Smith County Horticulturist
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.
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.
Besides covering bare ground, ground covers are also useful to help prevent soil erosion and provide variety to the landscape. 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 Ground covers typically require less irrigation water to maintain, and only need occasional weeding.
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, 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 which don’t densely cover the ground. A layer of mulch on the surface will also help.
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 aggressived. Others are slow growers and are best suited for smaller spaces. Other plants are perennial, meaning they disappear in the winter but come back every spring. Hosta and ferns are perennials sometimes used as ground covers.
Here are some of the best ground cover plants for the East Texas area:
Plants for shady areas include ajuga, Asian jasmine, English ivy, ferns (many types and varieties available, such as holly fern, wood fern, painted fern, sensitive fern, autumn fern, maidenhair fern), liriope, and mondograss (or monkeygrass).
Good evergreen ground covers for a sunny spot include any of the many prostrate and low growing junipers (examples are 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, wood violets, hosta, Chrysogonum (Green and Gold), lamb’s ear, thyme, golden oregano, Geranium (Cranesbill), 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. Keep the new planting well watered until it established. Frequent watering is initially needed. Keep the mulch maintained and be vigilant to deal with weeds.
Keith Hansen is Smith County Horticulturist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.