Weeding and mulching are the two most time-consuming and expensive maintenance steps for most landscape beds, and the least fun. So are cleanup and raking of windfall leaves, sticks, litter and debris like pine cones. Mowing on steep banks is another dreaded task. Groundcover plants can reduce or eliminate all of these tasks. If you like the appearance of mulch between all your plants, read no further. If you’d consider a carpet of low-growing green plants instead, read on.
Groundcovers are plants that fill in all the empty space between shrubs, trees and perennials in your landscape. Which one to use depends on how sunny the area is, what else is growing there and what looks attractive to you. Any groundcover will reduce the need for yearly mulching, preventing weeds by creating shade on the ground, however, some groundcovers are vastly better than others.
Our personal favorite is Pachysandra (Japanese spurge), a glossy green evergreen about 8 inches tall, each plant shaped like a little umbrella. Pachysandra needs shade to thrive. It grows and spreads in mulch and leaf litter; it doesn’t have deep roots so it doesn’t strangle your other plants. It won’t climb your walls or other plants, won’t cross over concrete walks or invade your lawn. To install, first kill the grass or weeds, sprinkle Holly-Tone on the ground, spread pine bark mulch 4 inches thick, then tuck the plants into the mulch and water regularly until they start to spread. New plants should be spaced one foot apart. They should fully cover in three years or less.
For sunny areas, Vinca Minor (periwinkle or myrtle) works better. It is also evergreen, with shiny dark green leaves and pretty purple flowers. Vinca is a vine, so it can creep across walks or lawns if you let it but it won’t climb walls or trees. It isn’t as good at weed control as pachysandra, so we only prefer it where there’s no shade. Starting with big plants works best; one and two-gallon root systems spread much faster than little starts, so you can use less.
Liriope (lilyturf) makes a good groundcover for sun or shade, as long as the area isn’t soggy. Variegated Liriope is a popular border plant, with grass-like foliage and spikes of blue-purple blooms. It starts out in clumps but eventually will spread and cover the ground. Spacing two feet apart gives full coverage in three years. Liriope has a very aggressive mat of roots, so it will compete with the other plants in your landscape beds.
Ajuga (bugleweed) makes a good groundcover for sunny slopes with poor soil. It comes in shades of green, bronze or purple, has blue flower spikes, and forms a dense mat that suppresses weeds and controls erosion. The main drawback of ajuga is that it will creep into lawns. Two-foot spacing works fine for ajuga in good soil, closer in dense clay soil.
For large areas and banks, low-growing junipers work very well. Carpet junipers like “Blue Pacific” and “Wiltoni” are popular groundcover varieties, but taller plants like Andorra and Sargent juniper control weeds much better. You can space these plant six feet apart and get full coverage in three years.
Establishing groundcovers properly can be expensive, but your investment will pay off with years of low maintenance. The key to success is to first kill any grass or weeds, then cover between plants with generous mulching (three to four inches thick). If you skimp on mulch, weeds will take over your groundcover before it fully covers.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers.” He can be reached at 937-587-7021 or firstname.lastname@example.org