for small children. In addition to harboring critters and insects, groundcovers can conceal rocks, stones and sharp twigs that can injure little bare feet and legs.
QUESTION: “When is the best time to plant weeping willows? I have approximately 80' span of yard that is extremely wet and hope the willows will assist in absorbing some or most of the moisture.
“How far apart should I plant the trees? I do not have any pipes or drains nearby to worry about the roots of the trees interfering with. Also, can you suggest any other trees that would do well in very moist soil? I have a fairly good sized yard 80' wide x 150' deep.” – Brenda Anderson
ANSWER: You should be able to begin planting around the latter part of March. It is important to remember that the willows won’t actually absorb the moisture in the ground. It is simply that they will tolerate the damp soil. If the ground is soggy wet, it may be trial and error to get them established. Should there be a period where the soil is drier, you might try scheduling to plant at that time.
I recommend the Weeping Willow Babylonica, the best and most beautiful of the green weeping willows, in my opinion. They grow to a mature height in the 30 to 50 foot range with a spread just as wide, so they need to be spaced about 30 to 50 feet apart, and are suitable for zones 4 – 9.
There aren’t many trees that grow happily in consistently wet ground. However, true weeping willows, bald cypress, red maple, river birch, green ash, swamp oak and willow oak are known to be tolerant of moist soil. But, as I mentioned, with soggy ground, it may take several tries to get them established.
The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to snipped-for-privacy@landsteward.org and for resources and additional information, including archived columns, visit www.landsteward.org
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Why can't you just answer questions that are asked?
Oh, he takes all major credit cards too.
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"Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the
merger of state and corporate power." - Benito Mussolini.
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Astroturf is an excellent ground cover that does not need mowing, does not attract insects, kid friendly and very expensive for five acres.
To keep mowing to a minimum, don't fertilize or water and its low cost. However, may not be kid friendly barefoot wise. Dry grass can be like needles.
I suggest a commercial lawn mower, something over the $8,000 dollar range with the rear bagger (Good Compost). I mow 7 acres myself and went through two cheap mowers ($2,000 range) in three years. Save yourself TIME and MONEY get the commercial mower. Mine is going on 10 years and still running great, with one extra set of tires and spindles. I buy one new set of blades every two years and swap the old ones till worn out. Learn to sharpen the blades yourself. I take mine in each year for the oil changes and tuning up.
If you do put down natural ground covers and want to keep mowing to a minimum, get a goat. Chickens can also keep the chiggers and ticks away. Extra note, chickens and goats can be mean! Not always kid friendly :)
Enjoy Life... Dan
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Garden in Zone 5 South East Michigan.

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