2 May 2006
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
If you are tired of mowing parts of your lawn or if you have certain areas where grass does not grow well, how about using something other than turfgrass to cover your open spaces? Ground covers are low-growing plants that spread quickly to form a dense cover. They add beauty to the landscape and, at the same time, help prevent soil erosion. Grass is the best known ground cover, but grass is not suited to all locations. Other ground cover plants can be used where grass is difficult to grow or maintain or where you simply do not want to grow grass. Unlike grass, most ground cover plants cannot be walked on. They can be used effectively to reduce maintenance work and to put the finishing touch on any landscaping project.
Ground covers can be found to fit many conditions, but they are used most frequently for the following locations:
- Steep banks or slopes
- Shady areas under trees and next to buildings
- Under plantings in shrub borders and beds
- Where tree roots grow close to the surface and prevent grass from growing
- Very wet or very dry locations
When planted under trees, ground covers reduce the possibility of mower damage to the base of trees. Some ground covers may be used to protect the roots of shallow-rooted trees. They shade the soil and keep it from drying out rapidly. Some ground covers do not require as much moisture and nutrients as grass. Therefore, they compete less than grass with trees and shrubs.
Some ground cover plants prefer partial shade; others thrive in deep shade or full sun; and a few grow well in either sun or shade. The selected ground cover plants listed below grow well in a wide variety of soil types. Some, however, prefer moist soil, while others need dry or well-drained soil. All the ground covers mentioned are reliably cold hardy throughout Virginia. First, select plants best suited to the conditions existing where the ground cover is needed. From these selected types, choose one that ornamentally blends best with surrounding plantings.
Once a ground cover is chosen, it is time to prepare for planting. If you need to add a soil amendment, such as organic matter or fertilizer, add it to the entire planting bed, not only individual planting holes. Organic materials, such as leaf mold, compost, or well-rotted manure, improve drainage in clay soils. A soil test provides the best guidance for fertilizer usage. Fertilizer can be mixed into the soil at the same time other amendments are incorporated. In open sites, a well-prepared planting bed is necessary to develop a dense, healthy ground cover planting. Take care to eliminate perennial weeds and grass that might compete with the ground cover during establishment.
When establishing a ground cover under existing trees, choose shallow-rooted plants, such as hostas. Since the majority of fibrous tree roots are found in the top 12 inches of soil, prepare the soil for planting only 2 or 3 inches deep to minimize disturbance of these roots and prevent damage to the tree.
Most ground cover plants can be planted any time during the growing season, but either spring or fall is preferred so the stress of transplanting is not combined with the stress of hot summer sun.
The arrangement and spacing of plants in the planting bed depends on the growth characteristics of the plant. Space plants so they will develop a uniformly covered area in a relatively short period of time. Place plants in staggered rows rather than straight lines to get faster coverage. Spacing also depends on how many plants you can purchase and how quickly a complete cover is wanted. Spacing intervals from six inches to two feet are most frequently used.
Watering, weeding, mulching, and feeding will be the main requirements of the new ground cover planting. An occasional thorough soil soaking is better than frequent light watering. Occasional hand weeding with a minimum disturbance of the soil may be necessary. A 1- to 2-inch mulch layer of leaf mold, compost, or similar organic material will conserve soil moisture and reduce weed growth.
Here are a few ground covers. Check your local garden center or nursery to see examples of these plants or call your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office for details of these plants and how they can be used.
- Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
- Moss Pink (Phlox subulata)
- Baltic English Ivy (Hedera helix 'Baltica')
- Hosta, Plantain Lily (Hosta sp.)
- Pachysandra, Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis)
- Yucca (Yucca filamentosa)
- Liriope, Lilyturf (Liriope muscari, L. spicata)
- Sedum (Stonecrop, Sedum sp.)
- Ornamental grasses (numerous genera, species, and cultivars)
Additional ground covers to consider include bearberry, hypericum, candytuft, goutweed, santolina, ferns, many plants often classified as perennials (such as daylilies), and woody shrubs (dwarf yaupon holly, cotoneasters, etc.).
Beware of the "vigorous" ground cover. Sometimes, this term is applied to a plant that can be extremely aggressive in its growth habit even to the point of being considered invasive. Invasive plants exhibit rapid growth and maturity, are highly successful at self-propagating, and have the ability to compete and crowd out other plants. All this leads to a high cost for you in removing or containing such a plant.
For more information on invasive plants, contact the Virginia Native Plant Society (P.O. Box 844, Annandale, VA 22003) or the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (Division of Natural Heritage, Suite 312, 1500 East Main Street, Richmond, VA 23219). Their web sites are http://www.vnps.org/ and http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/dnh/vaisc/resources.htm/ respectively.
For more information about these and other landscape gardening topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.