How To Fertilize And Water Groundcover Plants In The Landscape
Just as a spectacular area rug can add life and warmth to a room, the right groundcover plants can do the same to complement a landscape or garden, taking it from "nice yard" to a stunning landscape. Groundcovers are used as erosion controllers on slopes and embankments, to fill the spaces between shrubs, trees and other plants in landscape beds and islands, as a low border in front of taller plantings, and sometimes as a lawn grass substitute.

Here's a breakdown of what you need to know regarding feeding and watering groundcover plants:

Evaluate Soil Conditions 

Soil pH is Important!

While most groundcover plants will thrive in a wide range of soil pH, some, such as pachysandra, will prefer a more acidic soil. So, it's a good idea to know soil pH preferences for the groundcover plants you intend to plant. You find soil pH preferences listed on every groundcover plant page in Your local Extension Service might provide soil testing services or you can test soil yourself with a soil testing kit or soil pH testing probe.  

Keep in mind that construction and many other factors often result in soils that differ from one landscape to the next, and even from one area in a landscape to another. In other words, the soil in your front yard may be much different than the soil in your backyard. So it's a good idea to test soil pH in the different areas you intend on planting. 

Once you know the soil pH you can either look for groundcover that will grow well in it, or you can adjust the pH to meet the needs of specific plants.  

Soil pH is a measurement of the alkalinity or acidity of soil and is measured on a scale of 1-14, with 7 as the neutral mark. Any measurement below 7 indicates acid soil conditions, and anything above 7 indicates alkaline. 

If you're unsure about the pH of your soil, and whether or not it's suitable for growing the specific groundcover plants you intend to plant, it's a good idea to test the soil pH in the planting area. You can quickly test soil pH with a inexpensive soil test kit or pH tester probe. 

To raise the pH (make more alkaline) you can add pelletized limestone to the soil. To lower the pH (make more acid) you can apply Soil Sulfur, Aluminum Sulfate, or Chelated Iron. Adding organic compost to the soil or using compost as mulch can also help to increase acidity and maintain acid soil conditions.

How To Fertilize Groundcover Plants

What fertilizer is best for groundcover plants?

Most groundcovers can be fertilized with the same type of fertilizer as is typically used for shrubs and trees. Any shrub and tree fertilizer will work fine - preferably one containing a nutrient package which includes iron, sulfur, copper, manganese and more. Alternatively, you can use a non-burning natural or organic fertilizer. When applying a fertilizer always follow application instructions on the product label. 

Some groundcovers like acidic soil, such as Pachysandra, and therefore have a tendency to develop chlorosis (fading or yellow of foliage). If the leaves of your groundcover plants are turning light green to yellowish, and there is not a problem with wet soil around the roots, simply apply a granular or liquid solution of chelated iron as directed on the product label to correct the problem.

When to fertilize groundcover plants

The general rule of thumb is to fertilize ornamental groundcover plants after new growth emerges in spring, and again in late summer if needed. Many groundcover plants are fast growers, and therefore will benefit from two or three applications of fertilizer a year.

Note:  Cease feretilization of groundcover plants two months prior to the average first-frost date in your area. Late feeding can stimulate new growth that can be damaged by an early frost or freeze, compromising the overall health of your plants. 

Applying the fertilizer

At planting time, you can feed plants as directed on the product label individually as you go, or wait to fertilize all the plants at once after you've finished planting.

When groundcover plants cover a very large area, it may be necessary to broadcast fertilizer by hand, casting it as far as is possible over the planting. When the groundcover planting can be walked through, a hand-held or shoulder-type rotary spreader makes the job easier and spreads the fertilizer more uniformly.

After broadcasting fertilizer over your groundcovers, you should irrigate the plants to wash fertilizer from foliage and prevent any burning that may occur to new growth.

How To Water Groundcover Plants

Ground covers, like any other plants, vary in their moisture needs, depending on the type and age of the plant. Some require a consistently moist soil while others are more tolerant of dry conditions. Do some research to learn the soil moisture needs of the specific plants in your landscape. You'll find soil moisture preferences on every groundcover plant page in 

Soil texture and climate influence water needs as well. In general, however, most ground covers require regular water when young but may do very well with only occasional irrigation or with rainfall alone once they are mature and established.

Regardless the type of groundcover plant, at planting time you'll want to deep soak the soil in the planting area to a depth of at least 6 inches, or to the depth of the planting holes. An application of Root Stimulator will provide an extra boost to stimulate early root formation and stronger root development. Root Stimulator reduces transplant shock and promotes greener, more vigorous plants.

A hose-end sprinkler is often sufficient for applying water to small areas of ground cover. But for large areas or sloping sites that may be subject to erosion, you might want to consider installing a drip system, which is well suited to ground covers.

During a prolonged period of drought, wilting leaves or stems are a sure sign your plants could use a deep soaking.

Other Helpful Tips

  • Be careful not to apply fertilizer too heavily. Doing so may cause the plant tissue to burn, or even result in plant death. Read product labels carefully and follow directions to avoid toxicity problems.

  • If over-fertlilizing your plants is too much a worry, ease your mind by using a non-burning organic fertilizer. These alternative fertilizers are usually made with natural ingredients such as composted manures and other organic matter so are much less-likely to burn your plants.

  • Some groundcover plants, such as conifers and junipers, don't respond well to excessive nitrogen (the first number in fertilizer). In general, try to avoid using fertilizer that are high in nitrogen on any ornamental plants.

  • As a general rule, the slower the plants habit of growth, the less fertilizer it needs.

  • Groundcover plants that are producing an abundance of blooms, or fruit, generally need more fertilizer.

  • If a plant in your garden appears unhealthy or, is not actively growing, consult with your local arborist or reputable landscape contractor.