Georgia Gardener Newsletter Design Tip: December 28, 2006

Ground Covers: 101

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1: Georgia Blue Speedwell; 2: Purple Knockout Lyre-leaf Sage; 3: Green n Gold

Ground covers can be useful in the landscape to fill a blank space with spreading plants for beauty or to help with erosion problems. However, many gardeners often have trouble choosing an appropriate ground cover. In some situations, a ground cover is neither needed nor desired.

I get calls or emails almost on a daily basis from people who have a slope in their landscape on which they either can't get grass to grow or if grass does grow, is too steep to conveniently mow. Fearing a severe case of erosion, most people want to use to the fastest and cheapest way to fill the area before the next rain storm. More often than not, such hasty decisions to plant the first ground cover that comes to mind often create a nightmare just a few years down the road.

One urban myth associated with the use of ground covers is that it will be a low or no maintenance landscape feature. In reality, the work involved in maintaining an attractive ground cover area can be much greater than if the area was simply covered by mulch. Weeding is perhaps the most problematic. In areas that have turf or mulch, herbicides can easily be used to combat weeds without too much difficulty. Beds containing ground covers often have to be weeded by hand as there aren't really any herbicides that can distinguish a desired ground cover from a weed.

Most ground covers that are grown in the shade of deciduous trees will not be happy if they are buried by deep layers of fallen leaves. These areas have to be cleared either by raking or using a leaf blower. This can be a major inconvenience in not only removing and disposing the leaves but also in trying not to damage the ground cover. I recommend using ground covers sparingly in wooded areas. A simple layer of mulch is often a much better alternative.

Preparing and Maintaining the Garden

Unless you're using artificial turf, stone, gravel or mulch, you will need to prepare the soil. Ground covers are plants, too and they just can't be stuck in red clay soil and expected to perform well. If the soil is really compacted, amend with a couple of inches of top soil or soil conditioner over the entire area. Moss is the only ground cover that grows well on compacted soil.

To help reduce weeds, keep a 2-inch layer of mulch around each plant. Be prepared to pull back the mulch as the plants start to spread. Using pre-emergent herbicides 2-3 times each year (March, June and September) will greatly reduce weeds from cropping up. However, read the label carefully as to whether it can be safely applied over your particular ground cover. Pull by hand any weeds as they appear.

Evergreen Ground Covers for Sun

Evergreen ground covers are great for holding the soil and can be a life saver in a new or recently renovated landscape. The speed at which they will spread varies from slow, medium, fast to very fast. To maximize the spread, amend the soil well and use mulch sparingly around each plant.

Artemisia (slow)Dianthus (medium)
Juniper (slow/medium)Iceplant (medium/fast)
Creeping Phlox (medium/fast)Georgia Blue Speedwell (medium/fast)

Other evergreen ground covers for sun: Creeping Thyme (medium/fast), Creeping Rosemary (medium/fast), Creeping Sedum (fast/very fast)*, Carolina or Swamp Jessamine vine* (fast/very fast), Creeping Raspberry (medium/fast), Creeping Fig (medium/fast) and Blue Star Creeper (medium).

Evergreen Ground Covers for Shade

Evergreen ground covers in shade can make a garden look lush year round. Just remember to keep these ground covers from being buried by excessive mulch or fallen leaves.

Creeping Jenny* (fast/very fast)Wintergreen, Gaultheria (slow)
Green n Gold (medium)Moss (medium/fast)
Allegheny Pachysandra (slow)Japanese Pachysandra* (fast/very fast)
Foam Flower (medium/fast)Prostrate Yew (slow)

Other evergreen ground covers for shade: Dwarf Mondo Grass (medium), Crossvine (fast/very fast), Confederate Jasmine vine (fast/very fast), Lamium* (very fast), Selaginella (slow/medium), Mazus (medium/fast), Ginger (slow), Hellebores (medium by seed) and Patridgeberry (medium/fast).

Deciduous, Flowering Ground Covers

Even a ground cover that loses its leaves in the winter can spread quickly and be somewhat effective in holding the soil. The fact that many of these produce flowers is also a benefit. For those growing in shady areas, remember to keep them from being buried too deeply by fallen leaves.

Dwarf Crested Iris (shade, medium/fast)Showy Evening Primrose* (sun, very fast)
Wine Cups (sun, very fast)Creeping Verbena (sun, very fast)
Wood Sorel (shade, slow)Woodland Phlox (shade, medium/fast)

Other deciduous, flowering ground covers: Purple Heart Setcreasea (sun, medium), New Gold Lantana (sun, fast, tender perennial), Purple Knockout Lyre-leaf Sage (sun/shade, very fast by seed) and Hardy Plumbago (sun, medium/fast).

Deciduous Ground Cover Ferns

Although most ferns die back to the ground each winter, there are several that spread via a fibrous network of underground roots making them suitable as ground covers.

Bracken* (very fast)Lady (slow)
Netted Chain (fast/very fast)Sensitive* (very fast)

Shrubs and Grasses as Ground Covers

Even low growing shrubs and ornamental grasses can be used for ground covers. Quite a few shrubs spread vigorously by underground roots or above ground stems and work well on banks. Most ornamental grasses tend to be clumping and will have to be tightly planted in order to produce an adequate ground cover.

Little Henry Itea (sun/shade, medium/fast)Leucothoe axillaris (shade, medium, evergreen)
Muhly Grass (sun, clumping)Mexican Feather Grass (sun, clumping)

Other shrub/grass ground covers: Cotoneaster (sun, fast), Winter Jasmine (sun, fast), Little Bunny and Hamlin Fountain Grass (sun, clumping)

Ground covers marked with an asterisk (*) may spread aggressively and should be watched closely.

Evil Ground Covers - DON'T DO IT!

Often when people are confronted with the need for a fast ground cover, their thoughts turn immediately to English Ivy or Vinca. More than 90% of the calls and emails that I get concerning these plants are how to get rid of them. These two plants will eat a landscape alive and continue to bully their way out of the garden to invade nearby areas. Ivy has the added bad habit of climbing and choking out trees and shrubs. Once ivy goes vertical, it changes into its mature form and produces seed which is carried off by birds to infest other areas. Ivy is by far the worst ground cover that can be planted.

English IvyVinca

Other EVIL ground covers that should be avoided: Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), varieties of Liriope spicata, Lily-of-the Valley (Convallaria), Bugleweed (Ajuga), Bishop's Weed (Aegopodium).

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