Vibrant flowering shrubs, bunches of blooming perennials and wispy, natural grasses — these are the showstoppers clients tend to dote over when selecting materials for a landscape project. But what lies beneath is just as important.
Groundcovers, mulches and gravels are an integral tier in any balanced landscape design.
“Groundcovers add dimension, another layer of interest in the landscape,” explains Pete Wilkerson, partner in Scapes based in Roswell, Ga. “It creates proportion. You start with the lawn, step up to a low groundcover and then accent plants.”
In many ways, you don’t think about groundcover unless it’s missing. There’s a noticeable void like shading in the backdrop of a painting.
Beyond aesthetics, groundcovers like mulch help insulate roots and suppress weeds. “It keeps roots cool in the summer and warm in the winter so plants can stay growing strong,” Wilkerson says.
From groundcover plants to various types of mulches and gravels — which are more popular across the board — there’s a generous menu of options for various applications. Even so, most professionals offer a somewhat limited selection based on their region (what grows, what doesn’t), the “ecosystem” on clients’ properties, availability, cost and the purpose for the groundcover.
In the Cincinnati, Ohio, area where K + R Landscaping operates, mulch is the dominant groundcover choice for Ken Schwarz’s commercial clients, which mainly include large homeowners’ associations. He notices the same preference in the residential market.
“Most of our properties choose black mulch — I do not see a whole lot of (planted) groundcover in our area,” he says, adding that this choice has reigned for the 33 years he has worked in the industry. “We go through about 120 yards of it a week.”
Because of the bulk orders K +R makes, Schwarz scores competitive pricing, though there was recently a small uptick in cost — a few dollars per yard. He expects business in general to be busy this season, which means more mulching. “The smallest HOA we maintain has 285 patio homes,” he says, noting that mulch is refreshed at least annually. “We put no more than two inches down and sometimes less, mostly for the coloring and how it accents plants.”
Aside from mulch, the second most common request is for three-inch river rock, mostly alongside buildings to prevent pest pressure. Some ornamental installations also call for river rock, and a handful have requested higher-end Brassfield Fines, a decorative gravel made from brass-gold colored crushed limestone. “If you get river rock for $50 a yard, you are looking at $120 for Brassfield,” Schwarz says.
Mulch type varies by region. In Central Florida, clients of Landscape Improvements in Orlando go for mini pine bark, or pine fines if installed with planted groundcover. Vice President Tyler Pontes prefers to purchase mulch in three cubic-foot bags. “Nothing has changed much with pricing, and we steer clear of bulk by-the-yard because it is easier for us to transport on pallets and throw bags in a wheelbarrow,” he says.
Pontes is also seeing more interest in gravelscape. “Pea gravel has been more popular, and a blue-gray stone is more sought-after because it’s (more) neutral than the Tuscan style with more of a burnt red-orange color,” he says. “Because pea gravel is a softer stone, people like that they can still walk on it barefoot.”
They also appreciate its longevity. It doesn’t require annual replacement like mulch and there’s no maintenance like with planted groundcover. However, it is more costly than hardwood and pine mulches, so placement is a factor. Wilkerson describes a project where a client requested raised garden boxes for growing vegetables.
“The area around it is going to be pea gravel because they were looking ways to simplify and lower the maintenance so they could spend their time gardening,” he says.
Stone is growing in popularity, but mulch requests are still most common, Wilkerson says. In the Atlanta market he serves, pine straw, shredded hardwood mulch and mini nuggets for beds are the top sellers. “We will use certain gravel mulches like Chattahoochee pea gravel or an equivalent, and egg rock, which is slightly larger,” he says.
Like any plant, groundcover must be selected based on the sites conditions and requirements — sun exposure, soil content and topography. Is the purpose to control erosion, fill in a large area or add texture to landscape beds?
“Our soils are very clay-laden and heavy, and we have a lot of elevation changes in our area, so given that, we approach groundcover as landscape architects,” Wilkerson says. “And because we warranty our plant materials, we have to be very selective of what we choose based on the conditions we see on the property.”
Occasionally, a client will request a groundcover that Wilkerson doesn’t typically use. Often it’s a “transplant” who moved from out of town, which is common in Atlanta, and they want a variety they had at their previous home. Wilkerson takes a “guide and advise” approach to suggesting any type of plant. “We will try something different, but we will not offer a warranty,” he says.
