Published on 03/26/08

Monkey grass apes turfgrass

By Gary Wade
University of Georgia

After last summer’s drought, some homeowners may be reluctant to plant turfgrass not knowing if water will be available to maintain it this summer. They do have an alternative. Dwarf mondo grass is a groundcover that can look like turfgrass without a lot of fuss.

Dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nana’) is similar to Liriope (Liriope muscari), but it has thinner leaves and a finer texture. It grows 2 to 4 inches tall. Once established, it is drought tolerant, pest resistant and only has to be mowed once a year. Popular varieties include Nana, Nippon and Gyoko-ryu.

Dwarf mondo grass grows well in shade under trees where turfgrass is difficult to grow. It will adapt to sunny sites, though, if it is irrigated during establishment.

The first step in successfully establishing dwarf mondo grass is to incorporate clean, weed-free compost into the planting area. The bagged composted products obtained from garden centers are fine for this purpose. Place 3 inches of compost on the soil surface and cultivate it thoroughly to a 12-inch depth.

One of the most economical ways of obtaining plants is to live next door to someone who has well-established dwarf mondo grass. Barter with them to allow you to dig up a few clumps. One well established clump can be separated by hand into 50 to 100 sprigs, or bibs.

If you don’t have access to an established planting, you can buy the plants in pots at garden centers, or garden center managers can order bare-root sprigs from wholesale suppliers. Bare-root sprigs are the most economical way to plant a large area.

Place sprigs 6 to 8 inches apart and water the planted area well after planting and again as needed during establishment. A monthly application of a liquid fertilizer for the first six months will get the plants off to a good start. Once established, the sprigs multiply and grow outward to produce a spreading clump.

There are a few drawbacks to planting a large area in dwarf mondo grass. First, it’s back-breaking labor. You’ll have to scoot along the ground, planting each sprig one by one. There is just no easier way.

Second, the plants are slow growers. It may take 3 years before they provide complete cover.

Third, one of the biggest challenges during establishment is hand-weeding between the plants. Local University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agents can recommend a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent weed seed germination, which may be a more efficient method of keeping weeds at bay.

Lastly, don’t expect dwarf mondo grass to provide the same recreational surface as turfgrass. It will not tolerate the wear and tear of a football game or children’s play area.

Once a dwarf mondo grass lawn is established, annual maintenance will include mowing once in late winter to remove cold-damaged foliage and applying a light application of a granular fertilize after mowing. Be sure to rake or brush the fertilizer off the foliage and onto the soil, then water to dissolve it into the soil.

Gary Wade is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.