Halton Master Gardener
Groundcovers can be useful and time saving plantings to incorporate into your garden design. Whether you plant them as a substitute for a lawn or to create an area of textural and visual interest in your garden, you will find they can be as valuable as they are varied. Any mass planting can qualify as a ground cover but by the term, we usually are referring to very low growing, even mat forming plants.
Often people think of growing a ground cover as a lawn substitute in a problem area where grass won’t grow. That’s not necessarily a great idea. If grass doesn’t grow, it might be a clue that nothing else will either. Don’t have unrealistic expectations. If the area is too difficult to grow a lawn –because it’s too dry, too shady, too wet or the trees have dense shallow roots –it’s very likely groundcovers won’t grow happily there either.
However, if you are able to amend the soil and enrich it, you may be able to start some groundcovers. You can help them thrive by ensuring you water and weed well until they get established and top dress annually with compost. Also, if you can prune the tree to allow for more light to penetrate to the ground, it will help your groundcovers establish. A dense, healthy carpet of groundcover is not only attractive, it will suppress weed growth and help preserve underlying soil from erosion and run-off. You don’t need to mass plant the same species: a mixed tapestry of several different ground covers can be exceptionally beautiful. Whether it’s a mass planting of hostas, a carpet of moss phlox (Phlox subulata) or wild strawberries, there is a ground cover suitable for most gardens.
Are groundcovers ‘invasive’?
Indeed a number of commonly planted groundcovers are now on the invasive plant list. Periwinkle, Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) and English ivy, should never be planted in your garden. Lily-of-the-valley is also now listed as an ‘Alert Species’ due to the potential for being invasive. And because even non-invasive groundcovers can be very aggressive in the garden, avoid planting them near a fence line where they can ‘escape’ into your neighbour’s garden or an adjoining ravine or other natural area.
Luckily, there are a number of excellent native plant alternatives such as Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), Running Strawberry (Euonymus obovatus) , Foam flower (Tiarella -cover photo), Wild Geranium and Creeping phlox (P. stolonifera).
Right Plant, Right Place
Be sure you select the right ground cover for your needs. Is the site shady or sunny? Is it dry or moist? Do you want an evergreen groundcover or will a perennial one that dies down every year do? Will you ever need to walk on the groundcover? There are several groundcovers marketed as being resistant to foot traffic and unfortunately some have been oversold. They really do not bear up very well so buyer beware!