Ground Cover – Plants or Grass?
Much has been written and spoken about the use of low-growing plants as ground cover; the implication being that the ground can be covered by quick-growing plants which will exclude weeds. Various prostrate subjects have been recommended such as heathers, Cotoneaster dammeri and vinca, all of which seem to offer the hard-pressed gardener a respite from controlling weeds between shrubs and trees. In theory this sounds excellent advice but there are many snags. Perhaps the greatest is that these plants need to be planted very closely together so that they establish themselves quickly before the weeds get there first. This does not matter a great deal when the area is small but if it is large then any weeding must be done by hand as neither tools nor weed killers can be used amongst this dense planting, so initially it means more work.
Closely planted subjects naturally grow quickly together. This means that after two or three years they are choking one another and have to be drastically cut back or thinned out. At the same time they prevent any mulching or cultivation of the main body of trees and shrubs and actually rob them of food and moisture, so that the main planting suffers. Once perennial weeds become established amongst the ground cover plants, then the battle is completely lost as no corrective treatment can be given.
Having experimented and followed up various plantings for over twenty years I have come to the conclusion that the most useful and effective ground cover plants which excludes weeds without harming the main plantings are as follows, in order of effectiveness.
- Grass, which can be mown and have wild , such as primroses, forget-me-nots and anemones, introduced into it. Trees and shrubs can be planted and as they increase the grass will gradually die out. All that is needed is to maintain a small area free from grass round the base of the tree or shrub. This can be done chemically and will allow space for feeding, mulching and watering.
- Wild are next in my order of usefulness and have proved very effective for sixteen years.
- The third subject is ivy which is also very suitable and can prove an excellent trap for fallen leaves. However, it has to be watched in case it starts to climb.
A technique which I have evolved in tackling a new garden, no matter what theconditions provided water is not standing, is to loosen the soil surface and sow with grass seed. This gives a breathing space so that the whole area can be tackled at leisure. I am not thinking of formal strips in front of the house but much of the very large area behind it. Mark out the lawn area properly, then lightly rotavate the rest or chip with a spade to create a tilth. Rake in the grass seed which, when it germinates, will form a sort of canvas on which any kind of picture can be painted. Then stand at each window of the house in turn, looking out and visualising what you would like to see. After this sit down with a catalogue and select trees and shrubs for colour, shape and form which will give pleasure as well as doing the job of screening. Mark these in with stakes and try to imagine what they will look like in ten or fifteen years time. This doesn’t come easily to some folk, but trying to see them in the mind’s eye is much better than having to shift them ten years later. In the meantime the grass is growing, there are no weed problems and an occasional run over with a rotary mower will keep your ‘canvas’ clean until you are ready to plant.
Having decided on the subjects and their location you can complete the scheme at leisure. Now that shrubs and trees are available in containers they can be bought singly and planted at any time of the year. Using this technique it does not matter if the job takes years to complete as there is nothing untoward or unsightly. There are no weeds to bother about and bulbs can be established if desired. Grassy paths can be pegged out and the whole job is a joy which can be taken up and dropped like a piece of knitting instead of carried out in a frantic rush in a few weeks with the subsequent problem of having to keep down weeds and cultivate the soil between shrubs for years.