The two most popular and widely known ground covers among home gardeners are Pachysandra and Ivy. Both of these plants make excellent ground covers. However, too many gardeners think that all they have to do is stick a few sprigs in the ground and then sit back and let Mother Nature do the rest.
And be assured she will. She will methodically fill all the bare areas in between the sprigs with weed seed that will quickly germinate and over take the entire area, rendering the new ground cover plants helpless to become established.
Establishing a new bed of ground cover requires work and discipline. You must keep the area weed free as the new ground cover establishes it’s self. Once the weeds take over the new plants will receive very little sunlight, and sunlight is magic. With it plants grow like crazy, without it they stand still and will eventually die if they don’t receive a minimal amount. I tend to think the same thing applies to people. Sunlight makes us spiritually alive.
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The most important step in preparing an area for the planting of ground cover is to make sure the soil is as free as possible of both weed seed and pieces of active weed roots. Another important factor is to have good rich soil. Most ground covers will grow in poor soil, but they will not thrive and therefore will take substantially longer to become established. Of course bringing in good rich topsoil will be a huge benefit in the long run, but in the beginning you will have more weeds because most really good topsoil is loaded with weed seed. It's the nature of the beast.
If you have a bed with new fresh topsoil don’t be in a hurry to plant in it right away. It is better to rake the soil flat or to the desired grade you want, and then let it sit for a week or two, giving the weed seeds a chance to germinate. Once the weeds are about two inches tall either spray them with something like Round-Up® or another non-selective herbicide, or disturb the soil by either roto-tilling or dig by hand. You only want to disturb the top couple inches of soil. Wait two more weeks and do this again.
If you use an herbicide, make sure you use one that has no residual effect. In other words one that will not linger in the soil. Speak with a professional at your local garden center. Do not take the advice of an untrained and unqualified sales person. Make sure the person with whom you are speaking is quite knowledgeable about all garden chemicals.
Ivy and Pachysandra can be planted on 12" centers, which means that the plants are planted in a random pattern with a distance between all plants of 12". Planted closer they will fill in quicker and require less effort in keeping the weeds out while the plants are becoming established. Planting them further apart will save you some money but will increase your work.
At 12" on center you will need 1 plant per square foot.
At 8" on center you will need 2.25 plants per square foot.
At 6" on center you will need 4 plants per square foot.
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Most ground covers are sold in flats of 50 or 100 plants per flat. The most popular grade is a one year old rooted cutting with an average retail price of 25 to 35 cents each. Two year old plants are available at higher cost, but they also have much better root systems and longer runners, and will fill in much quicker.
Another nice but not as widely known ground cover is Euonymus Coloratus, also known as Purpleleaf Wintercreeper. This plant grows much like an Ivy but has a different shaped leaf. The leaves turn purple during the winter just as the name implies. However, it is also susceptible to Euonymus Scale which is a harmful insect, and once the plants become infested, can be quite difficult to control. But then again there are pests that attack most all plants, so prevention is the key. Speak with an expert at your local garden center if you want to use a spray as a prevention.
Ivy on the other hand can be damaged by severe weather during the winter.
Pachysandra is as tough as nails and can be an excellent ground cover. It can also be the most invasive pain in the butt you could ever put in your yard.
My opinion about these types of ground covers is that they are great to use in large shady areas in your yard, or along the edge of a wood line. But I do not like to see them in the foundation plantings around your home. Most people like to see color in their landscapes. In order to have and appreciate color you have to have contrast. Ground covers in foundation plantings eliminate that necessary contrast.
Everything blends together and just becomes a sea of varying shades of green. I, and most homeowners appreciate dark brown mulch instead of ground cover because all the plants in the garden will contrast well against dark brown mulch. Many experts will disagree with me in this area, but I have spent 25 years consulting with homeowners, I know what effect the average person is looking for, but it's still a personal preference, and it is your home.
One last comment about ground covers. In fifteen years of re-landscaping homes I found that people who do not have ground covers in their yard can not wait to get some. Those that have had them for a period of years, can not wait to get rid of them. During the fall, cleaning fallen tree leaves out of ground cover is not only necessary, but it is a job.
Do I have ground covers in my yard? You bet I do!!! So which ones did I choose for my landscape?
Huh? Junipers are ugly! You bet they are. At least some of them are ugly. As a matter of fact a lot of them are ugly and completely undesirable for residential landscapes. There must be close to 100 different varieties of Junipers and many of them I would not plant at my house or yours. But there are four or five that I highly recommend.
Two of them I have in my landscape and I have put them in just about every landscape I have designed in the last fifteen years. They are both ground hugging plants and make excellent ground covers. One of them is Blue Rug Juniper, (juniperus horizontalis wiltoni) and the other is Green Mound Juniper, (juniperus procumbens nana). These two plants can be planted about 30" apart and will completely fill the area in 3-4 years.
Once you have a few plants you can propagate them in the fall by sticking cuttings in a flat of sand in the fall. Place the flat in a shady location and keep them watered. Over the winter it is helpful to place some bags of leaves or something around the flats to keep the winter winds from drying them out. Start watering them again in the spring and transplant them to their permanent home once they are well rooted. When using rooted cuttings instead of mature plants, I plant them much closer, about 15" on center.
Blue Rug has a blue color and lays very flat to the ground. A very attractive ground cover. Green Mound has a mint green color and also hugs the ground very tightly, except the center of the plant is a couple of inches higher which gives the bed a bit of a rolling effect once the bed has completely grown in. Another very attractive ground cover.
Everybody who visits our house falls in love with the junipers. They won’t do well in the shade, but they are wonderful in full or partial sun. When you go to the garden center make sure you buy the exact varieties that I mentioned here. Do not let them sell you something "like" these two plants. You will not be happy with other varieties. These two plants are the unsung heroes of the ground cover world.
Two more of my favorite junipers are Skyrocket and Wichita Blue. These are both upright varieties with a blue color. Skyrocket is very tall and skinny. Wichita Blue is more blue in color, and has a little more bulk to it. (Like me. Except I’m not blue, just bulky.)