Ground covers are the secret weapon in your landscaping arsenal. By definition, they are no more complicated than they sound--plants that act to cover the soil on a piece of ground. Ground covers come in many forms, but usually feature a dense mat of spreading growth. The types of ground cover can vary widely--from the grassy lawns of home landscapes to the thick vines that cover shady forested areas--and their many uses may provide the solution for which you have been searching.
Ground covers can be used to cover unsightly areas and to fill in spots where other plants are unable to grow or thrive. They are particularly useful beneath trees, where shade, roots and competition act against the growth potential of most other plants. Plants such as thyme can stand up to use in walkways, while wintercreeper may be used to anchor soil on slopes. The University of Colorado suggests ground covers for strategic use to link beds or groupings of ornamental plants.
Choose a plant that fits your personal needs in addition to the features of the site. Some require frequent fertilizing, watering and weeding, while others are relatively maintenance-free and self-sustaining. Ground covers can be chosen for their appearance as well as their function. Their forms vary from the small flowers of candytuft to the large, textured foliage of hostas. They may be delicate and showy or woody and dramatic.
As with all plants, it is important to match the ground cover to the conditions present in the area in which you plan to use it. Even though many ground covers can tolerate extremes--from a lack of water to standing water, full sun to deep shade--not every plant can adapt to all environments. Factors to consider in selecting a ground cover include the amount of sunlight the area will receive, the amount of moisture present, the type of soil and how the ground cover will interact with other plants in the area.
According to the University of Missouri Extension, it is also important to take into account the potential use of the area before choosing a ground cover. Permanent ground covers, such as grass, are hardy and useful for locations where the plants need to withstand foot traffic. In beds where ornamental plants are the main feature, a ground cover that will not compete for space or nutrients would be better suited.
Care must be taken with potentially invasive ground covers. These can continue to expand and compromise the space and health of other plants. Honeysuckle can choke the growth of trees, while ivy can damage mortar and bricks. Once established, the growth of these plants can be difficult to check.