Parkway Ground Cover

ruby grass (Melinus nerviglumis)

ruby grass (Melinus nerviglumis)

We are looking for a ground cover for our parkway (between the street and the sidewalk) that will be stronger than the grass and weeds that will inevitably try to regain ground there.  We know we will always need to pull out the unwanted, but I read that some ground cover is stronger than others.  We need something low and spreading, that would be water-wise.  Any suggestions?

Rick & Darcy Bauer, Burbank
 
Two plants immediately come to mind: yarrow (Achillea spp.), also known as soldier’s woundwort, and silver carpet or dymondia (Dymondia margaretae).  You should plant them densely, with individual plants touching one another, so that they completely cover the parkway like sod.  Sparse plantings take a long time to establish and, in the meantime, you will endure many, many hours of weed pulling.  It is more expensive, of course, to plant in the manner of a sodded lawn, for a wall-to-wall carpet effect, but the weed control burden will be minimal.  
 
There are many different ornamental yarrows, from three to four foot tall giants to dwarf cultivars under a foot in height, and they may be found with white, yellow, pink, salmon, red, or pale violet flowers growing in flat, plate like clusters known as umbels. Foliage is soft and finely cut.
Yarrow’s botanical name, Achillea, is linked to Achilles, the war hero of Greek mythology whose soldiers supposedly used it for staunching battlefield wounds. In addition to being applied as a poultice for cuts and minor bleeding, the flavenoids in yarrow are said to improve digestion and relieve stomach and menstrual cramps.  Lastly, yarrow has sedative properties so that it may be effective in treating anxiety and insomnia.
Young yarrow leaves are edible, in modest quantity, and may be tossed into a salad.  They may also be brewed into a tea.  All yarrows are attractive to carnivorous, beneficial insects such as green lacewing and ladybug larvae, as well as parasitic wasps, that do an excellent job of keeping insect pests under control.
While any yarrow species will do fine at covering a parkway, dwarf cultivars such as Achillea millefolium ‘Rosea’ will require less maintenance or cutting back to keep them at the desired height.  To maintain yarrow at ground level, you will want to trim or shear it down occasionally, whether by mower, weed eater, or pruning shears.
 
For an absolutely prostrate ground cover, plant silver carpet or dymondia. Painfully slow to establish, it is highly recommended that dymondia be installed with cheek by jowl density.  Foliage is green with silver margins and flowers are tiny yellow daisies.  Some parkway plantings I have seen feature large stepping stones with dymondia planted in between them.
 
Almost any low to medium size ornamental grass, including native species such as California meadow sedge (Carex pansa), may be used to cover a parkway. Bear in mind that ornamental grasses experience several months of down time when they will look quite weedy and they, too, will need to be cut back on an occasional basis.  Ruby grass (Melinus nerviglumis), with spellbinding pink inflorescences that turn an attractive burgundy bronze, blooms in the hottest summer weather and is widely considered to have the most beautiful flower tassels of all ornamental grasses.  Photos never do justice to ruby grass, imparting but a small measure of its
essential beauty.
 
Last but not least, if you are reluctant to give up on the idea of lawn grass in a parkway strip, keep kikuyu in mind.  If you have a neighbor with a lawn more than 10 years old, it will more than likely be kikuyu, a grass that eventually gains a foothold in every Valley lawn before taking it over completely.  Kikuyu’s ropy persistence makes it impregnable to both drought and dogs.  Ask your neighbor for a few chunks of Kikuyu, plant them in your parkway, and you will have a durable mat of green soon enough.  Even kikuyu runners, buried just below the soil surface, will soon sprout blades of grass and eventually grow into a lawn.
 
Tip of the Week: As an extra measure of insurance against the possibility of weeds, consider laying down weed barrier fabric prior to planting.  Available in rolls at nurseries and home improvement centers, you can secure the fabric with U-nails prior to cutting holes or making slits in it wherever a plant is placed. 
 
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