Ground-Covering Herbs

Useful plants for problem areas in your garden.

| June/July 1997

A diversity of plant material and the ­visual interest of a well-­designed herb garden or ­border are appealing, and a well-groomed lawn can be an impressive sight, but in some parts of the landscape, the high maintenance of these plantings is a drawback. Ground covers—relatively low-growing plants that are aggressive enough to eat up some territory and keep weeds at bay—can be the solution. Ground covers may be used to carpet areas surrounding a formal ­garden; cover steep banks that would require a lawn mower to defy the laws of gravity; fill areas too shady, wet, or arid for other plants, or naturalize areas that would otherwise be difficult to maintain. Many perennial herbs are among the hundreds of plants that can serve as ground covers. Many of these are not only problem solvers but beautiful plants in their own right.

Getting grounded

When I develop a vision for landscaping an area, I want to get my hands on some plants immediately, but I’ve learned to restrain myself and deal first with site preparation. Omitting this essential step can lead to a planting that’s overrun with grass and weeds. If the site is currently part of your lawn, the lawn has to go. If the turf is in good condition, you may want to rent a sod cutter to strip off the sod and then use the sod to fill in thin spots in another part of the yard. Then turn over the soil with a rototiller or by hand as you would for any herb garden. If the lawn is in poor condition, proceed directly with the tiller or shovel. If you’re willing to wait all summer, you can smother or cook the existing vegetation by covering the area with heavy-duty black or clear plastic for a few months. Pin down the edges with 6-inch U-shaped anchoring pins purchased at a garden center or improvised from pieces of coat hanger. You can also use a nonselective herbicide such as glyphosate (one brand name is Round-Up) to kill all existing vegetation. Follow label directions. Whether you use plastic or weed killer, you’ll still need to till the soil afterward.

Slopes can be a challenge to clear. Last spring, I attacked a steep bank covered with a scattering of grasses, assorted broadleaf weeds, and the semirotted stumps of small privet and hackberry trees that a previous owner had cut down. Chopping the stumps out with a mattock proved effective but arduous and eroded some places on the bank. When I went at the grass and weeds, first with a trowel, then a hoe, then my hands, the stolons of Bermuda grass and the taproots of dandelions broke off; I knew they’d be back. My ankles got cramped as I knelt on the slope with my toes dug in to keep me from sliding; my toes fell asleep. I finally resorted to my sprayer. I ended up with a lovely bank of ground cover and received lots of compliments (but I wouldn’t want to do it again anytime soon) .

Don’t take shortcuts with your soil preparation. You want your ground cover to get established quickly, spread out optimally, and be a long-term addition to your landscape. When you do it depends on your climate and your schedule, but early spring or fall is best if the weather is agreeable and the soil is not too wet to work.

A soil test can tell you whether you need to add lime or sulfur to adjust your soil’s pH and how much to use. The addition of compost and other organic materials will improve both clay and sandy soils and in fact is a good idea for any soil but muck. Choosing plants well suited to the kind of soil you already have is the best way to ensure a successful planting.

Incorporate the amendments by hand or with a tiller. On steep banks, mixing in the soil manually will help minimize erosion. It’s tempting to ­prepare only the area where a plant is to be placed rather than an entire bed, but this won’t work for plants that spread by creeping or rooting at the branch tips.

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