No one's perfect, and it's our imperfections that make us unique and interesting. Our imperfections also challenge us. The same is true of your garden. Thankfully, ground cover plants can help with myriad garden imperfections such as weed and erosion control, moisture retention, and dry growing conditions.
Here are four steps for successfully growing ground cover plants:
1. Assess conditions
For (almost) any type of landscape challenge there is a ground cover solution. As an added benefit, a number of these plants are edible.
Do you live in an area affected by drought? If so, then consider creeping thyme (zones 4-9) which will only grow about three inches tall and has the bonus of being deer resistant. Sedum (zones 3-9) varieties will grow to varying heights and produce a flower that makes a nice addition to cut flower arrangements. Hens-and-chicks (zones 4-8) gets its name from the rosette shaped bloom that has smaller rosettes as off-shoots; it likes well-drained soil. Also consider creeping veronica, creeping potentilla, and creeping rosemary.
For folks who live in sun-drenched conditions your garden may benefit from chamomile (zones 3-9) which produces beautiful daisy-like flowers. Chamomile leaves can be snipped and brewed as tea. Bearberry is common in the northern half of the United States; it grows to 6-12 inches tall and produces small white and pink berries. Another edible option is oregano (zones 5-9) which is ready to be harvested for your favorite tomato sauce when flowers appear.
If your landscape is shady and/or damp then try wild ginger (zones 4-6) which likes partial shade, but can also tolerate sun. Mint comes in many varieties including spearmint and peppermint. Be careful to place some boundaries on mint because it sends out runners and spreads easily. Wintergreen (zones 3-7) is attractive and fragrant, but will only grow to about six inches tall and will not tolerate much foot traffic. Golden saxifrage (zones 4-8) stands out from other options because of the yellow tinge to its leaves. Ajuga lamium (zones 3-9) has leaves that come in a variety of colors from green to purple to multi-colored. As an added benefit, it produces small purple flowers in the spring.
On a sloping landscape your ground cover plants need to have deep roots. Avoid covering the slope with only one variety of plant--mix it up for greater coverage. Try English Ivy (zones 4-9), but don't get discouraged if it takes awhile to get started because once it's established it will quickly cover the slope. Periwinkle (zones 4-8) is another good option for adding color to your landscape. It will be dense but not so dense that you can't sprinkle a few daffodils or tulips among its growth in the spring.
A landscape that gets a lot of foot traffic needs durability. Blue star creeper (zones 5-7) will tolerate a lot of foot traffic and produce small flowers in the spring. It will flourish in full sun or shade. Creeping thyme will also stand up to foot traffic, and (as mentioned above) is tolerant of bright sun. Siberian barren strawberry (zones 3–8) may not tolerate Big Foot, but it will fare well under moderate traffic. It will produce small strawberries and yellow roses.
2. Prepare site
As with any garden, it's important to test the soil to know its pH level and amend it accordingly. Of course, organic compost is always a benefit to soil, so if you aren't already composting then consider starting a compost bin.
How many plants do you need to cover your landscape? To answer this question consider the individual plant's mature size. If the plant is predicted to grow to three feet diameter and the landscape that you want to cover is 30 feet square, then you need 100 plants. Turn your soil before planting either by hand or with a tiller if your area is larger.
One of the benefits of ground cover plants is that once they are established they are low maintenance. During the first couple of years they will require more attention. Remember that your garden needs water and food. And until it is filled in, your ground cover landscape will need to be weeded.
I like to use ground cover plants in my landscape because they are relatively low maintenance and allow me to dedicate more of my attention to my vegetable garden and cutting flowers. Anyone with a busy schedule who is looking to spend less time in the garden will also appreciate the ease of growing ground cover plants.
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image of ground cover plant via Shutterstock