Nothing can beat the rich flavor of homegrown vegetables, but growing your own vegetables means you have to introduce strategies to keep your garden thriving. Ground covers are a common term in landscape gardening, but they are equally important for the vegetable garden.
Organic and inorganic ground covers are used to reduce weed growth, keep warmth in the ground, and build soil structures. They can also be used in garden aesthetics design to create interest and texture.
They outweigh traditional mulching techniques for mature plants as they will eventually reduce the work needed to maintain the vegetable garden. Choosing the right ground cover can do more than covering the bare spots in your garden. It will conserve moisture in the soil, shade the soil to keep it cool, suppress weeds, minimize soil erosion and enhance soil structure.
In other words, ground covers create earth and plant-friendly growing environment to make life easier for the gardener. But there are so many different forms, which one is correct to use? This article will cover all that in more detail.
For vegetable gardens, you have to mostly cover the space in between plants or the open soil. This reduces the compaction of walkways in your vegetable garden.
Covering the soil surface prevents the vegetables from being splashed during heavy rainfall, and it also minimizes frost damage. Make sure you remove the winter ground cover in spring when new growth sprouts.
There are two categories of ground covers; organic and inorganic. Each category has its own pros and cons, but we are covering options from both in this article. Let’s get started, and you might find the perfect ground cover for your vegetables today!
Organic Ground Covers
Organic ground covers will encourage the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the soil, which helps your plants resist root rot. These will decompose over time and create a rich layer of topsoil. Anything that was or is alive counts as organic ground cover. Some of the examples are shared below.
Straw or Grass Clippings as Ground Covers
Using these will reduce landfill waste and protect plants from extreme summer and winter temperatures by regulating soil temperature.
Straw is a lightweight material that can be applied easily. You can cover a large patch of your garden within a small budget using straw clippings.
Straw clippings should be used for vining vegetable crops. You can leave the straw clippings on the soil at the end of the growing season to let them decompose naturally. Some gardeners prefer collecting and adding them to the compost.
Straw should not be confused for hay; otherwise, you will end up introducing some kind of weeds in your garden. You can definitely use weed-free hay in your vegetable garden.
Avoid using hay clippings for winter protection because it prevents the heat from reaching the plant and also raises the potassium level in the soil.
Similar to straw clippings, untreated grass clippings will also help as a ground cover. They add both organic matter and nutrients. Dry the clippings before applying them to your vegetable garden. In this article I cover many uses to use grass clipping and how they should be used. It will show you the best ways to reduce your workload in the garden.
The Benefits of Using Leaves as a Ground Cover
Do not waste the fallen leaves because they are rich in mineral content and are an organic source of nutrients (micronutrients, calcium, and moderate amounts of macronutrients). They are one of the inexpensive materials for ground covers, but their application is time-consuming, especially for a large area.
Collect the leaves and add them directly to the vegetable garden bed or mix them with the compost pile.
If a thick layer of leaves is used, it will create a matt over the surface that leads to airless soil. You have to shred the thick leaves using a mulching mower or leaf shredder to facilitate fast decomposition.
You should never use pesticide or herbicide sprayed leaves for your vegetable garden.
Wood Chips or Pine Bark are Perfect to Use as Mulch
Arborist wood chips combined with leaf litter add nitrogen and carbon to the soil. You have to replace the woodchips when the color starts fading. If your wood chips have a sour smell, leave them under the sun until the smell fades. This will also kill any insects hiding in the chips.
One of the drawbacks of wood chips is that they are heavy, so you should not use them around young seedlings or seed sown sites. The seeds will require more energy to sprout from the soil if you use a heavy cover.
Pine bark is also a fine material like straw clippings that works best around recently planted seedlings or tender vegetable plants.
It will not wash away during heavy rainfall, and it is acidic, which makes it perfect for acid-loving vegetables.
Pine needles or bark decompose at a slow rate, so it’s highly recommended for long-term use. You can use it for any area within your vegetable garden that requires a slow breakdown.
Wood chips break down fairly quickly. You need to replace them to keep the weeds under control. These two can be used for all types of perennial vegetable varieties.
Living Plants Otherwise Known as Cover Crops are Great to Use in the Garden
Living plants used for covering the ground are referred to as ground covers or green manures. They increase soil fertility, reduce the cost of weed management, and if you choose the crop smartly, they can also reward you with fruits or vegetables.
If you plant them in the fall, they will act as a winter cover. Growing a long-season crop as ground cover will help you utilize every corner of the gardening space.
These plants will add nutrients to the soil that were consumed by the vegetable plants during the growing season. You should not plant crops that will compete for nutrients or moisture within the vegetable garden.
Just like bark and wood chips, living plants will also break down. One of the major drawbacks of living plant ground covers is that you will have to maintain certain growing conditions to help them thrive.
Following are a few of our favorite plants to be used as ground cover crops.
Oregano – it qualifies as one of the best ground covers for your vegetable garden because it is easy to grow, loves sunny spots, blooms, can handle foot traffic, discourages weed growth but attracts beneficial insects.
Creeping Thyme – This thyme variety grows horizontally and spreads fast, so it is a top recommendation for ground cover. It can also be planted among pavers and stones to add a touch of greenery and color.
Spearmint – With its dense growing habit, this plant will cover your vegetable garden in no time. This plant is a great pick if you have a shaded garden with moist soil. Remember that spearmint is an invasive plant, so trim the runner every now and then if you do not want it to take over the garden.
