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Ground Covers for the Landscape

by Don Janssen, UNL Extension Educator

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More and more people are using ornamental ground covers to reduce maintenance while adding color and textural patterns to areas in their landscape. Steep slopes, narrow or irregular patches, and areas under low-branched trees and shrubs are natural places to use a ground cover. On difficult slopes they can control soil erosion in addition to eliminating the need for mowing. When planted in areas between buildings and walks, ground covers can often reduce weed growth. When an area has dense shade, a shade-loving ground cover may be your only real alternative.

Ground covers can also serve as a natural transition between lawn and shrub or tree plantings, or provide positive benefits when planted with other plants. When planted in a bed of spring-flowering bulbs an evergreen ground cover not only sets off the blossoms, but will also hide the fading leaves after the flower has bloomed. They also can provide a living mulch for plants that do best under cool soil conditions.

There are a wide variety of ground covers to choose from. Most are usually low growing and wide-spreading. They vary in their tolerance of dry or wet sites and preference of full sun to dense shade. For a sunny, dry area you may want to consider planting a plant such as "Gro-Low" fragrant sumac. This winter-hardy groundcover shrub reaches 2 1/2 feet in height, tolerates dry soil, and has orange fall color. Low-growing sedums, such as the cultivars 'Dragon's Blood' or 'Gold Dust,' are succulents that thrive in full sun and even poor rocky soil. And creeping thyme makes a very low, fragrant carpet in dry soils, such as around flagstones.

The shade loving ground covers often have the ability to compete successfully with the roots of trees for the available supply of nutrients and moisture. They are often a wonderful addition under the canopy of a large tree. While there are many plants that can tolerate shade, some plants will have problems in the dry shade that is common under trees.

One plant that can handle dry shade is sweet woodruff. This plant offers white blooms in May and has attractive fine leaves. Other plants need more moisture: Carpet bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) forms a dense mat of rosettes of dark green, bronze or variegated foliage and produces blue, purple, pink or white flowers, depending on the cultivar. Pachysandra is a commonly used, rapidly spreading evergreen groundcover that prefers moist, well-drained, organic soil and a site protected from winter winds

In choosing a ground cover, first consider the effect you want it to achieve. Then among the plants that would achieve that effect, select one that has the requirements (soil, sun light, drainage) that are best suited to the conditions of the site where you want to plant it.

This resource was added February 2008 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement

PHOTO Credit: Soni Cochran, UNL Extension in Lancaster County

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office

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