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.
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, tile or wood flooring 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 less time than 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.
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 that 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 staggered pattern.
Learn about the growth habit of the ground cover you are interested in before making your plant selection. Some are very aggressive and can quickly spread out into areas where a 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 deciduous types of ferns are examples of perennials that are sometimes used as ground covers.
Here are some options for ground cover plants for the East Texas area.
Plants for shady areas include ajuga, Asian jasmine and English ivy. They also include ferns (many types and varieties are available, both evergreen and deciduous, such as holly fern, wood fern, painted fern, sensitive fern, autumn fern, maidenhair fern), liriope, and mondograss (or monkeygrass).
Evergreen ground covers for a sunny spot include any of the many prostrate and low growing junipers (examples include Blue Pacific, Shore, Emerald Sea, Green Mound, Blue Rug, Blue Chip, Bar Harbor, Tam), Asian jasmine and purple wintercreeper euonymus.
Other perennials used for ground covers include lantana, Phlox (thrift, Louisiana), sedums, hosta, Chrysogonum (Green and Gold), thyme, golden oregano, Helleborus (Lenten Rose), Veronica, Setcreasea (Purple Heart Wandering Jew), Selaginella (Spikemoss or Arborvitae Fern), dwarf ornamental grasses, Lysimachia (Creeping Jenny or Charlie, Moneywort), verbena, Scutellaria suffrutescens (Pink Skullcap), Japanese sweet flag (Acorus) and many ornamental sedges (Carex).
Ground covers can be planted any time during the growing season, although 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. Apply a layer of mulch, and keep the mulch depth maintained. 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.
Keith Hansen is Smith County horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. His web page is http://EastTexasGarden ing.tamu.edu. His blog is http://agri life.org/etg.