Growing Perennial Ground Cover Plants
A Guide to Growing Ground Covers
A beautifully landscaped entrance and yard offers a pleasant space to relax and increases the value of your home, business and community. Unfortunately our beautiful lawns often demand large amounts of water, energy, money, and hours of maintenance. As the world becomes more conscious of the need for water and energy conservation people are looking for alternatives to the perfect lawn. Ground cover plants are gaining popularity as a truly green choice for both homes and businesses.
There are many benefits to choosing perennial ground cover plants to reduce or replace grass. They grow quickly and completely cover the soil which slows weed growth and prevents soil erosion. Ground cover plants come in a wide range of colors, textures, and sizes so you literally create almost any landscape design. They cost less to maintain and can increase property value.(1)
Choosing the right ground cover plants
There are literally hundreds of ground covers to choose from so it’s easy to find the right ground cover plant for your individual needs. Non-spreading ground covers are popular to delineate boundaries and mark walkways. They are often used as visual guides along driveways and sidewalks. Vines and ivy are often used to cover slopes and uneven or rocky ground. There are also many shade ground covers that are great alternatives to grass in areas that receive little sun light. There are also perennial ground cover choices that can handle foot traffic but never need mowing.
Ground covers fall into two general categories; evergreen or herbaceous. Evergreen ground covers will last year round and maintain their color. Herbaceous ground covers die back during the winter and expose the ground.
- Walk on Ground Covers – There is a wide variety of hardy low growing plants that can tolerate foot traffic just like grass. They grow in a variety of conditions including full sun, partial and shady areas. Many of these plants are also drought tolerant and deer resistant.(2) Some nurseries specialize in walk-on ground covers and are excellent resources such as Stepables and Calssy Ground Covers.
- Edges, Paths and Boundaries – Place non-spreading perennial ground cover plants along driveways, paths and boundaries. Look for colorful foliage and year round color. Hakone Grass can produce a wide border and does well in moderate sun. Plants like Soapwort produce colorful flowers in the summer and fall but need full sun.
- Slopes and Hill Ground Covers – Uneven ground, slopes, and rocky areas are often difficult if not impossible to mow and maintain. Ground covers not only prevent soil erosion but they are also easy to maintain. Veins and creeping plants are often good choices. Creeping Phlox plants and Blue Rug Juniper do well in full sun. English Ivy can be invasive but is an excellent choice for uneven ground that is difficult to maintain.
- Ground Cover Shade Plants -- Shade ground covers can thrive where grass can not grow. Make sure to find shade plants that do best in your soil, (clay, sand, dirt) and climate. Japanese Paschysandra is a low-growing and compact plant with white tinged leaves. Dicentra Candy Hearts produces bright pink flowers and Ajuga Burgundy Glow is a creeping evergreen. Also look into ferns and mosses.
Choose ground covers according to the specific requirements of your site. Use the chart below to identify each area in your yard then choose the plants that best suit your needs.
Amount of light
Amount of water
Before you plant ground covers
Prepare the ground for planting by killing all existing grass and weeds. If you want to avoid using chemicals, cover the area you are preparing with a black plastic cover for 1 to 3 months. You can also choose an organic nonselective post-emergence organic herbicide. After all vegetation is dead remove any seed heads and turn the plants back into the soil. If you are unsure of which plants have seeds, you can rake up the dead plants and compost. After the ground is turned, wait 2 to 3 weeks. Any weeds that were not completely eliminated will reemerge and will be easy to spot and remove. Mix soil with mulch.
Planting times vary with each variety of ground cover, but most ground cover plants do best when planted in the spring or fall. It is best to avoid planting ground covers in rows, instead try a staggered or diamond formation. Fast growing plants should be spaced further apart and slower growing ground covers can be placed closer together. It usually takes one or two seasons to fully establish a ground cover.
Ground covers are popular on slopes, hills, and hard to mow areas but may require some extra attention when planting. If the slope is steep, lay fiber netting over the soil and through the net. This holds the soil in place until the plants’ root systems take hold. (Ground netting is available at most garden centers.) If you are planting in an area where there is heavy run off after rain, mulch generously after planting.
You don’t need to mow ground covers, and once they are established they need little maintenance. In the beginning water the new plants and pull weeds to help establish strong root systems. Once ground covers are established you’ll only need to water during very dry periods in the summer. After the plants are established, pluck or prune off old growth to encourage younger healthier foliage.
Ground cover plants can be used to reduce or totally illuminate the need for grass. Consider planting ground covers under trees, along narrow passages, shaded areas and other hard to mow spots. If you reduce the size of your lawn, you will probably also reduce your water consumptions, need for herbicides and overall cost of maintenance.
1 About Groundcovers. Retrieved May 15, 2010. From the Ground Up - Groundcovers to Know and Use: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/groundcovers/about.html
2 O'Donnell, Nancy. Somtimes you need the sort of plant you can walk all over. Retrieved May 16, 2010. The Providence Journal Co: http://classygroundcovers.com/articles/lh_steppables_06-21-09_F2ELRE4_v8.1fae542.html