How To Space And Plant Groundcover Plants
Thinking about an alternative to mulch? Need to control erosion on a slope or fill the spaces or gaps between stones or pavers or the other taller growing plants and trees in your landscape? Groundcover plants are your answer. Not only do they replace the need for mulch and fill space, they tie all the other plants and structures in the landscape together. Groundcover plants are a big part of what makes a great landscape look great!

Typically, groundcover plants are low-growing plants with a spreading, trailing or mat-forming growth habit, which serves well to cover the ground with foliage. They are most useful to fill spaces between large plants in landscape and garden beds, as an alternative to lawn grass under large trees and in other areas where grass will not grow, on slopes or steep embankments for erosion control, between spaced stepping stones and pavers, and sometimes even as a lawn substitute. 

Landscape designers use groundcover plants extensively in landscape designs as a way to tie all other plantings together...improving the overall look of the landscape or garden, and as an economical replacement for mulch that will also suppress weed growth. You can think of them as living mulch!

Since many groundcover plants are trailing or sprawling they are also useful to spill over the edges of walls or boulders. A few, such as creeping fig and some varieties of euonymus and ivy will climb walls and other upright structures using aerial roots to attach to porous surfaces.

Selecting Groundcover Plants

The type or variety of groundcover plant you choose for a certain application is important. Before selecting a groundcover do a little research on the various types of plants to make sure and match the right plant to the specific environment. For instance, in smaller spaces, such as a narrow space between a walkway and a wall, you don't want to plant a fast-spreading groundcover plant such as Vinca major, commonly known as Evergreen Periwinkle. Otherwise, you'll end up having to edge the plant's vines weekly to keep them from spreading all over your walkway. Instead, for a confined space, you might select an upright, non-spreading groundcover plant, such as Liriope (monkey grass), which spreads by underground roots to form a patch or clump that will not spread over lawns, walkways, patios, driveways or other surface areas. Sun, shade, soil moisture requirements, and size are other considerations.

Certain groundcovers, such as low-growing, spreading junipers, are perfect for use on sunny slopes or embankments, or in the foreground in shrub borders. Groundcover plants such as ivy, vinca, Asian jasmine, and euonymus are perfect for use under large trees where lawn grasses won't grow. Low growing creepers such as creeping jenny, blue star creeper and dwarf mondo grass are perfect to fill the spaces or gaps between stepping stones and pavers or as an under-planting for shrubs, roses or small trees.

TIP: To research and find just the right groundcover to meet your needs, visit the Groundcover Homepage here in Wilson Bros Gardens. 

Step-By-Step Planting Instructions

The planting instructions below provide tips for planting various types of groundcover plants in groupings or massed. Most of the groundcover plants you'll find here in Wilson Bros Gardens are easy to grow when planted right and in the right spot. 

Here's a breakdown of what you need to know...


Various types of groundcovers will have different soil preferences. Under the Description tab on every groundcover plant page in Wilson Bros Gardens you'll find specific soil preferences. Soil drainage is always very important. 

How To Test Soil Drainage  If you are uncertain about soil drainage in the area you intend to plant, it's well worth taking the time to test the drainage before planting. To test soil drainage, dig a hole 12" wide by 12" deep in the planting area. Fill the hole with water and let it drain. Then, after it drains, fill it with water again, but this time clock how long it takes to drain. In well-drained soil the water level will go down at a rate of about 1 inch an hour. A faster rate, such as in loose, sandy soil, may signal potentially dry site conditions. A slower rate indicates poor draining soil and is a caution you might need to improve drainage if the groundcover plant your planting requires a well-drained soil.

Soil pH

Various types of groundcover plants will have different soil pH preferences. Under the Description tab on every groundcover plant page in Wilson Bros Gardens you'll find specific soil pH preferences. 

How To Test Soil pH  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 Juniper, it's a good idea to test the soil pH in the planting area. You can quickly test soil pH with an inexpensive soil 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.

Light Needs

Various types of groundcover plants will have different light needs. Under the Description tab on every groundcover plant page in Wilson Bros Gardens you'll find specific light needs. 

