Ground Cover Alternatives
If you aren’t a lawn lover but still want something green under foot or have an area too shady for grass to grow, there are alternatives. Ground covers do just what they sound like — low-growing, spreading, evergreen, or deciduous perennial plants or shrubs. These ground-hugging plants range from a few inches to a foot or so tall, and once established, they create a green mat that doesn’t yield to weeds and is easy to care for. Ground covers are not only a good alternative to lawns in flat areas but are often the perfect choice for hard-to-mow slopes.
Lawns versus ground covers
Ground covers are easier to care for than lawns but can’t take foot traffic as well. Here are some other advantages of ground covers in your landscape.
Ground covers need less care. Ground covers need less water, little mowing or shearing, and once established, little weeding.
Ground covers are adaptable. Ground covers fit in diverse spaces such as on a slope, in a small area, or in an area too shady to grow grass.
Ground covers are beautiful. Although green is the most common color of ground cover foliage, there are hundreds of different plants you can use as ground covers, offering a variety of colorful foliage and flowers. Some have excellent fall foliage and even produce colorful berries.
Cityside ground covers
There are so many ground covers to choose from, it’s hard to narrow the list to a few favorites. As with any perennial or small shrub, each has its unique needs for sun, water, and soil. Certainly check your local garden center for the best varieties in your area. Here are some evergreen types to try (most are adapted to partial or full sun):
Barberries (Berberis). There are many low-growing varieties of the green- or red-leaved barberry such as ‘Crimson Pygmy’. They grow only 18 inches tall and have red berries in fall. Barberries are hardy in zones 4–8.
Carpet Bugle (Ajuga reptans). Ajuga has broad, deep green or reddish-colored leaves with low spikes of blue flowers in late spring. It only grows 6 inches tall. It’s hardy in zones 4–9.
Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster). These low shrubs can be deciduous or evergreen, depending on the species. They often sport white flowers and red berries along with attractive foliage. Hardiness varies depending on the variety.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus praecox arcticus). This creeping herb grows 3 to 5 inches tall with pink or white flowers. It grows well in small spaces such as between stepping stones. It can withstand some foot traffic, so it makes a great ground cover near flower beds. It’s hardy in zones 4–9.
Dwarf Periwinkle (Vinca minor). The small, dark green laves of this ground cover grow 6- to 12-inches tall. It produces beautiful violet-blue flowers in spring and early summer and grows best in partial shade. Vinca is hardy in zones 4–9.
English Ivy (Hedera helix). English ivy has attractive green, lobed greens. It trails about 1 foot above the ground but can also climb up trees and structures if you let it. It’s hardy in zones 6–10. It can become invasive, so plant it in an area where it can safely spread or keep it contained.
Ice plants. This large group of low-growing, succulent perennials are popular in warm climate areas. They grow 6 to 12 inches off the ground, with fleshy green or red-tinged leaves and colorful flowers. They are hardy in zones 9–10.
Japanese Spurge (Pachysandra terminalis). The large, bright green leaves grow 10 inches tall and cover this low-growing perennial. It produces white, fragrant flowers in summer and grows best in partly shaded, moist conditions. It is hardy in zones 4–9.
Junipers (Juniperus). There are many types of this evergreen shrub. The low growing varieties such as Bar Harbor and Blue Rug grow only 1 to 2 feet tall. They grow best in full sun and in zones 4–8.
Meehan’s Mint (Meehania cordata). This 6-inch-tall gr
ound cover has showy lavender-blue flowers in spring. This isn’t technically in the mint family, but spreads quickly and can grow and flower in moist, deep shade. Meehan’s mint is hardy in zones 4–9.
Winter Creeper (Euonymus fortunei). This tough plant comes in varieties with green or yellow and green and white and green variegated leaves. Most grow only a few feet off the ground and spread vigorously. They can be trained up a fence as well. Most types are hardy in zones 5–9.
The nature of many non-woody, perennial ground covers is to spread and root their stems along the ground. This makes them excellent ground covers, but if they get into areas you don’t want such as your vegetable, flower, or herb garden, they become a tough-to-eradicate weed. Consider edging around a ground cover area or annually weed out errant branches to keep your ground cover in bounds.
Also, some species of these ground covers, such as the barberries, English ivy, and euonymus, are considered invasive plants in some areas and may be banned. Check local garden centers and Master Gardeners for lists of invasives in your area and always choose noninvasive species or varieties.
Planting and caring for your cover
Plant ground covers as you would any perennial flower or shrub. Because you often are growing a number of these plants in a single area to cover the ground, you’ll sometimes find ground covers sold as small plants in a flat or tray. Although the plants are small, it is a more economical way to buy a large number of plants.
Spacing is critical with ground covers. If you plant the ground covers too far apart for that type they will take forever to fill in and you’ll be weeding between the plants for years. If you plant them too close together, they will quickly fill in but may overrun each other, becoming too crowded to grow properly. Measure the space you want to cover and check the spacing recommendations of those ground covers before buying or planting them. That will help you determine how many plants to purchase.
If you’re planting many small plants, such as vinca, prepare the area as you would a seed bed and space and plant accordingly. For larger shrubby ground covers, such as junipers, simply dig individual holes for each plant. On slopes, terrace the planting hole to create a flat basin around the plant so the soil doesn’t erode away when watering.
If your non-woody, perennial ground cover turns brown from winter injury or damage, simply give it a haircut. Shearing ground covers removes dead and damaged leaves and allows new leaves to take their place, creating a more attractive plant. Woody ground covers can’t be sheared in the same way, but certainly removing any dead or damaged branches is always a good idea.
Whichever ground cover you choose, you should be prepared to weed for the first few years. For spreading perennial ground covers, such as English ivy, lightly mulch between plants, allowing the ivy to root along its stems as it grows to fill in the spaces. For shrubs, such as barberries, apply a thicker mulch or use landscape fabric to control weeds. These ground covers spread as their branches grow outward, but the branches don’t tend to root along the ground as they grow.