Ground covers include low-growing plants (perennials, shrubs) and mat-forming or trailing plants (vines, shrubs). Most ground covers are not intended to be walked upon and may be severely damaged by pedestrian traffic. Ground covers are often the best solution for controlling erosion on slopes greater than 12 percent, as well as, covering areas difficult to mow or where conditions are not favorable to grow grass. Ground covers are excellent in reducing heat, glare, noise, and dust around buildings. They also serve a valuable design component by uniting other plants into a more solid planting.
When ground covers are chosen carefully and placed correctly, they greatly enhance the beauty of the landscape. They fulfill a number of important functions such as obstructing traffic without impeding view, reducing lawn maintenance, and producing interesting patterns due to variation in height, texture, and color.
Selection of a specific ground cover will depend upon the nature of the area to be covered. Is the area flat or sloping? Is it in sun, partial shade, or deep shade? Soil conditions should be examined. Some ground covers prefer a moist soil rich in organic matter while others are well suited for dry, sandy locations.
Some ground covers spread and cover an area by producing low-growing horizontal branches that may or may not form roots when they touch the ground. Other plants spread by producing runners (vinca) or rhizomes (mondo grass). Some plants (liriope) increase by producing new offshoots or suckers at their base thus gradually increasing the diameter of the plant.
By preparing the entire bed, individual holes should be easy to dig with a trowel or spade. Remove plants from their container by turning it upside down and tapping the bottom. Never pull plants from their container. Loosen and spread roots that are tightly wound around the root ball. Refill the hole and lightly firm the soil.
Spacing between plants will vary with the type of plant used and how quickly you need the ground to be covered. Keep the growth rate and mature size in mind. Some plants, such as azaleas and junipers, will tend to mound up instead of spreading out if planted too close together. As a general rule, space vines such as vinca and ivy 1 foot apart. Ground covers, such as pachysandra and ajuga, should be spaced 8 to 10 inches apart. Shrubs, such as juniper and azalea, should be spaced 3 to 4 feet apart. Most vines and fast-spreading shrubs should be spaced 5 feet apart.
Fertilizer - Most ground covers will benefit from an application of fertilizer in late winter to early spring. Use 2 to 4 pounds of a complete fertilizer per 1,000 square feet. Water or brush fertilizer off the foliage after broadcasting.
Pruning - Early spring is normally a good time to prune broken or dead branches and to reduce the size of shrubs used as ground covers. The foliage of herbaceous grounds covers, such as liriope or pachysandra, can be pruned off with a weed trimmer or lawn mower if they have become discolored during the winter. Be sure to prune before new growth starts in the spring and to not cut back too severely. The purpose is cosmetic --- simply to remove damaged or discolored foliage.
Prepared by: Erv Evans, Consumer Horticulturist, NC State University
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