Smart Choices With Monkey Grass

With so many options to choose from, this ground cover offers countless ways to lower maintenance.
Rebecca Bull Reed / photography by Joseph De Sciose, Beth Dreiling

Monkey grass is the South's favorite ground cover. It's easy to find, simple to care for, usually evergreen, and tolerates heat. Throw in the fact that many types boast showy flowers, and you have a keeper.

It's tough too. Tolerant of shallow soil, drought, dogs, and deer, these Asian natives can survive the occasional crushing by car tires, bicycles, and the disoriented FedEx guy. Because it grows thick and matlike, weeds rarely become a problem. Little or no fertilizer is required. For all of these reasons, this plant is one of the best secrets to low-maintenance gardening.

Select the right monkey grass, and your reward is even greater. Some prefer full sun, while others are better suited to shade. Some clump, and others creep. All monkey grasses fall into one of two groups: the genuses Liriope or Ophiopogon.

Liriope
In general, all liriopes do well in filtered sun to full shade and aren't picky about soil. The most common is the clumping form (Liriope muscari), which is often used for edging. Popular selections include 'John Burch' and 'Silvery Sunproof,' which excel in sun. 'Big Blue' is the perfect choice for dry shade. These liriopes boast lavender to purple flowers followed by dark purple fruit. White-flowering selections such as shade-loving 'Monroe White' are available too. Heights range mostly from 10 to 15 inches tall. If you live in the Coastal or Tropical South, try 'Evergreen Giant,' which stretches to 2 feet tall and makes a great substitute for a low shrub.

Now is the perfect time to trim your liriope. Mow or cut back foliage to the ground before new shoots emerge. If you do it after the shoots are up, the tips will be snipped blunt, and your liriope will be stuck with a ragged look for a year.

Mondo
Equally durable and just as carefree, mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) likes filtered sun to shade and well-drained soil. Foliage is fine and dark, making it an elegant choice for a formal or small garden. Heights can range from 2 to 12 inches, depending on selection. Ground-hugging, slow-growing 'Gyoku Ryu' is a nice choice for between stepping-stones. Black mondo grass (O. planiscapus 'Nigrescens') grows well in containers and looks dramatic when paired with anything chartreuse.

Another Way To Simplify
If you have a slope or large bed to cover, use creeping liriope (Liriope spicata). It covers faster than L. muscari and spreads by underground stems.

To plant, remove sod from the slope, and till or turn the soil with a shovel. Rake it smooth, and mulch with pine straw. Plant finger-size sprigs about 8 inches apart through the straw. Or, if clumps are larger, space 1 foot apart, and water. Mondo grass works too.


"Smart Choices With Monkey Grass" is from the March 2006 issue of Southern Living.