Ground covers are plants that are low-growing (usually less than 24 inches high) herbs, perennials, shrubs and vines. These plants are valued for their ability to spread easily and quickly. They bring much interest to our gardens and provide many benefits.
Ground covers can create a thick foliage carpet, a living mulch that prevents weed emergence. They can be substituted for turf in locations where grasses are unable to grow because of poor soil, dense shade or high winds, and in hot, dry conditions as on south and west exposures. They may be a good option for those landscape areas that are difficult to water or mow, as on steep slopes. They can also prevent soil erosion in those areas.
Evergreen ground covers such as Mahonia repens (creeping Oregon grape), can provide color and structure throughout the year. Vinca major (greater periwinkle) can fill those bare, dry, shady areas under trees and shrubs. Phlox subulata (creeping phlox) can drape over rocks, logs and short walls, adding beauty and interest to your landscape.
Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ear) can screen the less appealing, lower sections of taller plants in your garden, and add texture and color to those areas. The flowers of many ground covers, such as Thymus serpyllum (mother-of-thyme) attract bees and butterflies when in bloom.
Weeds should be controlled before planting ground covers, and managed properly after planting. Weeds compete with ground covers for water and nutrients, and decrease the attractiveness of the site.
Ground covers should be planted densely to inhibit future weed growth.
Good soil preparation is a must for successful ground cover establishment. Compost, or another good quality organic material, should be incorporated into the soil at a rate of 2 to 4 cubic yards per 1,000 square feet of area.
A ground cover should spread by itself. If the species produces rhizomes or stolons, or spreads by offsets or tip layering, it’s a good choice for a ground cover.
When used for soil erosion prevention on a steep slope, it should have a robust growth habit and substantial root system.
When selecting a ground cover, consider the light characteristics of the site, exposure to winter sun and wind, and moisture. Other than certain grasses, ground covers will not tolerate repeated foot traffic. If foot traffic is expected, install a footpath through the area before planting the ground cover.
Consider adding native ground covers. A careful selection of a native plant, such as Callirhoe involucrata (winecups) will maximize survival chances and help maintain a sustainable, diverse ecosystem.
See a list of suggested ground covers online at extension.colostate.edu/docs/pubs/garden/07400.pdf.
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