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Groundcover: Careful prep yields great results

“Low maintenance!” That’s the clarion call I hear frequently from readers who contact me for ideas that will enhance their landscape without devouring hours of their valuable time.

There’s no doubt that a lush, green lawn can demand a lot of attention, either from you or a contract lawn service. More and more homeowners are turning to an alternative for at least part of their landscape: groundcovers.

Let me say that groundcovers aren’t just for the terminally lazy. There are some very strong benefits over and above saving time and labor.

Safety: Attempting to mow grass on a slope (particularly when using a ride-on mower) can be dangerous or even fatal. It isn’t worth dying for! Groundcover is (almost) a “set it and forget it” solution.

Problem areas: There are some places where regular grass just refuses to grow. But certain groundcovers thrive in awkward conditions such as shade, very moist or very dry environments. Why fight Nature? If a groundcover will live happily where grass simply dies, then go for it.

Landscape design: Use groundcovers to connect different parts of your landscape, either in straight lines or winding bands... or to frame a lawn for a separate, formal look.

Protecting tree roots: Groundcover planted around shallow-rooted trees can protect the roots from mower damage and can shade the soil to prevent it from drying out too rapidly. (Choose shallow-rooted groundcover plants to avoid competing with the tree roots.)

If you are planning to plant some groundcover this season, I have three words of advice about soil preparation: “Do It Now!”

Why? Because when it comes down to soil, it’s you or the weeds. And the weeds are probably tougher. Prep the soil and get the weeds out now before they have the chance to spread like... well, like weeds. I promise it will save you a lot of work later.

Depending on the area, you might want to rent a rotary tiller to turn the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches in open sites. In areas around trees, prepare the soil only to a depth of 2 to 3 inches to prevent disturbing the tree roots. As you know, as a general rule I prefer organic solutions to chemical ones. However, if you’re preparing an open area that is heavily weeded, you might need to treat the site with a pre-emergence herbicide such as Weed Impede, then wait a few weeks before plugging in the new plants.

The best defense against weeds overpowering your new groundcover (or any plant) is a healthy soil. I’m a strong proponent of organic solutions to weed and soil problems, and there are several relatively new organic products that I have been working with. I like earth-friendly techniques that restore the natural power of soil. If you’re interested, send me an e-mail, briefly describing your location, the specific situation and any particular problems you’re facing, and I’ll do my best to help you find a solution. As always you can reach me at [email protected]

If you really want to know the exact condition of your soil, you can take a sample and have a soil analysis performed. A good way to start looking for a soil testing lab is to call a local University and ask for the Agricultural Extension department. Again, drop me an e-mail if you’re still puzzled.

If you believe your soil could do with a dose of tonic but don’t want to have a soil analysis done, you can always take the middle ground and go for a basic commercial fertilizer such as a 5-10-5. You’ll need about 3 pounds for every 100 square feet. After you’ve tilled the weed-free soil, fork in the fertilizer, along with some organic material such as leaf mold, compost or well-rotted manure. Organic materials improve drainage in clay soils and improve water-holding capacity of sandy soils.

Again, I emphasize that proper prep at this stage will result in healthier soil, thriving groundcover, fewer weeds and (here it is, folks!) less work for you later on.

So... which groundcovers are right for your landscape? Trailing periwinkle or pachysandra? Ajuga reptans or English Ivy? In this column next time, I’ll discuss the benefits of several groundcovers and the situations in which they work best. But don’t wait. Beat the weeds and get started on site prep now!

The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] and for resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve’s free e-mailed newsletter, visit www.landsteward.org.