Documents: Container & Small Space Gardening:

Plant Ground Covers in Early Spring
by Dan Gill
by Dan Gill


Dan Gill earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and is an Associate Professor in Consumer Horticulture with the LSU AgCenter.

He is the spokesperson for the LSU AgCenter’s Get It Growing project, a statewide educational effort in home horticulture utilizing radio, Internet, TV and newsprint. Gardeners throughout Louisiana read his columns in local newspapers, watch his gardening segments on local TV stations and listen to him on local radio. In the New Orleans area, Dan appears weekly on the Channel 4 Morning News, writes a weekly gardening column for The Times-Picayune and hosts the Saturday morning WWWL Garden Show, a live call-in radio program.

Dan is co-author of the Louisiana Gardener’s Guide and author of Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana. His “South Louisiana Region Report” and “Only in Louisiana” columns appear monthly in the Louisiana Gardener Magazine.

February 26, 2012

Using ground cover plantings in landscapes is becoming increasing popular. Areas planted with ground covers establish landscape effects that are impossible to create with grass – and generally require far less maintenance. They provide variations in height, texture and color that enrich their surroundings. Planting now will provide ground covers with a chance to settle in and become somewhat established before hot weather arrives.

The term ground cover is applied to low-growing plants, other than turfgrass, used to cover areas of the landscape. Perennial, evergreen plants having a sprawling or spreading habit are most often used. The plants used for ground covers are generally less than 12 inches in height, but taller-growing plants also are used appropriately on a larger scale in certain landscape situations.

In addition to the beauty they provide, ground covers also have many practical uses. Since most people are reluctant to walk through ground cover areas, they provide barriers to foot traffic and can guide movement through a site. Because they don’t have to be mowed, ground covers reduce landscape maintenance. They also are useful in areas where mowing would be difficult, such as on steep slopes, under low-branched trees and shrubs, where the roots of large trees protrude and in confined areas. They are also the best solution to areas under trees that have become too shady for grass to grow.

When making your selection, you must carefully consider the characteristics you would like the ground cover to have (height, texture, color, etc.) as well as the growing conditions where it will be planted (especially whether it is sunny or shady). You also should look at the size of the area to be planted. Only the most reliable, fast-spreading and reasonably priced ground covers should be considered for large areas. Monkey grass (Ophiopogon japonicus), creeping lily turf (Liriope spicata) and Japanese ardisia (Ardisia japonica) are good choices for shade to part shade. Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum) and liriope (Liriope muscari) are excellent for part shade to sun.

Proper preparation of the planting area will help ensure good establishment and faster growth.

First, remove all existing unwanted vegetation such as lawn grass or weeds from the area. This could be done physically, or you can use a herbicide such as glyphosate (various brands). But do a thorough job.

Next till the soil to loosen it. If you are working under a tree, use a turning fork to minimize damage to the tree’s roots, and avoid severing roots larger than 1 inch in diameter whenever possible.

After the soil is broken up, spread 2 inches of organic matter (compost, peat moss or rotted manure) over the surface and work it in. If necessary, 2 or 3 inches of additional blended soil mix (generally called topsoil or garden soil) may be added at this point.

Finally, sprinkle a general-purpose fertilizer over the area following label directions and thoroughly blend everything together. Now you are ready to plant.

For coverage in the shortest time, plant the ground cover plants at the proper spacing. This varies with the type you choose, so check with the staff at the nursery or your local LSU AgCenter office. Although planting at the recommended spacing will provide quicker coverage, you may find the cost higher than you expected.

Generally, budget what you can for the project, purchase as many ground cover plants as your budget will allow, and evenly space them in the area to be planted. As more funds become available, purchase and plant additional plants evenly spaced among those already planted.

After the area is planted, be sure to mulch with an inch or two of your favorite mulch, such as leaves (chopped is best), pine bark, leaf mold (partially decayed leaves) or pine straw. Until the ground cover fills in (generally two to three years after planting), weed control is very important. Your best defense is a good layer of mulch. Hand weed regularly as necessary to maintain good weed control. In addition, most ground covers spread faster when mulched.

Water the area thoroughly to settle things in and you’re done. To promote establishment and growth, continue to water regularly whenever rainfall does not occur for a week.

Plant ground covers now to take advantage of the cool, moist spring weather that will encourage successful establishment. Fertilize in May and again in July with the same fertilizer you used in bed preparation to promote rapid growth. Gardeners with existing areas of ground cover can fertilize in March and again in June following these recommendations.

Ground covers can reduce maintenance, beautify problem areas and create a whole new dimension in your landscape.

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row