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Bright blue flowers of Hardy Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides)

Planting Groundcovers: How To Use Them & Tips For Growing

By David Salman, High Country Gardens Founder and Chief Horticulturist

Get a carpet of color in your landscape with low-growing groundcovers! Groundcovers are some of our most versatile garden plants. They are loosely defined as plants that grow wider than they do tall, typically flowering at a height of 12 inches or less. Some groundcovers provide foliage only. These plants are a diverse group and can be used in a wide variety of garden environments. They can be:

  • Evergreen or herbaceous (lose their leaves and stems in winter)
  • Vining or clumping (spreading slowly out from a central crown)
  • Aggressive or slow-growing
  • Suitable for sunny or shady parts of the landscape.

When making a decision about the right groundcover for your landscape, review the characteristics and uses listed above. This will help you make the right choice.

6 Ways To Use Groundcovers

Groundcovers are essential for great gardens and waterwise landscape designs. Use them as:

  1. Lawn replacements - planting groundcovers is a great way to save water and mow less.
  2. "Carpeting" companions to plant under and around taller growing perennials, annuals, and flowering bulbs
  3. Soil binders to hold and protect the soil from erosion - especially on slopes
  4. A living mulch to shade the ground, conserve water, and crowd out weeds
  5. Fillers between stepping stones and garden pavers like brick, slate, and flagstone to beautify these hardscapes with flowers and foliage
  6. A stabilizing element for rock retaining walls with their deep growing roots

Say No To Gravel, Yes To Groundcovers

As mentioned above, planting groundcovers is a great way to save water and mow less. Most commonly, homeowners will choose gravel to replace the lawn. However, gravel can be unattractive and create uncomfortable visual glare. It also absorbs heat, meaning it increases the need for home air conditioning, and contributes to the bigger problem of the urban heat island effect." In addition, gravel has no value as habitat for pollinators and songbirds. However, areas of gravel mulch are an excellent environment into which heat-tolerant groundcovers can be planted!

Front and side yard lawns are a good place to start when converting a conventional landscape to a xeriscape. In areas with low foot traffic, why not use low-maintenance, low-water groundcovers instead? The amount of work and expense that goes into mowing, fertilizing, and watering a lawn will be greatly reduced. Plus, groundcovers provide beautiful flowers to attract pollinators.

Tips For Planting Groundcovers

  1. When planting groundcovers, I always recommend using them in groups of 5 or 7 at the minimum to create larger patches of the plant and maximize the impact and beauty of the flowers and foliage.
  2. Use the Mature Width measurement for planting guidance: On each product page, you'll see the groundcover's mature width listed. If it spreads to 15-18 inches wide, plant them 15 inches apart. If it spreads 15 inches wide, plant them about 12 inches apart. This will help you create a solid carpet of groundcover. Want quicker coverage? Plant them a bit closer than their mature spread.
  3. Planting perennials with groundcovers: Most importantly, taller growing plants can be transplanted right into a new groundcover area or into established patches of groundcovers. Groundcovers tend to have more horizontal growing root systems that won't compete with the deeper roots of flowering bulbs and taller perennials.
  4. When replanting into gravel or replacing the sod directly with groundcovers, leave the old sprinkler system in place. Sprinklers are the best way to irrigate big areas planted with groundcovers. This saves the expense and effort of putting in a new drip system. And you'll be using the sprinklers much less often once the groundcovers are established.
  5. Use a variety of groundcovers species to improve the habitat value and visual beauty of your landscape. Or plant only one type of groundcover if the uniform look of your old lawn is desirable, and you want to duplicate it in a much more water-efficient way. With either choice, most groundcovers can be planted on 15-18" by 15-18" centers and will generally fill in by the end of the first growing season.
  6. When planting multiple species or varieties, group them in "drifts" (large patches of the same plant) to maximize visual interest. It is a nice design element to plant islands of taller growing ornamental grasses and flowering perennials into the groundcovers to give your ex-lawn a less flat, and more visually interesting look to your front yard. 
  7. Place some stepping stones or flagstone pieces to create walkways across the groundcovers. But first, observe where you've been walking previously so to minimize the wear and tear on your new groundcovers.
  8. Soil preparation is important, especially when replacing old lawns where the soil has been worn out and compacted. Dig individual holes for each plant and enrich the soil with Yum Yum Mix and compost. Or spread compost and Yum Yum Mix over the whole area and rototill it in to facilitate the groundcovers to root more readily as they grow out across the soil.
    Use corn gluten as a natural pre-emergent herbicide to reduce weeds while the groundcovers are filling in.

Groundcover Maintenance

Groundcovers are some of our best low-maintenance perennials.

Deadheading: Keep them looking their best by "deadheading" them when they finish blooming. This can be done by hand with hedge trimmers or with a lawnmower adjusted to a higher setting. It just needs to be done once per season.

Fertilizing: Groundcovers growing in healthy living soil will be the most resilient, so apply a mix of Yum Yum Mix, compost, or earthworm castings, and granular molasses broadcast over the foliage and watered in. Do this in mid- to late fall (or mid-spring if you forget in the fall).

How Many Plants Do I Need?

When planting larger areas with groundcovers, it's important to figure out how many plants are needed to cover the area.

  1. First, determine the square footage of the area to be planted. Irregular areas with curved edges can be a bit of a challenge to calculate, but if you can break down the area to be measured into smaller squares or rectangles, you can get a good approximation of how much square footage you have.
  2. Second, look at the mature size of the groundcover you want to plant. If the plant is 4 inches tall by 15-18 inches wide, plan on planting the individual plants 15 inches apart so that the plants will knit themselves together into a solid carpet of stems and foliage.
  3. Third, look at your budget and how quickly you want the groundcover plants to cover their new planting area. The faster the desired coverage, the closer you'll want to space them and the more plants you'll need to buy. This way, your space will fill in faster and the stems can overlap without harming the plants.

Look at the chart below to give you a rough idea of how many groundcover plants are needed when spaced at various distances. (See information on the product page for each groundcover plant for its specific size.)

Spacing between plants Sq ft per plant Number of plants per 100 sq. ft. 
6"  0.25 sq ft 400
9"  0.56 sq ft 179
12"  1 sq ft 100
15"  1.56 sq ft 64
18" 2.25 sq ft 44
24"  4 sq ft 24

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