Using ground-covering plants in tree, shrub, and flower beds provides many of the practical benefits you’d get from the application of mulch chips, but does it one better: they look great!
The benefits of applying mulch material to tree and shrub beds are many. However, ground-covering plants are a terrific substitute for layers of mulch chips because they offer many of the same benefits: they suppress weeds; lower soil temperatures and slow down water evaporation during periods of extreme heat; add nutrients to the soil as the plants decompose; and prevent mowers and weed trimmers from getting close enough to plants to damage them. But planting ground cover offers an additional benefit: it will enhance the beauty of your garden.
There are a wide variety of ground-covering plants to use for your “living mulch,” but as with anything you’re planting on your property, your choices should be based on practicality as well as aesthetics. Importantly, you want the plants to out-compete the weeds, which means they should have tight growth at the soil level to crowd out the weed growth and/or grow into a lovely tangle at their tops to block all sunlight from the weeds below. And choose hardy plants — once established (which could take one or two grow seasons), you want the ground cover to be virtually maintenance-free.
Aesthetics. When it comes to the look you’re after, the wide variety of ground cover varieties offer something for every taste and grow zone. There are evergreens, semi-evergreens, varieties that flower (and have lovely fragrance), some whose foliage change color during the seasons. Ground covers also come in a range of heights, so think about what tree, shrub, or ornamental the ground cover will be planted beneath, and match the ground cover accordingly. The taller shrub-like plants will do well under trees, while the creeping vines are suited to flowerbeds.
Practicality. Here are some questions to consider:
- How much sun does the area receive? Some ground-cover plants will thrive in full sun, some in partial sun, and a few varieties are effective in full shade to full sun conditions.
- What’s the soil texture, depth, and drainage in the area you’re considering for the plants? Since you’re looking for the ground cover to reduce your maintenance, choose plants you won’t need to irrigate once they are established.
- What’s the likely foot traffic in that area? Some ground-cover plants will stand up to a beating, and others will not.
- How quickly do you want the plants to spread? Here, it’s good to aim for a happy medium. Aggressive spreaders could completely invade your garden; slow spreaders could take too long to be effective in protecting the beds. If you do choose a quick-spreading ground cover, use it in a contained area of the garden; avoid planting quick-spreading vines, like ivy, near tree trunks unless you’re willing to prune them back as needed.
The decisions are many, so don’t go it alone! Consult the expertise and plant knowledge of your local nursery, landscape architect, or landscaping service to guide your decisions about the best ground cover species for your needs. And have fun!
Clemson Cooperative Extension, “Groundcovers,” http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/landscape/groundcovers/hgic1100.html
Cathy Maloney, “Groundcover can be attractive alternative to mulch,” The Daily Herald, November 14, 2012, http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20121114/news/711149913/
University of Minnesota Extension, Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series, “Ground Covers,” http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/landscaping/maint/ground_covers.html
Kim Slotterback-Hoyum, “How to Use Ground Cover as Living Mulch,” Gardening Channel, http://www.gardeningchannel.com/how-to-use-ground-cover-as-living-mulch/