Cover Your Ground with Plants – Part 1

Traditional St. Augustinegrass lawn on left, and dwarf mondo grass on right make striking effect in this landscape.

When most folks think about a plant to cover the ground, grass is probably the first thing that comes to mind. True, grass is one of the best ground covers around. It’s cheap, fast, efficient, and has many benefits. But, there are many situations where it may not be the most practical plant to use for covering the soil.

For example, turfgrass is not well suited on a steeply sloping site. Mowing is difficult and dangerous, and efficient watering is impractical.

Lawn grasses won’t grow well in heavily shaded areas. Even though St. Augustine tolerates moderate shade, it won’t thrive in deep shade, and actually does best in full sun.

Other problem areas include rocky hillsides, narrow strips between homes, between the sidewalk and the street, and areas too large to be managed easily as a lawn. Ground covers may be the answer to the problem spots in your yard.

Asian jasmine is one tough groundcover for sun or shade.

Ground covers are basically low growing plants. Many types spread by underground stems called rhizomes, or above ground stems with a vining or trailing habit.  Vining plants are good options for rocky areas or sites with many exposed roots where soil preparation is difficult.

The main requirement for a ground cover it that it does just that – cover the soil so you can’t see it.  All a weed seed needs is a little light, and it will sprout and grow; a good ground cover will block out the light and therefore reduce competing weed growth.

Besides covering bare ground, ground covers are also useful to help prevent soil erosion, provide variety to the landscape, regulate foot traffic in the landscape when used as an edging for pathways, and to unify unrelated shrub and flower beds in the landscape (kind of like carpet or tile in a home).

Ground cover plants include woody, evergreen vines and dwarf shrubs. Also, massed plants of perennials, such as lantana or hostas, can make effective ground covers that provide color at certain times of the year. For every soil type, light exposure or fertility level, there is a ground cover that will thrive.

Once a ground cover is established, the annual maintenance required will take only a fraction of the time you would normally spend weekly mowing and grooming a lawn of the same area. Ground covers typically require less irrigation water to maintain, and only need an occasional weeding or cutting back, depending on the type of plant used.

The area to be planted with ground covers should be well-prepared if possible before planting.  Remove or kill all weeds and undesirable vegetation. Adjust the soil pH, if needed based on a soil test, add organic matter to improve the soil’s texture, and add a source of plant nutrients, such as composted manure or a balanced fertilizer and work it all into the area to be planted.

In areas where the soil cannot be tilled, such as rocky terrain or areas with exposed tree roots, individual planting holes must be dug and organic matter, fertilizer and other soil amendments mixed into the soil.

Juniper used a groundcover in a hot, sunny landscape between a drive and the street.

Space ground cover plants so they will cover the site as quickly as possible. Low growing shrubs massed together for a ground cover effect should be spaced based on their mature width. Mulch may be used for those plants which don’t densely cover the ground. A layer of mulch on the surface will also help with the establishment of the planting by maintaining better soil moisture, weed reduction and moderating soil temperature.

Space plants equally apart using a triangular pattern, staggering the plants in parallel rows.

Before making your plant selection, find out the growth habit of the ground cover you are interested in. Some are very aggressive and can quickly spread out into areas where the ground cover is unwanted. Others are slow growers and are best suited for smaller spaces. Some vines can be used as ground covers, but can also engulf trees, fences and other objects in the planting bed. Those work best when they are confined by walks or other borders with no trees to climb onto.

Other plants are perennial, meaning they disappear in the winter but come back every spring. Hosta and ferns are examples of perennials that are sometimes used as ground covers.

Ground covers can be planted any time during the growing season, though fall and spring plantings will give the best results. Keep the new planting well watered until it becomes established. Frequent watering is initially needed until the roots expand and grow deeper into the soil. Keep the mulch maintained, and be vigilant to deal with weeds the first few years.

The old saying about plant establishment really applies to groundcovers: “The first year they sleep; the second year they creep; and the third year they leap!” Be patient and you will be rewarded with an attractive carpet of plants for your landscape.

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