A ground cover plant is used in place of grass or to cover an area where you want to do minimal maintenance. Groundcovers also help prevent erosion and stabilize raised areas. Landscape groundcover plants are chosen because they are tough, hardy and have a low growth habit. There is a groundcover plant that is suitable for almost any site.
Choosing the Right Ground Cover Plant Types
As with any other plant, zone hardiness, soil and light conditions will help you determine what to use. You should also think about water requirements and trimming needs, as groundcovers are frequently used in marginal areas or places where you want a nice landscape without a lot of work.
If you want to cover the sides of a steep bank in the sun, you will want different plants than someone who’s planting around a tree so that the lawn mower doesn’t have to get too close. A groundcover for stabilizing that sunny bank needs to grow quickly and survive a dry, hot area. The groundcover under the tree may need to be slower growing and tolerant of shade.
Plants for shade need to be chosen carefully. If the shade is from a dense, mature tree and the tree roots are close to the surface, your groundcover will be subjected to dry shade. If the shade is from young trees or dappled shade between trees, or if the soil is very moist, you will have to choose a groundcover that suits those conditions. Think about how tall the plants will grow, whether you want a uniform look or a variety of colors and whether you want it to be green all season.
Some gardeners are choosing groundcovers as an alternative to lawns. This cuts down on maintenance, but it also turns your yard into an ornamental landscape instead of living space, since most groundcovers won’t tolerate heavy foot traffic. If you choose groundcover over lawn, look for plants that can handle light traffic and consider installing a stone pathway for those times when you need to get around your yard.
Finally, remember that the best features of groundcovers can turn them from friend to unforgiving foe. Hardy, drought-resistant and fast-growing groundcovers can become an invasive nuisance if you don’t take the time to control their growth. Make sure you know how to keep these plants under control, as some can be very difficult to remove if they find their way into unwanted areas.
Groundcovers for Different Sites
Groundcovers don’t have to be vincas, spreading yews and junipers anymore, although these remain popular choices. Hostas of various sizes and colors, heuchera of various colors, tiarella and astilbe make excellent ground cover plants for shade or partial shade. In dry shade they will need to be watered. Ferns, some mondo grasses and lirope will grow in moderate shade.
Sweet woodruff, wintergreen, cyclamen, toothwort, selaginella (spikemoss), bunchberry and violets are some low-growing shade groundcovers.
Sedums come in all sizes and many colors and are excellent for hot, dry areas, as are daylilies and shrub roses. Dianthus comes in several heights, as do the various thymes, which smell good when you step on them.
Aruncus, or goatsbeard, is a tall groundcover that will grow in shade or sun, though it tends to hold its blooms longer in the shade. Some common trees and shrubs have dwarf versions that make a good groundcover, such as willows, spirea, sweet box and stephanandra. Slow-growing ornamental grasses can be a great groundcover, but care must be taken to contain them.
Mazus reptans, pachysandra, vinca and ajuga are old standards for groundcover. There are also low-growing fruiting plants, such as ligonberry, some new blueberry varieties and artic raspberries.
Annual plants can fill in as groundcover grows or let you experiment with different looks. Fibrous begonias, coleus and impatiens are good shade choices. Dwarf snapdragons, creeping zinnias, nasturtiums, Bunny Tail grass, diascia, melampodium, nierembergia and rose moss are sun lovers.
Topping the invasive list are crown vetch, bishops weed, dichondra, verbena, mints and lantana. Plant these only if you’re willing to dedicate the time to controlling them. Beware, too, of weeds like ground ivy that are sometimes classified as mallows because of their similar appearance. Weed ivies propagate quickly from their roots and some will attack any shrub or tree in your landscape.
Planting Tips for Ground covers
Soil preparation is the most important step in planting groundcovers. Try to get the area weed free before you plant, then mulch heavily after planting. Groundcovers are generally purchased as small plants and need a while to fill in before their leaves shade out competition. You may need to hand weed for a year or two. If weeds overgrow the planting in the first year, the groundcover may grow slowly or die.
Flowering groundcovers appreciate a little slow-release fertilizer in early spring as they begin growing. All groundcover plants need to be kept watered as they get established if conditions are dry. Since groundcovers often compete with tree roots or try to exist under harsh conditions, fertilizer and water may be needed every year to keep them full.
Some people work hard to keep leaves out of groundcover patches, but unless a heavy layer mats over the foliage it isn’t necessary. As the leaves decompose, they will add nutrients back to the soil. If you do rake, do so cautiously to avoid uprooting the plants.
If you have a groundcover with foliage that dies back in winter, you can trim it back to a few inches above ground in the late fall. Leave heuchera leaves alone until spring when new leaves begin to sprout, then trim off any tattered ones. Don’t prune roses until spring, and wait until after new growth appears on berry bushes before pruning, as some will only set fruit on old growth.
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