Legumes – These are low maintenance, but they help you fix the nitrogen content in the soil. There are many options to choose from, so make sure you plant the legume that suits your climate.
Cover crops are brilliant at protecting your soil from the onslaught of winter. With constant rain compacting your soil causing you even more work in spring. Cover crops will prevent this while building nitrogen and other fertilizers naturally Check it out here. The ultimate guide about cover crops.
Compost as a Mulch
Bagged or homemade compost is mostly used as a soil amendment, but you can also utilize it as a ground cover. The linked article will show you how to best utilize composts and how long it will take to benefit your garden.
Manure is also a fantastic ground cover. Much like compost it feeds the soil, but can often be collected for free from your local equestrian stables. However, you should compost the fresh manure before using it in the garden.
Make sure you buy from a reliable source so that the compost is free from any harmful pathogens. Using a contaminated product will result in deformed plants and poor seed germination.
Over time, good quality compost improves the soil structure to encourage plant growth. But compost should be applied considerately because the continuous application can result in high levels of potassium and phosphorus.
Compost feeds your soil efficiently, but it’s expensive compared to other ground covers if you have a large vegetable garden.
Compost is so good as an organic ground cover because it not only provides all of the benefits mentioned in this article, but it also feeds the microbial life further enhancing the soil in your garden which means better harvest for you. To learn how to make the best nutrient-dense compost without it turning into a smell mess or attracting rodents then check out the video below.
Inorganic Ground Covers
Most types of inorganic materials will not decompose on their own. To prevent them from mixing in soil, lay them on landscape fabric.
Inorganic cover materials should not be used if you are using ground covers to add nutrients to the soil. They hardly add anything to the soil in terms of nutrients. In fact, some of them can prevent the nutrients or fertilizers from penetrating the soil.
Inorganic cover materials are high priced, but since they rarely require reapplication, the cost is balanced for their long-term usage.
Most plastic sheets do not merge within your garden, meaning they do not give a natural look. However, plastic sheets are widely used to cover the area between plant rows in vegetable gardens. This will assist in pest management.
Red plastic sheets are highly recommended for tomatoes as they enhance fruit development. If you want to avoid overheating, you can spread organic mulch on top of the sheets that will absorb the excess heat.
The most common ones are clear plastic sheets. These increase the soil temperature, which helps in killing weed seeds. Clear sheets are effective in cold climates.
Plastic sheets have two main advantages; they are long-lasting and avoid weed development. However, fertilizer, air, or water cannot pass through these sheets easily, so plants will suffer from a lack of air circulation, nutrients, and moisture content.
If the sheets are damaged while handling or storage, avoid using them. Any holes in the sheets allow the weeds to grow through them.
If you believe in the magic of Mother Nature and have introduced beneficial microorganisms or worms into the soil, these sheets will eventually damage or kill the soil microbes.
Rocks, Stones, and Gravel
Different types of decorative rocks are available that will make your vegetable garden look more organized and clean. You might have to use them in combination with other materials to minimize weed growth. For a list of rock types and uses within your garden check out this article I wrote on the very subject
The most basic advantages of using these are you do not have to reapply them, they work better against erosion, and they are not prone to wind damage. However, the rocks or gravels will not add any nutrients or minerals to the garden soil.
Rocks will absorb more energy from the sun, causing the surrounding areas to become hot. This means your plants will dry quicker. The water will reach the soil faster compared to other types of covers, but they do not improve water retention.
You can use crushed rocks or gravel pieces near vegetable plants that prefer dry growing conditions or for non-planting areas of your vegetable garden.
The price for these can vary based on the type of rocks or gravel. Most gardeners consider them a high-priced ground cover compared to the benefits they offer.
Solid covers like stones or rocks are suitable for areas with heavy foot traffic since these are less prone to damage or crushing.
Where plastic sheets fail, landscape fabric comes to the rescue. This fabric will allow water and nutrients to reach the soil. It’s also breathable, so your vegetable plants will have air circulation.
Covering this fabric with another ground cover is optional. The drawback is if you use cheap quality fabric, it will tear easily, and you will have to replace it every other month.
If you want some eco-friendly alternatives, try geotextiles, burlap, or biodegradable ground covers.
Rubber is an overall harmful material to be used in a food garden. We believe that these should be your last option for ground cover.
This is made from recycled tires. Besides the vibrant colors, this material can help retain water by slowing evaporation and control weeds.
Keep in mind that it is a highly flammable material. It should not be used in high-temperature climates because it can leach or cause a smell within the garden.
Although it’s created using recycled materials, rubber is still an inorganic product. It might be toxic for your plants, so you should use it only for non-planting sites within your vegetable garden.
FAQ’s about Ground Covers
Ground covers will keep your vegetable garden flourishing. Everything in this article might not suit your vegetables, and you do not have to stick to a single ground cover for your vegetable garden. Your preference can change based on budget, weather, and plants being cultivated.
Ground covers are used for multiple reasons; therefore, choose the cover that meets your gardening needs.
Inorganic covers will only contribute to your short-term gardening goals since they are a temporary solution and don’t add anything beneficial to the soil. We would recommend choosing an organic ground cover such as shredded leaves because they will eventually contribute to the long-term health of your vegetable garden.
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