Putting a Little Spring in Your Step: Understanding and Selecting Ground Covers and Low-lying Stepables

What are Ground Covers?
Ground cover plants, or simply “ground covers,” are exactly what they sound like: plants that are used to cover or “carpet” the ground. When someone refers to ground covers, they are most likely talking about alternatives to traditional lawn grass. This can include numerous species of low-to medium-growing grasses, ivies, and shrubberies. Ground covers are a great option to explore if you have problem areas in your yard where grass or flowerbeds are difficult to grow or maintain. Additionally, they can be used to create paths and walkways, enhance the aesthetics of your yard or gardens, help control erosion, and even deter pesky deer from eating your florae. This region of Virginia is considered Plant Hardiness Zone 7, which can sustain a wide variety of ground covers that can be planted virtually year-round and require little to no upkeep.

Selecting a Ground Cover
Choosing the right ground cover will depend on what you want to accomplish, the type of soil present, the size of the area being covered and the desired appearance. Each species will vary in rate of growth or “spread,” foliage density, light requirements, and degree of maintenance. A word of caution: some ground cover species can be invasive and quickly overtake an area if left unattended. An example of this would be the well-known non-native English Ivy. Ground covers of this nature require quite a bit of attention to prevent them from overtaking any other nearby vegetation or structures.

Selecting evergreens for your ground cover is a great idea because they maintain their beauty year-round, require little watering, and can be planted in the winter months when little else is thriving.

Common choices for evergreen ground cover in our region are those belonging to the Pachysandra family. Pachysandras, like many types of ivy, can be invasive if not planted within a barrier or away from other low-growing plants. This family thrives in areas of low sunlight, making them choice for problem areas where turf grass won’t survive. Two common species are Japanese Pachysandra and Allegheny Pachysandra.

Junipers are also a great option as they are drought-resistant, release a pleasant aroma, and are natural deer-deterrents. Look for ‘Blue Rug’ creeping juniper and ‘Green Mound’ juniper, both of which grow relatively quickly and provide a greenish-blue carpet to your problem areas and hillsides. ‘Shore Juniper’ grows well in soils prone to a high sand or salt content.

Other evergreens to consider:
■ Aaron’s Beard (St. John’s Wort)
■ Common Periwinkle
■ Dwarf Nandina

There are also many options for deciduous ground covers. While they are dormant during the chilliest months, these species will give your yard lush vegetation and a “tropical” feel.

Deciduous or Herbaceous plants to consider:
■ Many species of Hosta
■ Climbing Hydrangea
■ Big Blue Lilyturf

Stepables
Stepables are a type of ground cover that is quickly gaining popularity due to the unique ability of these plants to survive in light to heavy foot traffic. This characteristic allows for creative “weaving” or “patterning” of ground covers among your flagstone walkways or pavers. Alternatively, they can be used as buffer areas in between your gardens and lawns or pathways. This will add a flavorful trim to your gardens that is also practical in protecting them in areas that might be prone to bypassers (such as pets or children). ‘Creeping Thyme’ is a popular choice in the area for its low-growing stature and its ease of maintenance.

Some other stepables:
■ Dwarf Mondo Grass
■ Chocolate Chip Ajuga
■ Bronze Dutch Clover
■ Creeping Jenny

Some Final Tips
■ Most ground covers, such as Ivy and Pachysandra, will fill
in fairly quickly when planted about 12 inches apart.
■ Weed infestation can be a problem for many low-lying ground covers. Be sure to clear all weeds and let new soils settle for 2 to 3 weeks before planting your ground covers.
■ Much of the Virginia region is plagued with high clay content in the soils; this can cause the growth rate of many ground covers to slow substantially. Decrease the spacing between plants to increase growth rate.

Use a variety of low-lying ground covers and stepables to create a unique mix of color and texture. Take your landscaping a “step” above the rest!

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