Site Preparation

Weed Elimination

Before planting groundcover plants in a grouping or in mass, eliminate existing weeds or grasses in the planting area. You can pull weeds by hand or spray them with a solution of glyphosate-based weed killer. Allow at least two hours after spraying a glyphosate-based product before you begin planting. Before using any chemical read the label mixing and application instructions. 

Soil Preparation

Tilling the soil in the planting area is optional. There are several reason I usually don't recommend it. Tilling on sloped ground loosens soil making it more susceptible to erosion in the event there comes heavy rainfall. Tilling can also bring buried dormant weeds seeds to the surface. Too, freshly tilled ground is a perfect environment for weed seeds to sprout that blow in with the wind. If you do decide to till, I recommend the application of a landscape weed preventer to the soil surface. 

Important: If you are planting groundcover plants under established  trees be aware that tilling can cause serious damage to tree roots which can effect the health of the tree. The feeder roots of trees can often extend well beyond the perimeter of the canopy.

How many plants?

If you are planting your groundcover plants in mass over a large area, to determine how many plants you will need to fill the area, it is often necessary to determine total square feet of the planting area. Once you have the square footage, then you can determine how far apart you will space plants in the planting area. (Under the description tab on every plant page in Wilson Bros Gardens you will find a spacing recommendation.) 

Click on the links below to get helpful tips.

Step-By-Step Planting Instructions

Step 1

Set and space all plants out in the planting area before starting to plant. Alternatively, you can use marking paint to mark the spot where each plant will go, which is often necessary when planting on steep slopes where plants in containers will not stay put. If there will be more than one row of plants, begin by setting out or marking one straight row of plants. It's best to start along the edge of a bed making sure to space plants at a distance far enough from the edge of the planting bed to allow for future spreading. For example, plants with a recommended spacing of 24" apart should be spaced at a distance of 12" from the edge of the bed (or surfaced area) to the center of the plant. After setting out the first row, stagger the plants on the second row and so on until the space is filled.

Step 2

Dig your planting holes at least two to three times as wide and no deeper than the rootball. The wider the hole the better. Place native soil removed from planting hole around the perimeter of the hole, in a wheel barrow, or on a tarp.

Step 3

Depending on the type, fertility and porosity of the soil in the planting area, and the soil needs of the groundcover plant type you are planting, you might need to amend the native soil. When planting in dense clay or poor soils it is often beneficial to thoroughly mix in some bagged top soil, sand, and/or a good planting mix at a 50/50 ratio with the soil removed from the planting hole. When planting in very sandy, quick-draining soil you might want to consider mixing in some top soil, peat moss and/or compost to help retain some moisture. When planting in fertile, loamy, well-drained soil there is no need for adding a soil amendment.

Step 4

Very gently lift and remove a plant from it from its container. If the root ball is stuck in the container either cut the container away or place the plant on it's side and gently pound on the side of the container to loosen the root ball. After having removed the plant from the container, loosen some feeder roots around the surface of the root ball. If your plant is root bound, use a stream of water from the garden hose to remove some of the soil from the side and bottom surface of the root ball. This should help to expose and loosen some feeder roots.

Step 5

Set your plant in the planting hole so that the top edge of the rootball is at or slightly above ground level. If necessary, add some backfill soil mixture to the bottom of the planting hole to achieve proper planting height. 

Step 6

After setting your -plant in the planting hole, use one hand to hold the plant straight and your other hand to begin back-filling your soil mixture around the root ball, tamping as you go to remove air pockets. When you have filled the hole to the halfway point you can soak the soil. Then continue back-filling to the top edge of the root ball. If you are planting on a slope tilt the root ball so that its top is at the same angle as the slope. To avoid suffocating your plant, do not put any soil on top of the root ball.

Step 7

Next, deeply water the planting area, including the root balls of each plant, to a depth equal to the height of the root ball. For an extra boost, you can also water your newly planted groundcover plants with a solution of Root Stimulator, which stimulates early root formation and stronger root development. Root Stimulator reduces plant shock and promotes greener, more vigorous plants.

Step 8

Apply a 1 to 2" layer of aged, shredded or chipped wood mulch or pine straw around the planting area to conserve moisture and to suppress weed growth. Do not use freshly chipped or shredded wood for mulch until it has cured in a pile for at least 6 months, a year is better. Avoid placing or piling mulch directly against the base of your plant as this could cause the bark to rot.

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