Ground covers are more varied than many people realize. They range from the many plants that we call ground covers to inorganic materials that play a similar role. But in most situations, you want to cover bare soil either for practical or aesthetic reasons.
Choosing the best ground cover can be a real challenge. Both organic and inorganic ground covers have use and real value. The best for you will depend entirely on your needs.
What are ground covers?
Ground covers are literally anything we use to cover the ground. Grass is the best-known ground cover, but there are also many different types of plants we refer to as ground cover.
But ground cover can also be some type of mulch or a hardscaping material, paving slabs, or patio blocks for example. The ground cover you choose to use in your own outdoor environment will depend primarily on the function you want it to fulfill.
So, we’re going to start out by looking at different types of mulches. Then we’ll compare the various ground cover options, which include organic, inorganic, and living materials.
What is the difference between organic mulch and inorganic mulch?
Mulch is a material that we place directly onto soil surfaces. As such, you can regard it as a type of ground cover.
Most types of mulch are derived from plant materials or living things and are organic. Other types are man-made and are not derived from plants or any type of animal.
Organic mulches include sawdust, wood chips, shredded bark, hay, straw, pine needles, dried leaves, grass clippings, and even compost. Inorganic mulches are usually regarded as permanent and include rock, stone chips, gravel, and shredded rubber mulch.
Different types of mulch may be used aesthetically, by covering up the bare ground around plants. But they also have other functions.
What is the Function of Mulch?
All types of mulch will block weeds, regardless of whether they are inorganic or organic. This is because they block sunlight from getting to any germinating weed seeds.
Different types of mulch limit the amount of water that evaporates from the soil. They may also be used to help control the temperature of the soil, which is useful when temperatures are either extremely hot or extremely cold.
Whether you use organic mulch or inorganic mulch, ideally it won’t compact easily. You don’t want any sort of mulch to prevent the movement of air or penetration of water into the soil.
Sometimes people lay some kind of landscape fabric on the ground and then mulch over this. They believe that this will help to reduce weed growth.
But, as J.E. Klett, a landscape horticulturist, and professor at Colorado State University Extension say, this isn’t necessary. Provided it is applied correctly, mulch doesn’t need anything between it and the soil.
In fact, he says, it can be damaging to soil and plant health. That said, landscape fabric is valuable under mulch if rock mulch is used, and many people use it under recycled rubber mulch.
Basics of Organic Mulch
We don’t use a mulch to amend or improve the soil. Unlike the functions of mulch, soil amendments are designed to improve or alter the property of the soil and, in a way, improve plant growth.
The reality is that because they were living in some form in the past, organic mulches will decompose naturally over time. As this happens, the mulch settles and the layer thickness decreases.
Eventually, weeds are likely to grow again. A good rule of thumb is that when the depth of your mulch is below two inches, you should top it up.
This indicates that most types of organic mulch are relatively temporary. If your plants are annuals, you can easily turn what’s left of the mulch into the soil instead of topping it up.
Basics of Inorganic Mulch
Inorganic mulches, like inorganic fertilizers, which are manufactured from synthetic chemicals or minerals, have never been alive. This means their nutrient content is nil, but they won’t settle and decompose.
Inorganic mulch is also very durable, which, in many environments, is a great advantage.
What is the best organic ground cover?
Is your mulch organic? If so, and you are using mulch, we have already talked about the options.
So, what is the best ground cover apart from organic mulch? Again, it depends so much on your environment and your needs.
For example, if you want to control soil erosion on steep banks, there are some great low-growing plants that will do the job. Even though the grass is a common ground cover, in this situation, it may be difficult to mow and may get out of and.
There are also some lovely ground cover plants that you can use in the shade under trees and shrubs. They don’t need to be moved like lawns, and they won’t compete with trees and shrubs.
If planting under trees, choose ground-cover plants that don’t need a lot of sunlight, moisture, or nutrients. A caveat is to avoid species that will become invasive, like the (Hedera species) and periwinkle (Vinca minor).
In other locations, choose ground cover plants that work with the other plants in the bed. In a vegetable garden, for instance, you don’t want to plant a ground cover that will suck out nutrients or take up space that the veggies need.
In non-productive vegetable gardens, it may be better to plant cover crops rather than leave the soil bare. Farmers often plant cover crops to improve the soil quality, eliminate pests and weeds, and manage soil erosion. We can copy the idea in our own gardens on a smaller scale.
What is the best inorganic ground cover
Inorganic ground cover can be equated with inorganic mulch.
Some types of inorganic mulch, like crushed stone or gravel, can be used as a landscaping tool. For instance, you can use it to cover and hide bare soil or fill between paving slabs.
Pea gravel will improve the infiltration of water into the soil. Gravel mulch is a better choice when you need to transfer heat to the underlying soil.
You can also pave areas or combine paving slabs with gravel or a planted ground cover.
When we are faced with bare soil or, worse still, soil erosion, we usually realize that we need to introduce some sort of ground cover. But, it’s also important to realize that ground covers will play an important role in terms of maintaining the temperature, water levels, and a host of other soil conditions.
Ultimately, you have more ground cover options than you might recognize. Consider all those we have mentioned being sure you get the best out of your ground cover investment.