Don’t get us wrong. We love mulches of all sorts. But one kind of mulch we’ve seen too much of is beauty bark. You know what we’re talking about. That chipped or shredded bark often bought in bags, sometimes sold in bulk, that’s used to cover bare ground around trees, in various landscape beds, and other open space. It’s become a suburban American cliche.
The stuff can often be attractive, sure; and give off a delicate scent, especially if it contains cedar. It does what mulch is supposed to do: keep down weeds, slow moisture evaporation, prevent runoff from heavy rain. And it does break down and add organic matter to your soil. But it doesn’t necessarily do these things as effectively as other mulches. Weeds can often find a way through chunks of bark and the acidic nature of most barks means you’ll have to monitor and adjust soil pH for the plants around it. And beauty bark is expensive, unless you live near a sawmill and can get it for free. And it needs replacing from time to time. The biggest argument we have against beauty bark? It doesn’t flower.
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You can probably see where we’re going with this. Well-chosen living ground covers will protect bare soil, smother weeds, and give you something pretty to look at. If you have a wide-sloping hillside that’s in full sun or lightly shaded, why not plant some kinnikinnick? It’s bright leaves and seasonal flowers followed by bright red berries will reward you with a varied background for whatever grows near and above it. It’s particularly suited for the slightly acidic soil of the Pacific Northwest but it doesn’t need a lot of moisture and will grow as far south as high and dry New Mexico. Once in the ground and established, it needs little care.
One of our favorite perennial ground covers, and certainly more delicate than kinnikinnick, is creeping thyme. It’s good in small areas, like between stepping stones, and it too doesn’t need much water. But it does like cooler temperatures. Thyme will reward you not only with its beauty — those delicate little flowers! — but also with its characteristic fragrance. Some landscapers even use it to replace water-thirsty grass in their lawns.
Another favorite with those trying to save water is creeping juniper. Juniper shrubs will grow a foot high and spread some eight feet. Best of all it’s hardy and grows in all but the coldest and warmest zones. Different varieties carry different colors: various shades of green as well as blue-green and silver-gray. If you find gray attractive (we think of it as a kind of silver), consider lambs ear. Its white leaves and foot-tall stalks bear small purple flowers that will attract bees (another thing that beauty bark doesn’t do). Other plants that make beautiful ground covers: sweet woodruff (good in shaded areas), Japanese spurge (makes a nice accent), and Scotch moss (will self-seed once established).
Whatever ground cover you choose, be sure to consider how it will fit in with the rest of your landscape. Ground covers can serve as visual pathways by connecting various plantings in your yard. Consider the kind of maintenance the vegetation that your ground covers will border and try to match them for moisture and soil conditions. For example, kinnikinnick is a good choice beneath and around pines because they both like the same soil acidity and watering conditions.
Be sure to plan access to plants that require frequent maintenance. Pathways can often be the most interesting part of a landscape design while providing a natural division between different growing areas. Don’t be afraid to weave various types of ground covers together. This takes some vision. You’ll need to allow enough room for the various ground covers to grow into without leaving too much space between them (or overcrowding, a common mistake among ground cover gardeners). Tall covers go in back, covers lower to the ground go in front. While you’re waiting for your ground cover to fill in its available growing space? Maybe you’ll want to use up that left over bag of beauty bark you have in the garage.