Ground covers are the practical plants of the landscape—the problem solvers—and are used to integrate and accent the other elements of a garden. To fully appreciate them, took beyond their obvious function to their color, form, and texture. They are among the most versatile plants in the landscape.
Imagine a tree-shaded bed of rich green Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis) or a cool carpet of heart-shaped violets (Viola) bordering a walkway. Picture a slope covered in steel blue juniper (Juniperus horizontalis‘Blue Chip’) or bright green Algerian ivy (Hedera canariensis). These are just a few of the uses for the versatile plants known as ground covers—plants that creep, clump, mat, or vine to cover, conceal, protect, and beautify.
Ground covers include all kinds of plants—turf grasses and ornamental grasses as well as low-growing perennials, shrubs, vines, and herbs. Ground cover plants are valued for their ability to spread rapidly, grow close to the ground, and create a thick covering that binds the soil. They can be deciduous or evergreen, broad-leaved or needle-leaved. They range in size from plants a few inches high to shrubs that reach 3 or more feet at maturity.
Ground covers fill a wide variety of needs in the garden. Because they are more often used as a foundation for other plants, they frequently are underrated in their role as landscape problem solvers and beautifiers. When viewed with an imaginative eye, however, they can do much more than just cover the ground. When it comes to less-than-ideal growing conditions or problematic terrain, ground covers can provide the solution.
Ground Covers as Lawn Substitutes
Many ground cover plants are good lawn substitutes and can be used where grasses cannot thrive because of poor soil, dense shade, high wind, or limited moisture. In a heavily wooded yard, for example, where little light penetrates to the ground, ground covers native to the forest floor—including periwinkle (Vinca), wintercreeper (Euonymus), and goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria)—are the answer. For dry conditions, look to plants that require little water: cotoneaster, juniper, and ivy (Hedera). All are drought resistant.
Ground Covers as Problem Solvers
There is a ground cover to suit just about any type of soil: sandy, clay, acid, alkaline, moist, or dry. Most of the herb ground covers, such as dwarf rosemary (Rosmarinus) or creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), do well in poor soil. Problems posed by specific landscape features also can be remedied through the use of ground covers. Ground covers can blanket and conceal an angled slope or fill in a hard-to-mow space at the base of a tree. A thick ground cover planting can reduce maintenance under trees, because the litter from leaves, flowers, fruit, or bark vanishes into and beneath the cover. This litter eventually breaks down and enriches the soil, to the benefit of both the tree and the ground cover.
Ground covers are ideal for preventing erosion on steep slopes, where maintenance is difficult. Ivy (Hedera), juniper, honeysuckle (Lonicera), and periwinkle (Vinca) are often used in planting areas such as freeway banks that are difficult and even dangerous to maintain. These plants create appealing carpets while controlling erosion. They cover the land quickly and do not require frequent watering or maintenance. Such plants fulfill these same needs in the home landscape.
The small-leaved ground covers can be used to creep into all sorts of nooks and crannies—between the cracks in garden paths, around stepping-stones, in and over stone walls and fences, in an empty corner, or between the exposed roots of trees. Tall-growing or vining types are useful for covering rocks or hiding unsightly areas. Other ground covers serve as barriers or help to direct foot traffic.
Ground Covers as Attention-Getters
Although ground cover plants are used most frequently as problem solvers in landscapes with difficult growing conditions, they should also be considered for nonproblematic locations because of their beauty and ornamental value. The brilliant flowers of many ground covers are a special bonus, and the herbal ground covers offer fragrant foliage. Some plants provide uniform foliage color throughout the year—juniper, for example—whereas others, such as hosta, die back, supplying foliage color only from spring to fall.
Ground Covers as Unifiers
Ground covers create harmony in a landscape. They provide a continuity of coverage that creates a feeling of tranquility. Mondograss (Ophiopogon japonicus), for instance, serves as a pleasing transition between a lawn area and a flower bed. Besides unifying a landscape, ground covers can emphasize its patterns and forms. They offer variety in height, texture, and color, and make an exciting contribution to any setting. Spring cinquefoil (Potentilla crantzii), with its small yellow flowers and dark green foliage, serves as a colorful alternative to a grass lawn. Small-leaved plants, such as baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii) and lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus), which hug the ground and creep between cracks and crevices, can soften the edges of bricks or stonework and help to blend garden paths into the rest of the landscape.
Ground Covers as Accents
Ground covers can also be used as attractive accents and to highlight other landscape elements. Used in combination, they create variety in depth and texture. The glossy leaves of ivy (Hedera) contrast interestingly with the soft blue-gray matte effect of juniper (Juniperus). Scotch moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’) adds pleasing color and a texture contrast to weathered wood.