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What are ground-cover plants?

The brilliantly colored flowers of ice plant makes it a popular ground-cover choice in warm climates.
The brilliantly colored flowers of ice plant makes it a popular ground-cover choice in warm climates.
Photo by Jane Gates

If you are interested in gardening, you’ve likely heard the term “ground-cover”. When written it can be spelled as one word or two, although most people in the green industry consider it one. However you choose to spell it, ground-cover is exactly what it sounds like. And ground-cover is a critical part of landscaping.

Ground-cover is essential to prevent the dangerous washing away of topsoil from erosion that can undermine structures. It also helps prevent dust and mud issues. Aesthetically, it is a handsome way to fill in empty areas.

Although it is usually used as a term referring to plants, it is properly used for non-living materials, too. For example, you can cover an area with permeable paving (materials that allow water to penetrate) made from gravel, flat stone, cast concrete pavers, or brick and call these ground-covers. Anything that creates a low-lying covering for bare ground qualifies.

Some good plants to use as a ground-cover might be verbena, trailing or low-growing succulents like sedum or ice plant, vinca, creeping rosemary or thyme. On a large area or hillside, plants may grow two to three feet in height whereas in smaller garden areas they are usually best kept under a foot tall. Some might also be ground-hugging to create a relatively smooth appearance or to handle light foot traffic. Ground-cover trailing plants can be very useful to spill over retaining walls, tumble down hanging baskets, or simply to cover exposed soil as mulch.

Grass is the most common ground-cover. It is usually used as lawn -- like Bermuda grass, Fescue, Bluegrass or many others. Ornamental grasses can also serve as a covering. Large areas can be effective designed as whole fields, or low-growing decorative grasses like some of the clumping fescues can add colorful or textural carpeting.

Choose your ground-cover by what will work best in your climate, what will look best with your overall landscape design plan, and what will require the right kind of maintenance to fit with your lifestyle.


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