Wilkerson generally specifies different varieties of Liriope, dwarf and regular mondo grass, vinca minor and euonymus coloratus.
Liriope requires sun and adequate drainage. “We prepare the soil by breaking it up a bit, adding amendments and fertilizer, and then it’s a hardy plant,” Wilkerson says. “But if it is in an area that holds water or is too damp, we are seeing more fungus issues with this plant.”
The dwarf mondo plant “can appreciate more shade” and does better in areas with less sun exposure. “It can get burned with south or southwest exposure,” Wilkerson says. “And it also does not like wet feet.”
Vinca minor is a candidate for shaded areas, but Wilkerson says this is used sparingly. The purple leaf wintercreeper variety of Euonymus tolerates sun. “We might use that above a retaining wall or around a garden that gets sun. But it tends to look rattier. There are some areas that it is called for that are farther off the back of a patio or property for someone who wants a different look.”
Liriope is also a resilient selection that is specified for Eastern Landscape Contractors, which only focuses on public union projects. Because of this, the clients specify all materials, and site location is always a consideration.
“In government landscape construction, you get nowhere near ideal conditions,” says Don Fuentes, vice president and owner. “You get wind, pollution and sun exposure alongside highways, so if you are planting a center median with traffic going north and south continuously — especially truck traffic — that’s a major factor in plant survivability.”
Usually, liriope is planted near structures, Fuente says. The largest groundcover planting project Eastern Landscape Contractors completed was the ivy in front of the United Nations building in New York City.
The shaded location supports this groundcover. “And also, the color and ‘what can be seen’ through it because of security reasons,” Fuente says.
Pontes is specifying less ivy in Orlando because of fungal issues. Asiatic jasmine has “taken off since the 1990s,” he says, adding that Blue Daze ‘Blue My Mind’ is also a sought-after choice. “If we are dealing with excess shade, we move toward jasmine because the Blue Daze typically likes more direct sunlight,” he says.
Powderpuff mimosa is increasingly used in Florida landscapes, and Pontes find its built-in defense mechanism cool to watch. “Similar to what you’d see with a Venus fly trap, if you touch the leaves they instantly shrivel up and start photosynthesizing again,” he describes, adding that the attractive pink blooms add interest to landscape beds. “It’s a fast grower and it does well in this region.”
As for fast-growing, this is a factor when selecting groundcover. Pontes buys four-inch plugs of jasmine because he says there is more root ratio in this size vs. the one-gallon or six-inch plant. “It takes off faster, we noticed,” Pontes says.
Blue Daze, Powderpuff mimosa and perennial peanut are purchased in one-gallon or six-inch sizes and all range from $2 to $3 per plant. “Jasmine is creeping up there, too, because of inflation,” Pontes says.
The Supply Side.
As for cost and availability, Pontes says getting groundcover hasn’t been a problem compared to larger plant stock. “It’s faster-growing so the nurseries don’t have to wait for it to reach a certain size, so it’s easier produced,” he points out.
Supply chain is mostly impacting mulch in the Atlanta market — and not availability, but type and quality. Because of rapid development in his market, Wilkerson says that mulch producers are basically having a tough time keeping up with new construction. “As for shredded hardwood mulch, there is no longer ‘seasoned’ mulch available,” he says. “Many times, it is shredded, dyed brown or black, and out to projects in bulk or bags within several weeks of being produced.”
This results in color leaching, and staining on driveways and walkways. Wilkerson says, “We have seen dramatic increases in plants and mulch during the last few years.” Specifically, pine straw prices have jumped 55- to 60%. “Due to pine straw quality issues, it is available but has increased significantly in price per bale.”
Planted groundcover is much more costly because it involves soil preparation, irrigation, plant material and also mulch to protect plants’ roots as they grow in, Wilkerson explains. It’s a long-term investment, however, and once it fills in, there is no top-dressing like with gravel and hardwood/pine mulches.
Whether live groundcover or mulch, the material is in demand. It touches both the maintenance and landscape install sectors. Plus, as Schwarz says, it’s a common request “because it just looks good.”
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