According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a ground cover is “a low plant or group of plants used in a garden to cover the ground”. If we loosely interpret the meaning of “low”, that pretty much grants us liberty to plant whatever works in our situation, and call it a ground cover. We’re no longer obligated to cover all the empty spots on the planet with prostrate junipers. What do ground covers actually do, other than fill up empty spaces, preventing our shoes and bare feet from being caked with red mud? They can suppress weeds, improve soil moisture retention while lowering soil temperatures, and deter soil erosion on slopes. Some even produce edible fruits.
Let’s start with the most obvious ground cover first. If you have a lawn, you have a ground cover. Bermuda grass (aka devil’s grass, probably because of its invasiveness) is a very low ground cover that can tolerate traffic. Many other grasses serve as turf and ground cover, tolerating heavy traffic imposed by humans, animals, and machinery. Turf grasses are nice, but suppose you want a softer look for a path or garden? There are other plants that can tolerate heavy foot traffic, and ornamental thymes are some of the most accommodating. Thymes are fairly low maintenance when planted in the right spot. Plants such as Irish and Scotch moss, that can’t tolerate heavy foot traffic, can fill in spaces between stepping stones, or grow together in designs that take advantage of their beautiful contrasting colors.
Almost any plant that doesn’t grow too tall, has dense foliage, spreads or clumps readily, and suppresses weeds can be used as a ground cover. Daylilies, ornamental grasses, hostas, sedums, clover, and even alpine strawberries work well as ground covers in the right situations. Strawberries are not the only ground cover to provide edible fruits. Creeping raspberry, a beautifully textured, low-growing, semi-evergreen cousin of raspberries and blackberries, bears edible fruit, as does cranberry and lowbush blueberry. Ornamental sweet potato vines are an especially attractive ground cover, but the tubers produced are not as tasty as those produced by cropping cultivars, which can also be used as ground cover. Herbs make great ground cover – especially in the vegetable garden where they choke out weeds and shade the soil around the bases of crop plants.
There are so many plants that make great ground cover when planted in the right places. If you have a plant that’s invasive in the wrong spot, re-plant it in the right spot, where its voracious appetite for space works to your advantage. In the right situation, even ferns that grow to three feet can be ground covers. The next time you have an empty spot in the garden to fill, be adventurous. Sweet woodruff in part shade emits the sweetness of new mown hay. Wooly thyme tickles your toes. Daylilies on that neglected bank will put a smile on every passerby’s face. The strawberries growing under the roses will never even make it into the house.
https://www.garden.org/ediblelandscaping (Search for “edible ground covers”)
http://www.caes.uga.edu/applications/publications/files/pdf/C%20928_2.PDF (For ground covers that like the climate in Georgia)
Photo of pond surrounded by ajuga and flowering ground cover courtesy of National Garden Bureau, Inc.