Using Ground Cover to Protect Soil

ground cover
Credit: Patrick Standish, FlickrCC

Think your landscaping is perfect? You’ve got thick, green grass, a flower bed that’s the envy of your neighborhood, and well-pruned bushes and shrubs. What about ground covers? A ground cover is a low, thick-growing plant that spreads over the soil in flower and shrubbery beds. Just as you wear a coat to protect yourself in the winter, your ground needs a cover to protect the soil and the environment. If you choose native plants for your groundcovers, you improve the air quality and ecosystems that protect wildlife.


ground cover
Credit: Lynette, FlickrCC

Soil erosion can be a big problem in areas where the landscape is rather steep. If you live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4 through 7, cool-season grasses, such as fescues, will protect the soil unless the area is wet and shady.  In warmer planting zones — 8 through 13 — warm-season grass works as a groundcover, depending on the bed location. Bahia, bentgrass, Bermuda, centipedegrass, and Zoysia grasses work for your warm-climate climate flowerbed.


Fill your flower and shrubbery beds with color! Your local nursery or garden store will have flowering ground covers from which to choose, that may include:

  • Bugleweed (ajuga) — thriving in shade, this plant absorbs excess water well, but it may become damaged by severe winters. Springtime blue flowers stand out among dark bronze leaves. (USDA zones 3-9).
  • Daylilies — typically a perennial, they thrive in a wide variety of soils. Although daylilies grow rather tall for ground cover, the colorful flowering plants do get the job done. (USDA zones 4-10).
  • English Ivy — a good winter groundcover for cold climates. Mulch or snow cover is crucial to protect the plant through severe cold seasons. Thorndale and baltica are popular varieties. (USDA zones 4-9).
  • Periwinkle — it’s shade-tolerant and spreads easily with solid root systems. Light-blue flowers bloom in early spring, but the plant’s dark-green foliage is attractive, too. (USDA zones 4-9).


ground cover
Credt: Patrick Standish, FlickrCC

The best evergreen plants for ground cover depend on location, but these are good ones to consider:

  • Angelina stonecrop — with cultivars such as chocolate crop and autumn joy, these succulents are drought-resistant and eye-catching. (USDA zones 3-11).
  • Creeping phlox — spreads over time with spring blooms of white, blue, pink, red, lavender, and purple. Creeping phlox can handle dry soil but prefers moist dirt. It does well on a hillside and is good for erosion control. (USDA zones 3-9).
  • Creeping thyme — some types of this ground cover, such as the Archer’s Gold cultivar, are evergreen. With sweet-smelling leaves and tiny purplish-pink flowers, Creeping thyme prefers dry, well-draining soil. (USDA zones 5-8).
  • Spotted dead nettle — also called orchid frost, this evergreen groundcover thrives in dry shade. Pink blooms will peek out of the green foliage. (USDA zones 4-8).


ground cover
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Choosing the right ground cover depends on your soil pH, which is the measurement of alkalinity and acidity. Test the soil first before adding any type of ground cover, shrubbery, flowers, or trees. Most plants thrive in soil near the neutral mark of 7.0.


Ground covers protect sloping landscapes in front and backyards. Steep slopes provide paths for water runoff, which weakens soil. Without a top layer of mulch or greenery to absorb excess rain (and snow), pockets of water seep into the dirt. That leads to erosion. Sandy soils float away easier than heavier ones like clay, but in any case, too much water may damage the land base, especially near a building.  Adding mulch, ground cover, and/or topsoil around a slope will help to keep the ground stable.

Mulch Vs. Ground Cover

Mulching will protect your soil, but there are a few things to consider. You must clean out the wood chips and repeat the process every year, and that gets expensive. Rain and snow can also wash mulch away. On the upside, mulch keeps the ground cool, retains moisture, adds nutrients, keeps weeds at bay … and it looks nice.

Ground cover can be expensive to install, and if plants die, that leaves a hole in the design. But, ground cover is low maintenance, clears the air, smothers weeds, keeps the ground cool, curtails erosion, and enhances the beauty of the surrounding trees and shrubs.

Either way, when you protect the soil, you also protect our waterways by keeping soil and fertilizer from running off into them.

Teri Silver is a journalist and outdoor enthusiast who spends her weekends mowing her 5-acre lawn and tending to her garden. She’s an avid do-it-yourselfer who refurbishes anything she can get her hands on.