Ground Covers to Enhance your Landscaping

Ground Covers to Enhance your Landscaping

by Sharon Faircloth
Ground covers are typically thought of as a group of low-lying plants with a spreading habit of growth used to cover the landscape not taken up by our fabulous flowering plants!  Creepers can enhance and protect hillsides from erosion, protect hot dry areas, enhance shady spots and assist in weed control.  They can be used to enhance year-round visual interest and many varieties are critter resistant.

Galium odoratum, Sweet Woodruff next to walkway
As in all landscape choices, “right plant, right place” is always the first consideration.  Most open spaces in our landscape seem to fill up with weeds.  Ground covers are an excellent way to introduce an alternative.  There are a number of attractive ground cover plants that will add color, texture, and continuous interest.  Plant choice is also important in determining the area you want to cover.  The larger the area, the more important the choice.

Under the right conditions, ground covers will spread quickly, allow some light foot traffic but preparation is important.  Don’t fall for the misconception that ground cover means no maintenance!   After you’ve determined your site, how much sun it will get, how much protection from weather you have and what type of look you want, it’s time to start removing weeds and or grass.  Successful growing will be greatly enhanced by soil amendment with organic matters like compost, aged manure and sphagnum peat.  Once established, some plants require less care than others.  According to the excellent CSU Fact Sheet 7.413 (https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/ground-covers-and-rock-garden-plants-for-mountain-communities-7-413/), the higher the altitude, the longer it takes to establish.  It will take about two years to establish at lower altitude, giving enough time to maximize weed control. Clearing weeds as you seem them will help minimize later.

Ajuga reptans or bugleweed is a pretty, fast and low-growing option.  It has interesting purplish green leaves and grows by runners that root at the nodes.  There are several cultivars and readily available as ajuga, carpet bugle, blue bugle and carpetweed.  It’s mat-forming and the straight species is hardy up to 10,000 feet. Recommended choices for altitude are ‘Bronze Beauty’, ‘Atropurpurea’ and ‘Chocolate Chip’ varieties.  The leaves stay colorful well into the fall and spring brings spikes of bluish-purple flowers.  It works well along walkways and patio areas preferring part sun to shade.

Ajuga reptans, Bugleweed
Two choices for full season visual interest are Arctostaphylosspp., or kinnickinnick, and Vinca (although the latter is hardy to only 8,000’ or lower).  Both have bright green foliage and are low-growing.  Kinnikinnick has small pink flowers in the spring and red berries in the fall.  Indians used the plant for tea and a medicinal for skin problems.  Vinca, or common periwinkle, have bluish purple blooms in spring.  It has shallow roots and does well on banks and in gardens.
Vinca minor, Common periwinkle
For more sunny locations, like rock gardens,  Sedum spp. (stonecrop) are great options.  They come in a variety of colors and can turn lovely shades in the fall for additional visual interest.  The Sedums like well-drained soil and will do well on moisture, once established.  Best choices for alpine gardens are Sedum acre or 'Goldmoss' with green leaves and yellow flowers, Sedum album or White stonecrop with small green leaves and white to pinkish flowers and ‘Dragon’s Blood’ with purple leaves and reddish-purple flowers. 

Sedum spurium, Stonecrop ‘Voodoo’ in rock garden
The hardy Geranium spp. cultivars have delicate lobed leaves with white, pink or blue flowers and vary in height and width.  They like sun, bloom earlier in the year and will tolerate low to moderate moisture levels. 
Geranium cinereum, Cranesbill
There are many advantages to adding spreading ground covers to areas of your landscape.

For more general information about ground covers, see Fact Sheet 7.40.  For a refresher on soil amendments, look at Fact Sheet 7.235, and for a great resource on mountain communities check out Fact Sheet 7.413 Ground Covers and Rock Garden Plants for Mountain Communities.  In addition to a head start on successful planting, get many of your questions regarding bloom times, exposure preferences, moisture requirements and general comments answered within these publication. 

All photos by Sharon Faircloth

CSU Fact Sheet 7.413 (https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/ground-covers-and-rock-garden-plants-for-mountain-communities-7-413/
CSU Fact Sheet 7.40 https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/ground-cover-plants-7-400/
CSU Fact Sheet 7.235 https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/choosing-a-soil-amendment/ ground covers landscaping

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