Ground covers are excellent problem solvers. Many flourish in deep shade where grasses won’t grow. Their wide range of color, foliage, and flowers can break up the monotony of open spaces or form a transition between low grasses and tall shrubs. And planting a hillside with ground cover eliminates the hazards of mowing on a slope, yet still prevents erosion.
Some ground covers can be grown from seed, but most are propagated either as cuttings taken from established plants or by dividing large plants into smaller ones, as described on pages 74-75. You can use these methods yourself if you have access to a patch of ground cover either in your own yard or that of a cooperative neighbor. Alternatively, ground covers are sold as immature plants in lots of 50 or more temporarily rooted in a shallow tray called a flat.
The chart on pages 267-269 provides a selection of ground cover plants including information on their special requirements. Consult your nursery about the number of plants of a particular variety you will need to cover a given area. And before planting, mulch the area with a layer of shredded pine bark to help keep weeds at bay. Even so, expect to weed often during the first year.
To prevent the rain from washing newly planted ground cover down an erosion-prone slope, you must stabilize the soil long enough for the ground cover to spread out. Jute netting, a loosely woven, biodegradable material, works especially well (page 72). It does not restrict plant growth or prevent water and nutrients from reaching the roots. Within 6 to 9 months the netting starts to disintegrate, disappearing completely in about 2 years.
After ground covers have become established, they may run rampant. Keep varieties that spread by surface runners in check by pruning. Cut the runner with pruning shears no closer than three or four nodes—points where leaves attach to the stem—from the main stem. A species that widens its coverage by means of the root system can be temporarily contained by cutting the roots along the border of the bed (page 75), but for a more permanent solution, install edging. Whenever ground cover begins to pop up in a lawn or flower bed, weed it out immediately before it grows beyond control.
Separating the plants
Remove no more than half a dozen plants and rooting medium from the flat. Separate the plants with your fingers (above), taking care not to injure the roots. Set the plants in the ground immediately.
Setting the plants
To prepare a planting hole, push a garden trowel through the mulch and into the soil, then pull it toward you, opening a small pocket in the ground. Holding the soil back with the trowel, set a plant in the pocket, with about ¼ inch of its stem below ground level (left). With the trowel, gently push the displaced soil back into the pocket.
Tamping the soil
Smooth the soil and mulch with your fingers, patting the mulch down around the stem, forming a slight depression to catch and hold moisture (inset). Set in the remaining plants, and water them for at least half an hour with a lawn sprinkler or with a hose set for a fine mist. Continue to water the new plants every other day for a month.
Bracing plants with jute netting
Strip away any sod, grade the slope if necessary and prepare the soil for planting. Working uphill from the bottom of the slope, unroll strips of jute netting (photograph) across the incline. Overlap the strips 8 inches and secure them with sod staples (above). Cover the area with an inch of mulch. With a 3-inch masonry trowel, dig holes for the plants in staggered rows to prevent water from washing straight down the hill. After setting the plants, mold a basin around the lower side of each stem with your hand to prevent runoff, then water.
Obtaining a cutting
Cut a 3- to 6-inch length from a main stem or an entire side stem of a well-established plant. The stem should contain three to five nodes. With a small sharp knife, make a clean, slanting cut slightly below the nodes (right).
Preparing the cutting for planting
Pinch off any flowers or seed heads from the stem (left); if allowed to remain, they will divert nutrients away from the roots that will form on the cutting. Trim the leaves from the bottom of the cutting so that no foliage will be buried in the planting. Allow the cut end of the stem to dry out slightly; if the leaves begin to wilt, place them on a damp towel.
Planting the cuttings
Fill a flat with a moistened rooting medium, such as a combination of sand and peat moss in equal parts, to about an inch from the top. With a stick or a pencil, poke holes in the medium just deep enough to cover two or three nodes on the cuttings. Dip the end of each cutting into plant hormone powder, available at nurseries or garden-supply outlets, to encourage root growth. Set the cutting in a hole and tamp rooting medium down around it. After planting all the cuttings, water the entire flat gently but thoroughly. Cover the flat with a sheet of glass or clear plastic to protect the young plants until they can survive outdoors. Keep them in a warm room and out of direct sunlight. When new leaves appear, the cuttings are ready to be transplanted (page 71).
Uprooting the plants
Water the plants well a couple of days before you divide them to soften the ground. Using a hand fork or a spading fork, dig around a clump of plants containing 8 to 12 new plants. Raise the clump and guide the roots away from the fork with your free hand (right).
Separating the plants
Shake or rinse enough soil from the clump to reveal the roots, then carefully pull apart individual plants (left). After discarding any wilted or yellowed plants, return two or three of the stems to the original hole, then set the rest in a new hole and water them thoroughly.
Countering an invasion
For deep-rooting plants—pachysandra and ivy, for example—slice straight down into the soil along the edge of the ground cover bed with a sharp spade, penetrating to the full depth of the plants’ roots, usually about 6 to 8 inches (above, left). If ground cover begins to pop up in a lawn or flower bed, remove it by hand with a weeding fork. Hold the base of the ground cover with one hand as you push the blade down into the soil alongside the root (above, right), then lever the plant out of the ground.