Ground Cover Essentials

ground cover

Thymus serpyllum blooms in late spring

Ground cover refers to a low spreading plant that forms a solid mat on top of the soil — typically only 1 to 3 inches tall. Some ground cover plants are “stepable” — meaning that they can tolerate low traffic and can be used as part of a pathway or between pavers and flagstones.

Ground covers are an attractive substitute for a top-dressing of mulch or compost. They can retain moisture in the soil underneath and shade the roots of other plants, keeping the soil cool while adding a lush look to the landscape.

Some types of ground cover need little or no supplemental watering so they are perfect in full sun in rock gardens or between the stones of a patio or walkway.

Woolly Thyme (Thymus lanuginosus) is an example of a bulletproof option. It likes hot sun, does best with little water, and does not need rich soil (though it does need good drainage). Woolly Thyme may not grow much in the winter, or become a little spotty, but it quickly rebounds in early spring.

Ground covers like Blue Star Creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis) hug the earth, making a tight mat less than an inch tall. The tiny flowers of the Blue Star Creeper make it quite beautiful along a pathway or a driveway or around stepping stones in a garden path. Tenacious but not invasive, it does best in rich soil and moderate moisture but will tolerate less-than-ideal conditions.

Other options for ground covers are landscape plants, used en masse. These work well in areas where walking is not a requirement, such as slopes and parking strips. You can even use taller plants as lawn substitutes where mowing is a hassle. Examples include grasses up to 12 inches or taller, and vines like Illumination Periwinkle (Vinca minor ‘Illumination’) for shaded areas.

When selecting plants to be used as ground cover, think about growth rate. You want them to fill in quickly to cover the space. Also consider color, texture and when they bloom — you want them to complement surrounding plantings.

While most ground covers are hardy and low maintenance, you’ll need to give them some help at first. If an area is very weedy, deal with the weeds before planting so your ground cover won’t be competing with aggressive plants. You will need to be vigilant about weeding until the plants fill in, and you’ll want to provide supplemental water until the roots are well established.

In a hurry? For more immediate results, plant closer together to reduce the time required to achieve full coverage.

Need some help with garden design? Contact me to begin your plan for summer and year round.

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