I’m a lawn guy, so naturally, my thoughts turn to grass when someone mentions “ground cover.” But that isn’t the only option. There are plenty of other options of living ground covers you could opt for your in yard: from overseeding some clover into your lawn all the way to including larger sections of ivy, hostas, vinca or even wild strawberries into the design.
But what about inorganic ground cover? The use of wood mulch or pavers or crushed stone are legitimate ways to spruce up your yard, and they’re great ways to cut back on the use of fertilizer and water.
Around the Good Sweet Earth homestead, we’ve opted for a couple alternative ground covers to make things a little more interesting: A large country garden filled in with red mulch in our front yard, and in the immediate are around our fire pit we’ve got crushed limestone, with more red mulch framing it in. The contrast between the green and red and white in these areas is beautiful in the summer.
Using areas of non-living ground cover allow homeowners to create spaces of color, interesting patterns and textural and color contrasts. The red mulch we’ve placed in a fan-shape around our fire pit is a stunning contrast with the green grass in the summer. Same goes for the country garden in the front yard. Those areas also mean less grass to maintain, while keeping weeds to a minimum.
So when deciding whether to go with a living or non-living ground cover, you should consider both design and function.
For design: Non-living ground covers can help unify your landscape, just like plants can, while creating a nice contrast between spaces. Consider the lines you’ll create with non-living materials, and how it draws the eye around your yard. The fan-shaped area of mulch in our yard leading up to the fire pit sets the fire pit area as a focal point. Also, putting pavers in can definitely create eye movement around your yard, especially when installed as a pathway.
For function: Consider foot traffic. Non-living ground covers do well in high-traffic areas. They can also help guide traffic (paver paths, for instance). A nice alternative to grass or plant would be square stepping stones surrounded by similarly-colored gravel; you could do something like this leading out to your garage or play area to cut back on grass upkeep, as well as keeping foot traffic off of the lawn itself.
So once you’ve decided to add some non-living ground cover to your yard, do you go with organic (wood mulch) or inorganic material (stones)?
Cost is one factor to consider. Stone materials cost more upfront, but it’s often a one-time cost. Woody materials cost less, but they’ll break down over time and you’ll need to buy more in a year or two.
Location is another thing to consider. When putting a non-living ground cover right next to your house rocks will provide a less-hospitable living space for pests that may ultimately invade your home. A woody mulch that stays cool and damp often becomes home to little critters (like millipedes, earwigs, spiders), and they could make their way into your house, especially as the weather cools in the fall.
Finally, when using non-living ground covers, try to find colors and textures that complement each other overall, and work well with your existing plants and style. Don’t mix things up too much—stick with one color mulch throughout your yard, stick with one type and color of stone throughout your yard, etc. Non-living ground covers are a great way to add areas of interest throughout your yard (and break up large chunks of greenspace), but they’re also good for the environment, as you’ll have less turf to water, fertilize and mow.
Steve & Corey Veldheer are organic yard & garden specialists in west Michigan.