Californians have seen a roller coaster of weather in the past few months as the state went from drought to floods within a matter of weeks. While neither floods or dry spells are good for gardening, paying attention to what ground cover materials are in the garden could help plants survive and adjust to change.
Ground covers are exactly that: material that covers bare soil and provides a “carpet” over gardens. Common ground covers range from living materials like grass to nonliving materials like mulch.
These materials not only add to garden aesthetics: Ground covers protect topsoil from the elements, slowing problems like wind and water erosion and drought, and preventing weed growth. It’s very important to select plants that are climate appropriate and adapted to the regional conditions, said Cheryl Buckwalter, landscape designer for Landscape Liaisons in Cool.
“In Sacramento, our landscapes are in a mini watershed,” she said.
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Watersheds are areas of land that drain into larger bodies of water, like lakes and rivers.
“We need to make sure we’re using techniques and materials that are appropriate for the environment that we’re working and living in.”
Using plants with deep root systems can help stabilize soil and help prevent mudslides or deep erosion during floods, Buckwalter said. Plants such as ground-hugging Arctostaphylos “Emerald Carpet,” commonly known as carpet manzanita, have wide-spreading root systems and are good options for landscaping on slopes and areas that flood often. In addition to stabilizing the soil through roots, the plants’ foliage helps soften the impact of the water hitting the soil.
On the other side of California’s weather spectrum, mulch is a good solution for keeping gardens healthy through droughts. Buckwalter said mulch, especially organic, can be used to help gardens retain soil moisture during droughts and keep weeds out through both hot and cold weather.
Both these types of ground covers are important for helping the local environment recover from recent natural disasters, she said.
“A lot of areas lost vegetation during both the fires and mudslides these past few months,” Buckwalter said. “It’s important for areas to get revegetated, which means creating environments that retain water and stabilize soil.”
In addition to fitting ground covers to weather conditions, choices about what materials to use should also be based on functionality, Buckwalter said. Places that get a lot of foot traffic should generally use non-plant ground covers, she said, whereas plant ground covers are better suited for gardening and general greenspace areas.
Using California native plants suited to local conditions is one way to ensure a resilient landscape, she said.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the flooding and damage that’s been done in mudslides that have happened recently, but it’s important to keep in mind the bigger picture,” Buckwalter said. “We are going to have droughts again, just like we’re going to have floods. It’s a matter of cycles. What we need to focus on is cultivating healthy soil and landscapes that can thrive in our environment.”