Uncovering your ground cover choices
As I was reminded last summer, watering my plants only scratches the surface of what a Northern Nevada garden really needs. Much to my chagrin and despite daily watering, several of my lovely flowers quickly dried to a crisp.
Enter ground cover, which, in either mulch or plant form, acts as a protective barrier to pests and weeds and keeps water in the ground, where it belongs.
Shredded wood and bark: Fragrant and natural, wood products keep moisture in and break down naturally, mineralizing the soil. The problem, according to G & G Nursery and Landscaping vice president and owner Stephen Giossi, is that they often can’t withstand strong winds, and they may be susceptible to bugs—particularly earwigs.
Rocks and gravel: They stay put, require little maintenance, and bugs don’t like ’em. The problem, says Giossi, is heat. “Sometimes the rocks can actually burn the roots or tender foliage of plants,” he says. “But it’s great for a cactus and other native plants and shrubs that love heat.”
Decomposed granite: Popular for its desert look, decomposed granite resembles a large-grain sand and comes in either gray or gold. But it blows around like sand, too. It also turns to mud in the rain and will erode on hilly areas. Plus, like sand, it sticks to shoes and can scratch hardwood floors.
Alternative mulches: “Recycled rubber is essentially chopped up tires, and it’s a very good ground cover,” says Giossi. “It’s soft, it won’t give you splinters when you touch it, it doesn’t decompose, it keeps moisture in the ground, and you can walk on it. But it’s not all that pretty.” Plus, in the heat, it smells like old tires. There’s also newspaper, which decomposes easily, providing nutrients to the soil. But it’s a mess in the rain or wind—not exactly low-maintenance gardening.
To mulch, or not to mulch?
For a low-water, low-maintenance garden, ground cover plants are a beautiful, eco-friendly option that won’t erode or blow away. They choke out weeds and other water-robbing plants. Plus, many contain mostly water, providing an extra layer of fire protection around your home.
Giossi points out several varieties of ground cover plants, most of which are drought-tolerant and unfriendly to pests. These include:
Iceplants: Coral-colored in spring, these hardy succulents are bright green in summer and spread quickly, so you’ll only need a few plants to cover a large area. Iceplants like full sun and well-drained soil.
Euonymous Winter Creeper: This dark green, fast-growing ground cover provides year-round color without losing foliage. Its sheltering leaves also attract birds.
Vinca Minor, or Dwarf Periwinkle: This vine, with either white or burgundy blooms, creeps across the ground, protecting it from erosion and pests. It grows well in full shade or full sun.
Thyme: Giossi particularly likes thyme for its short, tightly packed, fragrant foliage and small flowers of white, pink or purple.
Cinquefoil: One G & G employee’s neighbor actually replaced their lawn with cinquefoil, a dense, dark green mat of a plant that grows bright yellow flowers in summer and requires watering only once or twice a week.
There are dozens more groundcover plants that will help you conserve water and retain soil moisture. After initially planting them in either spring or early fall, Giossi recommends covering the soil around them with mulch until they take root.
Any nursery or garden shop can offer suggestions for mulch or ground cover plants that are right for your yard.