A green, lush lawn seems to be the American ideal. However, it is not always practical or possible due to weather, time and budget constraints. Rainfalls, temperature and soil conditions can all impact how your lawn grows and looks. Lawns take time, energy and money to care for. They also use valuable resources while chemicals marketed for their care need to be used very carefully. A ground cover might be the best option for part, or all, of your yard.
Ground covers come in a wide variety, but by definition, they are plants that grow to form a uniform carpet of foliage when planted correctly. Some are extremely low growing that gets no more than a few inches above the ground while other varieties can get to be several feet high. Ground covers generally need less water and care than grass. No mowing, less fertilizing, and if you use landscape fabrics when planting, there is little to no weeding needed. They are perfect for oddly shaped sections of your yard, around trees or around walkways, and slopes that would be difficult to mow. Many ground covers grow well in shade where most grasses will not thrive. Ground covers also offer more than a carpet of green. Ground covers come in a variety of textures, flower covers and even berries if that is what you want.
Low growing ground covers which are ground huggers that are evergreen and can withstand light foot traffic include wooly yarrow, chamomile, creeping thyme, dwarf periwinkle and lily turf. There is also carpet bugle, English ivy, and St. John’s Wart and ice plant, and moss varieties among others. Ground covers that are taller and of a shrub like variety include barberries, winterberries, junipers, star jasmine and cotoneasters along with several more. Catmint, myrtle and the wide variety of hostas are my particular favorites among those that I have used in my landscaping. For a pictorial directory of ground covers with links with detailed information on each plant, I suggest exploring the University of Illinois’s page on the subject.
Dicondra is another ground cover that is a little different from all the others. It is a compact plant for use in a mild climate, since a hard frost can kill it. It is best used for small, contained areas because it tends to be even needier than grass and spreads invasively rather than in a controlled pattern.
There are a few downsides to ground covers, which need to be considered before planting them in your yard. Ground covers are not as refined looking as a well-maintained lawn, so if you really want a fancy looking yard this might not be the best choice. Ground covers will also take some time to fill in, perhaps even years depending on the kind and how much you plant initially, unlike grasses that grow and fill in quickly. The biggest negative that I find with ground covers is that most are less resilient than grass. While they can deal with weather and natural conditions well, most cannot stand up to heavy foot traffic or playing children. There are some exceptions to this including wooly yarrow, creeping thyme and spring cinquefoil.
Prior to buying and planting anything in your yard, do your research. Make sure you chose a ground cover that fits your needs. Take into account the hardiness zone for your area, the foot traffic in the area you are planning on planting in and the look you want. With the vast number of options there will undoubtedly be something for your yard.