Groundcovers

Groundcovers are low-growing plants that form a dense cover and spread quickly. Groundcovers can solve many planting problems on in difficult sites and add beauty to the landscape. Grass is the best-known groundcover, but is not suited for all locations. Other ground covers plants should be used where grass is difficult to maintain or grow. Unlike grass, most groundcover plants cannot be walked on.

Groundcovers are used for four main purposes. Erosion can be a huge problem on steep banks or slopes, making grass a difficult choice to mow. Shady areas under trees and shrubs are great places for groundcovers. When planted under trees, groundcovers reduce mower damage to the base of trees. Some groundcovers require less sunlight, moisture, and nutrients than grass making them in less competition with trees and shrubs. Groundcovers are often grown where tree roots grow close to the surface and prevent grass from growing. In very wet or very dry locations, groundcovers are an excellent choice to plant.

Picking which groundcover you will plant depends on the area where it will be grown. Some groundcover plants prefer full sun, while others thrive in the shade. Some prefer moist soil, while others need well-drained or dry soil. Groundcovers must be tough, durable, and relatively fast growing, but not invasive. Choose plants that are known to do well for the conditions found in your landscape. Stay away from plants that are known to become invasive such as traditional ivy (Hedera species) and periwinkle (Vinca minor). Both of these species are known to escape “captivity” and move into natural areas. Vining groundcovers can consume trees by choking out sunlight and weighing down branches. Visit invasiceplantatlas.org for more information on invasive plants of the United States.

Improper soil preparation can be a frequent cause of groundcover failure. Work the soil to a depth of 8-10 inches. Incorporate a 2-inch layer of organic matter such as compost of well-rotted manure to improve the water-holding capacity of sandy soils.

A soil test will provide the best guidance for fertilizer usage. Work the recommended fertilizer into the soil to a depth of 6-8 inches.

Although groundcovers can be planted at any time of the year, fall is the best time to plant. Fall planting takes advantage of lower temperatures and natural rainfall. Fall planting allows plants to establish a stronger root system before summer. Summer planting requires adequate and frequent watering for survival and establishment.

Space plants according to their rate of growth and habit. If spaced too far apart, weeding can be a problem and complete coverage can be quite long. Planting too closely together can be a waste of time, money, and plant material. It is best to space plants so the groundcover areas will be completely covered by the end of the third growing season. A staggered row-planting pattern will usually result in the quickest cover of the planting bed.

Some groundcovers are improved by occasional trimming such as wintercreeper, dwarf mondo grass, and pachysandra. Early spring is the best time to prune groundcovers because new growth will quickly cover the bare stubs. Avoid severe pruning in late summer or fall because tender growth will not have time to harden properly before winter. Junipers tend to form new foliate on top of older foliage which results in thick and dense canopies. Thinning improves air circulation between plants and prevents insect and disease problems.

The following are recommended groundcovers: pachysandra, beach wormwood, confederate jasmine, willowleaf cotoneaster, Carolina jessamine, carpet bugle (ajuga), cast iron plant, plumbago, cheddar pink, juniper, creeping phlox, barrenwort, green and gold, holly fern, lamb’s ears, lantana, lily-of-the-valley, mondo grass, creeping rosemary, lavender cotton, sweet box, purple heart, St. John’s wort, upland river oats, sweetgrass, and autumn fern. Visit the HGIC website for more information on height, light requirements, and growing conditions of the recommended groundcovers.

For more information on groundcovers, please visit the Home and Garden Information Center website at hgic.clemson.edu. Tune in on Tuesday nights to watch “Making it Grow” at 7 p.m. on SCETV or mig.org. Email Outen at callenb@clemson.edu.

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