Cover Ground With Ground Cover

Trailing rosemary eventually gets somewhat deep.

Within the outdoor rooms of home gardens, shade trees are ceilings, shrubs and hedges are walls, and turf and ground cover plants are floors. That is why the selection of plants for such purposes is as important as the selection of paint and carpet for indoors. Among ground cover plants, durable turf grasses for lawns are the most common and functional.

There are so many more types of ground cover plants besides turf grasses though. A few of the lower, denser and more resilient types of ground cover plants can function as turf if necessary. Many more function as mulch to control erosion, contain dust or conceal mud. Many inhibit proliferation of weeds. Some retain a bit more moisture than they consume.

Appropriate ground cover plants most definitely have many advantages. They also have certain disadvantages. Although most require less maintenance than the weeds that they exclude, they require more maintenance than simple mulch. Also, most require irrigation. They might be trailing perennials, sprawling shrubbery, or unsupported wandering vines.

Trailing gazania, Hottentot fig (freeway ‘ice plant’) and various ice plants are some of the more popular perennial ground cover plants. They and others migrate by trailing stolons or rhizomes. They are among the lower and more compact types of ground cover plants. Some need no more pruning than edging. Many propagate easily by division or cuttings.

Sprawling sorts of juniper, ceanothus, cotoneaster, myoporum and rosemary are shrubby ground cover plants. They get significantly deeper than perennial plants, and some sorts can eventually get too overgrown to be practical. Rosemary, myoporum and cotoneaster are conducive to shearing as they mature. Ceanothus and juniper need significant area.

English ivy, Algerian ivy and star jasmine are vining ground cover plants that should stay rather low if properly maintained. However, they can climb into shrubbery and trees, and even buildings. The ivies are famously aggressive, and spread indefinitely by rooting as they migrate. Severe pruning can renovate some overgrown vining ground cover plants. Bougainville gets rather shrubby and deep, even without support.


Planting Cool Season Cover Crops

71129thumbTraditional horticultural technology that was so common in the orchards, that were likewise more common, was more practical than so much of what we do in our modern home gardens now. Orchardists got good insects to take out the bad insects. They got mulberry trees to distract hungry birds from maturing apricots and prunes. They even got weedy annuals to control other weeds.

Once it got established, mustard grew wild under many orchards. It self sowed so efficiently that it did not need to be sown. It grew fast, and shaded out other nastier weeds. Anyone who wanted to pick greens could take all they wanted without setting it back. It was sometimes tilled in early, or cut early and left on the surface as mulch, but was probably most often left to die back naturally.

Besides controlling weeds, the mustard improved the soil and kept it friable, both by dispersing roots through it, and also by decomposing into it. Other types of cover crops help limit erosion through winter, or improve soil fertility. All are very easy to plant and grow, and almost all get all the water they need from rain through winter. They only need to be cut and tilled when they are done.

Of course, they are all ‘done’ at different times. Orchard mustard that never gets cut or tilled is never really done. It just perpetuates itself. Cover crops in home gardens are done when we say they are done, before the space is needed for something else. Some should be cut before self sowing and becoming more a weed than a cover crop, whether or not the space is needed right away.

Cover crops get planted by simply broadcasting seed onto freshly tilled soil that will not be used for anything until next year. After seed is broadcast, the soil can be raked lightly to cover the seed. If it is not watered right away, the rain will take care of it. Fava beans, oats, barley, millet, clover and annual rye grass are some of the more familiar cover crops. Sesame and sorghum are rare.

Freeway iceplant and old varieties of common geranium (Pelargonium X hortorum) can function as prettier perennial cover crops. The iceplant can be cut from established colonies and plugged as short cuttings about four inches long. When geraniums get cut back, the pieces can likewise be processed into cuttings. Unlike annuals, these would get removed when their space is needed.