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Ground covers as problem solvers

Updated on November 8, 2009
Classic border ground cover
Classic border ground cover
Succulents can be ground covers, too. If you've ever seen an Aloe Vera forest, you'll know the story.
Succulents can be ground covers, too. If you've ever seen an Aloe Vera forest, you'll know the story.
A mix of "daisies" which acts as a ground cover, with some other clumping plants
A mix of "daisies" which acts as a ground cover, with some other clumping plants

Let the plants do the work

Ground covers are tough, self reliant plants, and good territorial defenders. Most ground covers are zero maintenance plants. They don’t need weed killers, because they do it themselves.

Ironically, some of the best ground covers aren’t creeping root stocks or the other traditional types. Some clumping types of garden plants, succulents, perennials, ornamental grasses, and even herbs, can do the job very well. Depending on the area and the job you want the ground cover to do, there will be several ground covers to give you a great choice of colors and form.

You may need to experiment a bit, but in most cases the soil type defines the type of ground cover you need.

Ground covers and dead patches

Ground covers have another important function which is considered on of their traditional roles. They can colonize and hold the dead patches in gardens where nothing seems to grow. This role is very important in garden defence, because the dead areas are thermal sinks which can affect soil temperature progressively over time.

Most dead patches are either severely impacted soils, clays, or high drainage/low nutrient areas where the conditions of the soil prevent plant growth. They’re basically deserts. Strangely, these very characteristics are useful for gardeners trying to find a way of getting rid of them.

Impacted and lifeless soils

In Australia, some soils are like bedrock, impacted, silica-rich soils that drain so fast that even if you can plant anything in them, you spend all your time fighting the nature of the soil. The soil gets very hot, like sand, and will kill annuals with ease.

The joke is that if you treat this lifeless rubbish as the drainage layer, and just put plenty of good soil (preferably with some fibre, like bark, for structure) on top of it and add a layer of bark mulch, you kill off all the negative characteristics, and get the benefit of the sandy drainage effect below.

This is actually a standard Australian soil/vegetation layering effect, and it works in just about all situations where the soil is the problem.

The best plants to cover the new area? Yep, ground covers. They bond the new soil, add organic materials, and since most have shallow root systems, they’re in no danger of hitting the sandy soil below. Much more importantly, they also provide good thermal insulation for the soil in severe temperature scenarios.

Drainage problems and ground covers

Some ground covers are excellent cures for wet, badly drained areas. Some of the most unlikely plants, like mints, are water plants by nature. They thrive in waterlogged areas. You may need to hunt around for a local water-hog ground cover, but it will definitely take care of the problem. It will also take care of the drainage problem to at least some extent. Allow the cover to run wild, and you’ll find the problem solves itself.

(Note: the problem isn’t solved if you’ve still got a mosquito breeding zone. Mosquito larvae don’t like mud. Add mulch to the wet zone in the breeding season, and you’ll get the problem under control.)

Ground covers as garden defenders

The primary traditional role of ground covers is as weed stoppers. Most are excellent for this role, highly territorial plants which will prevent any outbreak of major infestations. You can also rely on them to prevent drainage issues in the garden, because most are highly opportunistic, and will guzzle up the water to a large extent.

Many ground covers are also insect and mold resistant. Being close to the ground, they live in a tough environment. They need these characteristics, and they also act as a deterrent to these pests. It’s advisable to use at least some native plants as ground covers for this reason, because they’ll reduce the incidence of problems.

One reason for letting the plants do the work is because they do a much more thorough job. Haul up a cup of coffee, and cheer them on.


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    • Paul Wallis profile image

      Paul Wallis 8 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Hmmm... Native grass with some spaces/borders, I'd think. Slightly off topic, but: Don't know if you've seen the "meadow mixes", but they're pretty interesting things. We have a native bulb out here which produces these beautiful seasonal flowers, about 3 inches high. Can make very interesting combinations of effects with ground covers...

    • Bob Ewing profile image

      Bob Ewing 8 years ago from New Brunswick

      Looking to combine a ground cover with ornamental grass for small front lawn.

    • tim-tim profile image

      Priscilla Chan 8 years ago from Normal, Illinois

      I love gardening! Thanks for the tips.