Ground cover plants can be used instead of mulch, although you can also combine the two for a healthier and better-looking garden. No matter if you want to use ground cover instead of mulch for your vegetable garden or for your flower beds you have to make sure to pick the right kind of ground cover plants for your area. Ground cover plants tend to grow relatively fast, and some of them might be invasive in your area.
You can use ground cover plants instead of mulch, as ground cover plants do have for the most part the same benefits as mulches do, they are excellent at retaining water, suppressing weeds and some of them are also nitrogen fixers. On the other hand, it will take a couple of years until these ground cover plants are established and provide benefits to the soil. You can use both ground cover plants with organic mulches like hay, grass, and wood chips, this way the mulch will protect the soil until the ground cover plants are established.
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Ground cover plants have a similar function to mulch in the garden, they not only protect the soil and retain water but are also able to suppress weeds out almost entirely. If you are into permaculture and you want to use ground cover plants instead of mulch then my recommendation is to focus on ground cover plants that are edible. For example, I am growing strawberries as a groundcover for my blueberries.
There are two things on which you have to keep an eye out when it comes to ground covers, make sure that they can be grown in your area and they do not grow taller than the plants for which you are using the ground cover as mulch. If you want to know what are the best mulches for your vegetable garden then check out my recent article Best Mulch For Vegetable Garden ( Top 10 Mulches ).
Ground Cover Plants Take Some Time To Establish
If you need a relatively fast-acting mulch then you should use wood chips instead of ground cover plants. Although ground cover plants do grow relatively fast but it mostly depends on how large of an area you want to cover with them. For example, the Canadian Anemone (Anemone Canadensis) will be able to grow a couple of feet wide once it is established, but it takes around one year for this to happen. If you have wet areas in your garden then check out my recent article Best Mulch For Wet Areas ( Top 3 Mulches ).
Ground Cover Plants Hardiness Zones
Hardiness zones are areas that take into consideration the local geography and climate which determines what kind of plants can be grown in that specific area. The good news is that with a quick google search you can find what the hardiness zone in your area is and what kind of ground cover plants can be grown in the area. So make sure to check which ground cover plants can be grown in your area before committing to one specific ground cover, ideally, you should test out a couple of them and see which ones are doing the best. If you want to know how to mulch with newspaper then check out my recent article Mulching With Newspaper ( In 6 Easy Steps ).
Ground Cover Plants In Full Sun Or Shade
When you are using a mulch like wood chips for example it doesn’t really matter if you use it in an area with full sun or with shade. On the other hand, some ground cover plants will need full sun or shade. Make sure to check the location where you want to use the ground cover and use shade-loving ground cover plants if the area is in the shade and sun-loving ground cover plants for areas with full sun.
Nitrogen Fixing Ground Cover Plants
There are some excellent ground cover plants that are nitrogen fixers, which simply means that these plants with the help of bacteria are able to absorb nitrogen from the air and transport it back down into the soil, thus fixing nitrogen. Nitrogen fixer plants are excellent if you have a relatively large garden, but they are also useful if you grow them in your flower beds. The best nitrogen-fixing cover plants are Field Pea, Crimson Clover, Cowpea, and Berseem Clover.
These nitrogen-fixing plants have the capability to fertilize the soil, although depending on what kind of plants you want to grow you might notice that in some areas the nitrogen levels are too high. Organic mulches on the other hand do not have the capability to absorb nitrogen from the air and transport it to the ground, so ground cover plants are definitely the way to go instead of mulching in these areas.
Ground Cover Plants Are Better At Suppressing Weeds Than Mulch Are
Mulches for the most part do a relatively good job at suppressing weeds, although you will need to add a new layer of mulch from time to time. Ground cover plants, on the other hand, are extremely good at suppressing weeds even in the long run as they will simply out-compete them. Most weed seeds need direct sunlight in order to germinate and sprout, and the ground cover plants will not allow direct sunlight to come in contact with the soil, especially once they are established.
Ground Cover Plants Are Better At Retaining Water Than Mulches Are
For the most part living plants do retain more water than decaying plant matter like organic mulches. The more densely packed the groundcover is the more water it will be able to retain, this added moisture to the topsoil is not only beneficial for the plants but for the microorganisms and bugs that live in the soil. One of my favorite ground cover plants that is excellent at retaining water is the Creeping Phlox (Phlox Subulata).
Ground Cover Plants Do Need Some Maintenance
As with all ground covers you will need to do some maintenance, most ground cover plants will start growing as weeds once they are established. If you do not have the time to stay on top of the ground cover plants so that they do not grow all over the place then you should stick to some organic mulches like grass clippings or wood chips. The good news is that some ground cover plants like clovers can be grown instead of a grass lawn.
Using Ground Cover Plants With Mulch
Mulches and groundcover plants have different benefits to your plants and topsoil, most groundcover plants can be also grown in mulch. My personal recommendation is to use wood chips mulch and also plant some ground cover plants. It takes some time until the groundcover plants get established until then the mulch can protect the soil and retain moisture which is not only beneficial for your plants but for the groundcover plants as well.
Ground Cover Plants Can Be Invasive In Some Areas
You have to be very careful when choosing what kind of plants you will use as ground cover. Some ground cover plants are considered invasive in some areas so make sure that they are not considered invasive in your area. Generally speaking, you should stay away from these invasive ground cover plants like English Ivy, Evening Primrose, Chameleon Plant, Bugleweed, and Goutweed.
As you can see, ground cover plants are superior to mulches, although they do have their own cons as well. The main problem with ground cover plants is that it will take at least one year until these plants are established and start spreading around your garden. Until then you should definitely use mulch, and once the ground cover is established you will no longer need to use mulch.