Sprawling, flopping, horizontal branches. Carpets, tufts, or flowing mounds. In my yard, groundcovers are as essential as trees and shrubs. Yet, our neighborhood is paved with gravel and river rock. You’d think we live in Phoenix, not Colorado Springs!
I get it—rocks are supposedly easier to manage—but are they? Sure, you can spray them with a herbicide, but you still have to remove the dead weeds afterward. To make that chore even more annoying, most of the landscapers in our area follow the HOA rules, which insist on landscape fabric under the rocks. This practice that makes no sense to me; the weeds will still grow, but they’ll be much harder to pull out with their roots enmeshed in the fabric!
Another reason landscapers and homeowners use rock mulches is their weight. The idea is that when the gully washers come, as they do every summer, the weight of the rocks will keep them from washing away. Except, our rains are so fast and furious at times, even large river rocks wind up down the street in the gutter.
I’ll take my living ground covers over rocks any day! For one thing, they have roots, so they’re much less likely to float off in a storm, especially once they’re well established. Yes, they do get some weeds embedded in their midst, but again, once they’ve filled in, they shade the ground, choking out germinating seeds. And any weeds that do sprout are easy to pull from the watered earth underneath the leaves.
Ground covers do much to mitigate temperature extremes. An expanse of foliage, such as a green lawn, cools the air on hot summer days, whereas rocks tend to hold the heat. Plants raise the humidity (that’s a good thing in Colorado). And in winter, those same plants hold the snow, trapping much-needed moisture.
Living plants benefit wildlife as well. Bees can’t gather nectar from a stone, and stones don’t produce a crop of edible berries, either.
A natural landscape has levels, or tiers, from the upper canopy, through an understory of tall and short shrubs, to the plants that hug the ground. Each level, including the lowest, provides a home for wildlife, but few critters make their homes under a layer of landscape fabric and rock mulch. I may be frustrated by the excessive numbers of rabbits and voles in our area, but I appreciate the other little creatures that creep along the ground, from snakes to native field mice. And I am thrilled that owls and other birds of prey consider our yard a good place to pounce on dinner!
All these are excellent reasons to plant ground covers, but the primary reason I love them so much is that they’re so pretty! Rocks don’t bloom—and they certainly don’t look like this:
Ground covers do exceptionally well in Colorado. Our dry climate prevents stems from rotting on the wet ground, and their low profile helps shelter them from desiccating winter winds. Many of our choices are broad-leaved evergreens, a category of plant severely lacking among the trees and shrubs.
Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata), the various low-growing speedwells (Veronica sp.), and Hardy Ice Plant (Delosperma) are three of my favorite ground covers, but there are dozens more to choose from. (I wrote about ice plant back in 2013, and I’ll be going into detail about speedwell and phlox in upcoming posts.)
You can have your rocks. I’ll take living, growing plants over gravel any day!
Plants, from top: Snow-on-the-Mountain (aka Bishop’s Weed, Aegopodium podagraria ‘variegatum‘), Hardy Ice Plant (Delosperma cooperi), Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata), Fire Spinner Hardy Ice Plant (Delosperma P0015 ‘Fire Spinner’), Turkish Speedwell (Veronica peduncularis ‘Georgia Blue’ ).