A well-chosen ground cover can be used to solve what might at flat appear to be a difficult landscape dilema—a steep slope, for instance. Use ground cover plants on irregular terrain to prevent erosion and runoff. Where water conservation is a priority, choose from among the numerous ground cover plants with minimal water requirements. If gardening time is limited, consider ground cover plants as a lower-maintenance alternative to a lawn and most other landscape elements.
Ground covers provide a practical solution for slopes. Carefully selected and properly planted, they can transform a hillside into a gardening asset. For a multitiered effect, a slope can first be terraced to limit erosion, and then planted with your choice of a wide variety of possible ground covers. Or turn a hillside into a living backdrop for color displays of interplanted bulbs, flowering shrubs, and trees by protecting the erosion-prone soil with a ground cover carpet. This will hold the topsoil essential to the other plants in place, thereby strengthening the entire planting.
Quite a few attractive ground covers effectively protect a hillside against erosion. (See Slope-Stabilizing Ground Covers for a list.) Most require minimal maintenance once established. Vining ground covers, such as ivy (Hedera), are excellent soil protectors. Cuttings often can be planted directly on the slope. With heavier ground covers, such as juniper, it is sometimes necessary to build individual terraces to hold the plants in place until they become firmly established.
Erosion remains a threat until a ground cover has fully developed its root system and foliage to cover the bare soil. In the meantime, cover the slope with netting (jute, available in retail nurseries) to stop the runoff. Install a drip system to water the ground cover most efficiently.
Lawns require more water than almost any other type of planting. In some areas, certain types of lawn grasses when found in their natural state go almost dormant during the heat and drought of high summer. Keeping these grasses green requires frequent and heavy waterings, particularly in the western and southwestern United States.
Ground covers, like all plants—even drought-resistant ones—need some water some time. And all plants need careful watering until their root systems become well established. But even during this initial period of several weeks to months, ground cover plants will thrive on a fraction of the water needed for a new lawn. Soil that has been enriched with organic matter and has been well mulched after planting will make better use of natural rainfall or of the water applied, further conserving this precious commodity.
Once the ground cover has put down its roots and begun to spread, give it deeper but less frequent waterings to encourage deep rooting. Given this moisture as needed, an expanse of ground cover plants will suffer no periods of summer dormancy as grasses do. Rather, the ground cover will continue to thrive with rich color from spring until freeze, or the year around in frost-free regions. See Drought-Resistant Ground Covers for a list.
Saving Maintenance Time
Home landscapes should offer rest and relaxation to busy people, not more work and more stress. Limiting lawns to a workable size and using ground covers elsewhere is one way to achieve this.
Invest time at the outset, preparing the soil. Thorough soil preparation is as vital to a ground cover planting as it is to any other planting. The plants must be just as carefully planted, and then watered as needed until they settle in and show new growth. After that they will need some additional watering and perhaps some fertilizer on occasion. Weeding can be a problem for the first few seasons until the ground cover spreads enough to crowd out the weeds. Mulch reduces weeding—and watering—to a minimum and makes any weeds that do come up easier to pull.
Ground cover plantings give satisfaction as they spread and grow. Homeowners will have more time to rest and enjoy their yards and gardens.