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When a lawn just isn't an option, ground covers can be the perfect solution.

Substitutes for Grass, and more

I'm no fan of grass. If I had my way, what passes for lawn now in our yard would either be converted into a garden or covered with plants other than grass. (Why have the chore of mowing a lawn when you could be doing something else?) I'm determined to eventually have my way.

Ground covers aren't just beautiful substitutes for grass. They can be used in many different locations and provide several benefits. They work well to unify different areas of your garden, or as an edging plant between bed and lawn. If you have a sloped area in your yard that is difficult to work on-especially to mow-then a ground cover is a fine low-care alternative. These types of plants are also great at reducing erosion and holding banks or inclines in place. Because many are shallow rooted, they will often grow under trees where grass or perennials won't take hold, and they also work well against buildings in areas where dry shade means other plants would do poorly.

One of the most pleasant ground covers is a wild plant that some think is a weed-moss. When I'm asked how to get moss out of lawns, my response is always "why bother?" Moss doesn't need mowing; it grows where the conditions are right, (heavy shade, where many other things don't want to grow) and you don't have to do anything to maintain it. You just enjoy it.

Site preparation and plant selection

Preparing an area for planting ground covers is similar to starting any new bed. Of course spring is the ideal time, but you can keep planting your ground covers until early fall. First, determine what the growing conditions are in the site and select ground covers that will work well in those conditions. There's no point in planting a shade and moisture-loving ground cover in a hot, dry site. Make sure that any weeds or grass are removed from the area and amend the soil with compost or well-rotted manure. If you're planting under trees or shrubs, you'll have to add soil and compost to give the ground cover a place to establish itself; pockets between tree roots are a good place to do this.

Consult with your nursery's staff to determine how many plants you'll need to cover the area. Some ground covers may have a great area of spread, but take a few years to establish themselves and cover well, in which case you're better off to plant a number of small plants. It's better to plant in staggered rows rather than straight, as you'll get better coverage from a similar number of plants. You'll also have a more natural look as the cover fills in.

Ongoing care

Once you've tucked your new plants into their home, you'll have to be diligent about weed control until the plants have spread enough to do their job as weed suppressors. Hand weeding works well, but you can also apply several inches of mulch around each plant, which will have the added benefits of holding moisture in the soil and keeping young roots cool as the plant settles into its new surroundings. You'll also probably have to keep watering the site until the plants take root; mother nature will most likely be able to take over at that time. Remember to water well, not often, as occasional deep soaks are far better than quick showers.

Great ground cover choices

Perennials

  • Bugleweed (Ajuga) This spreading, semi-evergreen perennial now has cultivars in a host of colours, including bicolours with shades of rose, bronze, chocolate, gold and cream. It can have blue or purple flowers. This plant can be invasive but easy to control.
  • Lady's mantle (Alchemilla) A favoured perennial because its unique scalloped leaves catch and hold water and its flowers are small but profuse froths of yellow-green. This plant self-seeds but it isn't problematic.
  • Rock cress (Arabis and Aubretia species) These perennials are easy to grow. They form mats of foliage smothered by four-petaled flowers in magenta, purple, pink or white in mid-spring.
  • Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) A good choice for acid soil, this native, low evergreen relative of blueberries produces edible fruit (though birds prefer it more than most humans).
  • Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) A beautiful ground cover to place under trees, with glossy evergreen leaves and curious small maroon flowers. If planted under trees, make sure to amend the soil well with compost and keep the area moist until ginger is established.
  • Crackerberry, bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) A lovely native with shining white flowers in late spring and orange, edible (though bland) berries in late summer.
  • Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) A lovely choice for shaded areas, with sweetly scented white flowers. The blue-flowered annual woodruff (Asperula orientalis), comes very easily from seed and is irresistible to butterflies.
  • Coral bells (Heuchera) Adored by breeders, who have developed dazzling foliage colours over the past few years. These are semi-evergreen although they dislike winter wet.
  • Hostas (Hosta, countless cultivars) Hostas make marvelous ground covers, especially for partly or fully-shaded sites, but there are also cultivars that can take a lot of sunlight. Their large leaves are very effective at shading out weeds or providing interesting growth at the foot of trees and shrubs.
  • Chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata) A good choice for alongside streams or other wet areas. Foliage is variegated in shades of cream, green, gold and rose-and fragrant to boot. They can apparently be invasive in some sites, but it hasn't become any sort of problem in my experience.
  • Lungwort, Bethlehem sage (Pulmonaria spp.) Though slow to establish, this low-growing perennial is highly effective at shading out weed seedlings. Many cultivars have silvery spangles or spots on their leaves. Flowers can be shades of blue, red or pure white.
  • Pachysandra (Pachysandra sp.) Be forewarned that these are slow growing they were too slow for my garden and I consigned them to the compost heap in favour of an ajuga. However the plant is attractive once established.
  • Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) This is a harbinger of spring in our region, as patches of lawn, rock gardens and flowerbeds erupt in a carpet of flowers in shades of purple, rose and cream. It likes well-drained, sandy soil that isn't overly fertile.
  • Sedum (Sedum spp.)  Some of the sedums are wonderful; they're evergreen and form wonderful weed-suppressing mats. Try 'Dragon's Blood' or 'Voodoo,' cherished for the rich red colour in their succulent leaves. One to watch out for is sedum acre, gold moss sedum, which can be invasive.
  • Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) Beloved of rock gardeners and often used in walkways, this plant is also good as a lawn substitute in smaller areas. Keep in mind that it dislikes excessive winter wet.

Shrubs

  • Rockspray cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) A slow-growing shrub with gleaming red berries and a sprawling spread of more than a metre.
  • Euonymus (various species) Evergreen shrubs, often featuring leaves variegated with gold or white, many producing interesting berries. Look for 'Canadale Gold,'  'Blondy,' or 'Sunspot.'
  • Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) These lovely evergreens come in a host of colourful cultivars, including several with blue-green foliage.
  • Ground cover roses Some low-growing roses are very hardy if planted in well-draining soil. Look for the Flower Carpet line, with single roses in various bright colours.

Overachievers

  • Some ground covers are overly enthusiastic in their territorial aspirations. Plant them with caution (or avoid them completely).
  • Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) This plant is also called ground elder, bishop's weed and snow-on-the-mountain-avoid it!
  • Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria) I've never had a problem with this spring-flowering perennial overgrowing its spot, but it's under spruce trees which may curb its growth.
  • Crown vetch (Coronilla) Often used to stabilize hilly areas and ditches, but a bit too zealous for the average garden or yard.
  • Deadnettle (Lamium) Older cultivars are more prone to being invasive than newer types. Yellow archangel (Lamiastrum) has a similar growth habit but I've never found it troublesome, and it's a great choice for shaded areas.

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