How to Plant Ground Covers
LESLIE: Well, if you have an area of your lawn where grass just doesn’t seem to grow that well or maybe it grows too well and you’re just plain tired of cutting it, you might want to consider planting groundcover.
TOM: Absolutely. Groundcover like ivy or pachysandra are a great solution for lots of problem areas. For tips on what kinds of groundcovers work well and how to plant them properly, we welcome This Old House landscaping expert, Roger Cook.
ROGER: Hi. How are you?
TOM: We are great. And this is one of those questions that people are constantly dealing with. There’s always that sort of problem area in the yard where something just won’t grow or seems to take over. Are those all good opportunities for groundcovers?
ROGER: Oh, exactly. And even the areas that you’re mulching over and over and over again. Groundcovers are a great way to get rid of mulch and replace it and you never have to mulch again.
LESLIE: So you would mix that in with your flower bed to avoid the mulching?
LESLIE: Does that provide the same sort of protection during the winter season?
ROGER: By the time the winter comes, your plants are all established; they’ll be fine. You don’t have to worry about it. Mulching over and over again sometimes has a worse effect on plants than it does good.
TOM: Now, what are the best plant considerations? Is it sun? Is it shade? And how exactly should you set about planting your groundcover garden?
ROGER: It’s like any other planting: you have to know your conditions. Is it wet? Is it shady? Is it dry? Is it sunny? Then you go and you pick out an applicable plant for that situation.
I love groundcovers because there’s some that are adaptable for every situation.
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. Yeah, we had an area of the yard that was just problematic: so shady, poor drainage. We couldn’t get anything to grow there until I finally discovered vinca.
LESLIE: And it’s amazing what it’s done; it’s taken an area that was so drab and horrible and it’s green and lovely and sometimes we get these purple flowers. You know, we really enjoy it.
LESLIE: How do you know what the best solution is? Do you come into the garden center with your list of conditions and say, “Help”?
ROGER: That’s a great help and there are a lot of places online. You can get lists of different types of groundcovers for different areas. What I’m encouraging people to do right now is to look at native plants, native groundcovers. There’s a lot of pachysandra, a lot of ivy; you see it everywhere. I’d love for you to go to some of the native – some of the different plants.
TOM: Now, you mentioned ivy and that’s one of those plants that can quickly sort of take control and spread everywhere. How do you have sort of a manageable ivy garden?
ROGER: Either through edging – a mechanical edge like steel edging, which will help keep it out of the lawn – or you go along that edge. You actually turn your trimmer vertical, go right along the edge between the grass. And every other time you cut the lawn, you just trim it back.
The other thing that happens is sometimes it’ll grow up trees. Maybe once or twice a year, you want to go to the tree and cut the pieces that want to run up the top of the tree.
LESLIE: Is it bad for the tree? Because it looks so pretty.
ROGER: It looks nice but it’s not the greatest thing for the trunk of the tree. It can let insects get in there and even cause a little bit of rot sometimes. Because if it …
TOM: Does it sort of strangle the tree sometimes?
ROGER: Not so much strangle but you remember, it’s attaching right to the bark, so it’s going to cause – could cause a weak point in the bark where other things could get into the tree.
TOM: Right. Now, ivy used to be very, very beautiful going up brick buildings but we’ve learned in recent years, of course, that that’s not such a good idea for the house, either.
ROGER: Right. If it can damage the mortar in the brick, what could it do to the tree? So let’s look at it that way.
TOM: So groundcovers are a great solution but you’ve got to pick the right plant, you’ve got to have the right soil. It’s really a recipe, isn’t it?
ROGER: Right. It’s like anything else: unless you prepare the area properly, it could fail. Any planting depends on how good you prep the soil. The great thing about groundcovers are their root systems are only 4 to 6 inches, maybe 8 inches deep, so you don’t have to prep that bed that much. But I would go in and skim off any grass that was there or excess mulch. I would rotor-till the area, then I would take some compost that I made in my backyard, add that and a little bit of low-nitrogen fertilizer, rotor-till it all in and then you’re ready to plant.
TOM: So, Roger, if this has been a problem area that you’re trying to tackle, is it best to clear out everything that’s there and sort of rebuild the soil and start from scratch so you know what you’ve got?
ROGER: Right. Any planting you do, whether groundcover or bigger plants, is only as successful as the soil is prepared. Fortunately, with groundcovers we only have to prepare the soil 4 to 6 inches deep.
ROGER: So I’d go in and strip off the grass, rotor-till that area, probably add a low-nitrogen fertilizer and then rake it in and then you’re ready to plant.
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. Anything that we need to be concerned about as far as weeding? Because I imagine you might still have those same situations you would have before.
ROGER: You will. And the key is to keep on top of the weeds as they come up. It’s easier to pull a small weed than it is a big one. And the more you pull, the more the groundcovers have the ability to grow in. And once they grow in, you – minimum weeds.
LESLIE: That’s great.
TOM: Great advice.
For more tips on how to plant covers, there is a good video on ThisOldHouse.com, featuring our guest, Roger Cook.
Roger, thanks so much for the advice and stopping by The Money Pit.
ROGER: Oh, you’re welcome.
LESLIE: And remember, guys, you can watch Roger and the entire This Old House team on This Old House and Ask This Old House on your local PBS station.
TOM: And This Old House is brought to you by State Farm. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.