Plant ground covers in early spring

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.  |  2/23/2018 3:28:12 PM

By Dan Gill

LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

(02/23/18) Ground covers make great additions to Louisiana landscapes. Areas planted with ground covers establish an effect in the landscape that is impossible to create with grass and generally requires far less maintenance. They provide variations in height, texture and color that enrich their surroundings. Planting ground covers now will provide them with a chance to settle in and become somewhat established before hot weather arrives.

The term ground cover is applied to low-growing plants, other-than-turf grasses used to cover areas of the landscape. Perennial, evergreen plants having a sprawling or spreading habit are most often used. The plants used for ground covers are generally less than 12 inches in height, but taller-growing plants are also used appropriately in larger-scale landscape situations.

In addition to the beauty they provide, ground covers also have many practical uses. Because most people are reluctant to walk through ground cover areas, they provide barriers to foot traffic and can guide traffic movement through a site. Because they don’t have to be mowed, ground covers reduce landscape maintenance. They are also useful in areas where mowing would be difficult, such as on steep slopes, under low-branched trees and shrubs, where the roots of large trees protrude and in confined areas. They are also the best solution to areas under trees that have become too shady for grass to grow.

You must carefully consider the characteristics you would like the ground cover to have — such as height, texture, color — when making your selection. Evaluate the light conditions where the ground cover will be planted, noting whether it is sunny or shady.

You should also look at the size of the area to be planted. Only the most reliable, fast-spreading and reasonably priced ground covers should be considered for large areas. Monkey grass (Ophiopogon japonicus), creeping lily turf (Liriope spicata) and Japanese ardisia (Ardisia japonica) are good choices for shade to part shade. Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum) and liriope (Liriope muscari) are excellent for part shade to sun.

Proper preparation of the planting area will help ensure good establishment and faster growth. First, remove from the area all existing, unwanted vegetation, such as lawn grass or weeds. This could be done physically, or you can use a herbicide such as glyphosate (various brands). But do a thorough job. Next, till the soil to loosen it. If you are working under a tree, use a turning fork to minimize damage to the tree’s roots and avoid severing roots larger than an inch in diameter whenever possible. After the soil is broken up, spread 2 inches of organic matter (compost, peat moss or rotted manure) over the surface and work it in. If necessary, 2 or 3 inches of a blended high-organic-matter soil mix (generally called topsoil or garden soil) may be added at this point. Finally, sprinkle a general-purpose fertilizer over the area following label directions and thoroughly blend everything together. Now you are ready to plant.

For coverage in the shortest time, plant the ground cover plants at the proper spacing. This varies with the type chosen, so check with the staff at the nursery or your local LSU AgCenter Extension office. Although the recommended spacing will provide quicker coverage, you may find the cost higher than you expected.

Generally, determine what you can spend on the project, purchase as many plants as your budget will allow, and evenly space them in the area to be planted. As more funds become available, purchase and plant additional ground cover plants evenly spaced among those already planted.

After the area is planted, be sure to apply 1 or 2 inches of your favorite mulch such as leaves (chopped is best), pine bark, leaf mold (partially decayed leaves) or pine straw. Until the ground cover fills in (generally two to three years after planting), weed control is very important. Your best defense is a good layer of mulch. Hand weed regularly as necessary to maintain good weed control. In addition, most ground covers spread faster when mulched.

Water the area thoroughly to settle things in, and you’re done. To promote establishment and growth, continue to water regularly whenever rainfall does not occur for a week.

Plant ground covers now to take advantage of the cool, moist weather we have in spring that will encourage successful establishment. Fertilize in May and again in July with the same fertilizer you used in bed preparation to promote rapid growth. Gardeners with existing areas of ground cover can fertilize in March and again in June following the above recommendations.

Ground covers can reduce maintenance, beautify problem areas and create a whole new dimension in your landscape.

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Liriope plants will grow together over time to provide good coverage in an area of part shade to sun. Photo by Rick Bogren/LSU AgCenter

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