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Saturday - April 28, 2012

From: Louisville, KY
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Compost and Mulch, Groundcovers, Grasses or Grass-like, Herbs/Forbs
Title: Turf grass for part-time home from Louisville KY
Answered by: Barbara Medford


We have a small yard at a remote location with cistern water, and need a turf grass for a yard, clay soil, which I am willing to amend. It will receive sporadic attention as my husband and I do not live there full time. I know this is a toughie, we have a drought/dry summers in August, and Sept, and no way to water. , wet, cold but not freezing winters, about 4 hours of full sun, and bright indirect sun all day, no shade until later evening. I really want something native. A friend has purple top that is mown regularly like a lawn and has found it to be very low maintenance. What do you suggest?


We understand the garden in your mind's-eye: you are seeing a lovely woodland cottage with lush grass, huge, shady trees and it's waiting for you, unchanged, whenever you can come to it. Let us suggest a different image. It certainly can be a woodland garden, comfortable and welcoming, but we think you need to forget the turf grass. Any grass, native or non-native, requires pretty consistent regular care for the first year or so after it is planted. A turf grass will need to be hand-weeded until they are big enough to hold their own, and need a regular watering schedule. If your water supply is a rain-filled cistern, your water levels will be at the lowest, in the summer, when the heat and dry conditions are most demanding. Many grasses that can get by in that amount of sun will be grasses that demand a great deal of moisture.

We always feel it's less frustrating to take a nice dose of reality when you are planning a garden in an area like that. Look around you in the area-what is growing out of the ground? Trees, we know that, but what about the lower plants? You're going to say weeds, right? Maybe, maybe not. They may very well be native grasses, plants that belong right where they are, adapted to the rainfall, soils and climate from centuries of living right there.

So, here's our suggested plan. An area that is not going to get regular watering, or lots of sun, or consistent weeding and maintenance is not a very good candidate for turf. We would suggest, first, you select the areas where foot traffic will occur, and/or you don't think much of anything will grow. Consider getting decomposed granite to use not only for pathways but for beds that will in which some plants can grow. From the website The Human Footprint, here is a very comprehensive article on the use of decomposed granite. Another article from Landscape Design Advice Decomposed Granite as Paving Material adds more information.

Too much hauling and expense? Next possibility is mulch. First, read our How-To Article Under Cover With Mulch. This article details the various materials that are used as mulch, including decomposed granite. If you want to use that for pathways or gardens, you might consider an edging of native stone to keep the mulch from creeping, which the shredded hardwood bark mulchs will tend to do. Some areas may need renewal every six months or so, but as the mulch decomposes it will go into the soil to improve drainage and the texture of the soil.

We are going to search on our Native Plant Database for plants less than 1 foot tall, tolerant of part shade (2 to 6 hours of sun daily), with low water requirements as well as some grasses, not necessarily mowable turf grasses, but that will tolerate the same conditions. Those we select will all be native to Kentucky and we will even check to see if they grow natively in the general area of Jefferson County. Follow each plant link to our webpage on that plant to learn its growing conditions, water needs, etc.

We found only one grass or grasslike plant native to your area, and it is Carex texensis (Texas sedge); honest, it is native to your area, too, and meets our criteria. One final suggestion: we once owned a lake cottage, on a large lot with many native trees. Although we did have a water supply, we didn't water the grounds. Instead, when we needed paths to the lake or sitting areas, we just mowed. Since what was there was grasses native to the area, it worked just fine.

Low Groundcover:

Antennaria plantaginifolia (Plantain-leaf pussytoes)

Coreopsis lanceolata (Lanceleaf coreopsis)

Erythronium albidum (White troutlily)

Fragaria virginiana (Virginia strawberry)

Glandularia bipinnatifida (Purple prairie verbena)

Mitchella repens (Partridgeberry)

Phlox subulata (Moss phlox)

Viola pedata (Birdfoot violet)


From the Image Gallery

Woman's tobacco
Antennaria plantaginifolia

Lanceleaf coreopsis
Coreopsis lanceolata

White troutlily
Erythronium albidum

Virginia strawberry
Fragaria virginiana

Prairie verbena
Glandularia bipinnatifida

Mitchella repens

Creeping phlox
Phlox subulata

Birdfoot violet
Viola pedata

Texas sedge
Carex texensis

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