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Ground Cover Plants | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Best Ground Cover Plants

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A Great Cover-Up!

George and Becky Lohmiller
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A baffling problem for many gardeners is what to grow in areas that are challenging—rocky, gravelly, shady, dry, or moist. Others are looking to for no-mow alternative to grass and lawns. That’s where ground cover plants come into play! Here are 8 ground cover to help with troublesome spots—plus planting and growing tips.

Ground covers are essentially low-growing perennial plants or shrubs that are used in between the driveway and lawn; around patios, between patio stones and stepping pavers, or in rock areas with poor, thin soil. Ground covers can also be used to cover slopes and hillsides or to replace lawn or even in the garden itself.

It’s important to choose the right ground cover for your seeds, plant ground cover correctly, and also make sure that you pick a ground cover that can’t get quickly out of control.

And don’t just think of ground covers as cover-ups! They can provide flowering color and interest to your landscape. They can be beneficial to pollinators, stabilize soil, and grow where other plants won’t grow, such as under a tree.

Types of Ground Covers

1. Bearberry

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is extremely tolerant of poor soil, bearberry will even will grow in pure sand. The six-inch-tall evergreen has small, glossy, dark-green leaves that turn bronze-ish-red in autumn.

In spring, the entire plant is covered with tiny white flowers tinged with pink. These mature to bright red berries that birds love. Spaced 12 inches apart, plants will form a thick carpet in two or three seasons. Bearberry is hardy to Zone 2.

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2. Moss

If you have a shady backyard, embrace it! A moss lawn stays green all year long and never needs fertilizing or mowing. It has a soft texture like a carpet, a lovely green-smelling scent, and even great for the soil as it acts as its own fertilizer.

If you wish to grow moss, it thrives in shade where soil is infertile or play and moist or compact, with a high acidity. If you have “mossy” conditions, you’ll find that moss transplants well with a high success rate. After all, it grows on rocks and logs! To transplant moss, prepare a bare spot by scratching the surface with a pronged tool and moistening the area. Lay the moss in place and pat down; keep the area damp for several weeks. 

To encourage moss, lower the soil acidity by spreading garden sulfur (4 pounds per 100 square feet will reduce the pH by about 1.5 points).

3. Sedums

Spreading, mat-forming types of sedums resist drought by storing water in their fleshy stems and roots.

Two good choices, both hardy to Zone 4, are two-inch-tall ‘John Creech’ two-row sedum (Sedum spurium cv.), with pink flowers in June, and the six-inch-tall ‘Fuldaglut’ two-row sedum, with reddish or purple foliage and rose-red flowers from July through September.

See our guide on growing sedum.

john-creech-sedum_full_width.jpgImage: Sedum ‘John Creech’ 

phedimus-spurius-fuldaglut2-1_full_width.jpgImage: Sedum ‘Fuldaglut’ 

4. Creeping Phlox

Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) works well in hot spots or sandy spots with full sun and maintains thick foliage all year-round as well as pretty blooms in the early spring.

In full sun, phlox provides a thick mass of carpet-like foliage which is completely covered with an abundance of blooms.

See our guide on growing phlox.

phlox-1247255_1280_full_width.jpgImage: Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera)


New phlox planted in the landscape.

5. Catmint

Catmint (Nepeta cataria) is a short clumping perennial which also likes it hot and dry and blooms beautifully; in this case, expect purple flowers most of the summer and aromatic foliage which is deer- and rabbit-resistance.catmint_full_width.jpgImage: Catmint

6. Blue Fescue Grasses

Ornamental grasses such as blue fescue (Festuca glauca) work well in dry, hot spots and also add beautiful texture to the landscape.blue-fescue_full_width.jpgImage: Blue Fescue

7. Creeping Thyme

Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is sun-loving perennial herb with small lavender flowers that bloom in the summer and an evergreen mat of low-growing foliage.creeping-thyme_full_width.jpgImage: Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum)

7. Creeping Junipers

This ground covers is suitable for parched areas. A popular choice is blue rug juniper (Juniperus horizontalis ‘Wiltonii’), a tough-as-nails ground hugger that is only 4 to 6 inches tall. Its intense silver-blue needles take on pleasing purple tones in winter. Although a single plant may eventually grow to 8 feet in diameter, the recommended spacing is 2 to 3 feet for quick coverage. Blue rug juniper is hardy to Zone 3.

juniperus-wiltonii_full_width.jpgImage: Juniperus horizontalis ‘Wiltonii’

Planting Ground Cover

Remember that coverage isn’t instantaneous. You don’t want to squeeze ground cover plants together; most grow and cover their soil surface by year three. Pay special attention to the spacing on the plant tags; this will help you calculate how many plants you need.  As a general rule, you wan to space plants so that the distance between each one is generally equal to their maximum width. Here is a good guideline to gauge how many plants you need from the National Gardening Association:

  • 100 plants spaced 6 inches apart cover about 20 square feet
  • 12 inches apart, they’ll cover 85 square feet; and
  • 18 inches apart, they’ll cover 200 square feet

Before you plant most ground cover plants, ensure that all weeds and grass has been eliminated. There are a number of ways to remove weeds (hoes and tillers) or, if you have time, you can wet the area and cover with clear plastic for 4 to 6 weeks to solarize the soil. 

Scatter composted manure over the planting site and even the planting surface Then place your plants on top of the soil in zigzag rows. When ready to plant, dig holes to the same depth as, and two to three times wider than the plants’ root balls. Remember to place the plant in the hole so that it’s at the same soil level as it was in the pot. Firm the soil and water in. Cover in organic mulch about 2 inches thick, but about 6 inches away from the plant stems.

We hope this helps! If you’re having trouble growing grass or other plants in your yard, have you discovered clover? Gardeners are returning to recognizing the benefits of clover in lawn grass mixtures—or even as a replacement for grass. Learn more about the clover comeback.

 

 

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