Friday, July 31, 2009

Mondo Possibilities For Your Landscape

With a growing consideration of ecological and economical responsibility, many are considering ways they can change their landscapes and how they maintain them in order to reduce waste and save money. Since turf grass is a major part of most landscapes, the lawn is a matter of interest.

Some have come to the conclusion that they spend way too much on their lawns, and might do better by replacing selected areas of turf with something less expensive in the long run. Ground cover plants offer reasonable alternatives, and Ophiopogon is one of the best. It resembles grass but requires much less care, and tolerates moderate foot traffic.

Ophiopogon (pronounced o-fee-O-po-gahn), is commonly known as mondo grass or lily-turf (a name it shares with Liriope). The botanical name comes from the Greek meaning "snake beard." I have no explanation why it was so named. Perhaps a plant explorer saw a snake laying in it and mistook the foliage for it's beard. Ophiopogon, like many of our favorite ornamental plants, is native to Asia where it is also used for medicinal purposes.

The genus contains 65 species of which 2 are commonly available: O. japonicus and O. planiscapus. The evergreen, grass-like plant was included in the Lily family, but is now included in the Ruscaceae family. It doesn't matter much to the layman. Mature height is usually from 1-1/2" to 5". Inconspicuous whitish flowers are followed by small berries.

Ophiopogon prefers slightly moist soil in partial shade, but will also thrive in full shade, and in full sun tolerating drought and heat very well. The plants reproduce vegetatively by short underground rhizomes, young plants appearing at the ends. When rooted, the rhizomes can be severed (divided) and the young ones replanted elsewhere.

O. japonicus is native to Japan. Foliage is deep green or variegated. It is reliably cold hardy in USDA climate zones 6 through 10. Recommended soil pH is 5.6 to 6.5. Foliage is 4" long. A dwarf form, O. japonicus 'Nana' produces short leaves about 1-1/2" to 2" long. O. japonicus grows on fibrous roots and short rhizomes, so mature plants may be in clumps. However, it can be used very effectively as a ground cover for small to medium-sized areas if the divisions, also called "bibs", are sprigged.

O. planiscapus is favored for its black-leaved cultivars, sometimes called Black Mondo. Well, they aren't actually black, but nearly so. They are recommended for partial to full shade, but I've found that the color is darker if they receive more sun. Because they spread very slowly, O. planiscapus is not recommended for ground cover except in the smallest of areas. The black foliage is exceptionally attractive when contrasted with light-colored stones and plants with red, white or variegated foliage. Like O. japonicus, O. planiscapus is cold hardy in USDA climate zones 6 through 10. Recommended soil pH is 5.6 to 6.5.

Prepare the planting bed for Ophiopogon by cultivating at least 4" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 8" deep. Composted manure may be incorporated into the soil. Fertilizer may be used. If you choose to do so, incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Ophiopogon can be planted any time you have a shovel handy, even bare root plants. It is very tough and resilient. Nevertheless, I recommend watering more frequently during hot weather to avoid plant stress.

Plant bare root O. japonicus bibs by punching holes in the soil with a trowel or dibble at 4" to 8" apart (3" to 6" for dwarf cultivars), and insert the plants, pressing soil around the roots as you go. Plants in small containers may be spaced 6" to 12" apart. Space O. planiscapus at 6" to 12". Keep in mind that my spacing recommendations are approximate. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Place the plants into the holes and back-fill. Press soil around the roots. Do not cover the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 2" deep. Irrigate thoroughly.

For sake of economy, container-grown plants may be removed from their pots and divided before planting a tad closer than you might otherwise space them. This will help you to cover more ground at a lower cost.

Maintenance is minimal. Ophiopogon has few pest and disease problems, and tolerates poor soil. Cold weather may damage foliage, but annual spring mowing at a high mower setting will easily renovate. But, otherwise, Ophiopogon seldom needs mowing. As mentioned before, it tolerates moderate foot traffic. Ophiopogon is deer resistant, but deer will eat almost anything if hungry enough.

If you need a low-maintenance, lush, evergreen grass substitute for full sun to shade that tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, I highly recommend Ophiopogon. Though it costs more to purchase the plants in the beginning, the cost of maintenance is far less.

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