Using Ground Covers in Vegetable Gardens

Weeding is probably the least favorite thing we do in our vegetable gardens, but it must be done. Mulching  is one way to cut done on the weeds and mulching with straw is a popular technique, because it keeps the plants and vegetables clean and it attracts beneficial insects. This will save you a lot of time and effort weeding, but it also wastes a fair amount of potential growing space. To make use of every inch of your garden, try growing an edible ground cover.

This is really just an extension of intercropping. With intercropping, you tuck faster growing plants near vegetables that will mature much later in the season, like seeding spinach under tomato plants. Many fast growers, such as lettuce, can be used as cover crops, too. However you’ll have to keep re-seeding as you harvest or you’ll be left with bare ground again.

Instead of a temporary fix, vegetable gardens can be mulched with long season plants or even with non-aggressive perennials. While there will be some competition for water and nutrients whenever two plants are grown in close proximity, this should not be a problem if you have a good, rich soil and you are making sure your vegetable garden is getting regular water.

Here are Some Good Choices of Edible Plants to Use as Ground Covers:

  • 01 of 05

    Strawberries

    Fresh organic strawberry
    firemanYU / Getty Images

    A lot of space limited gardeners have a problem with where to plant a strawberry bed. How about under a row of eggplants? They will still get plenty of sun under there and they’ll even help keep  the eggplants propped up and standing tall, when they are heavy with fruits. This also solves the problem of thinning out the plants in your strawberry bed, since you’ll need to remove a few next year, to plant a new vegetable, like kale, in the row.

  • 02 of 05

    Nasturtiums

    Nasturium
    Aimin Tang / Getty Images

    There are never enough flowers in the vegetable garden. Flowers do more than dress up the garden, they attract more pollinating insects; something that is crucial in a productive vegetable garden. Nasturtiums are a common sight in many edible gardens and their floppy, trailing nature makes them a great choice as a ground cover. Plus they are edible, so once again you’re getting two crops in the space of one. You  can even make Poor Man's Capers from the seeds.

  • 03 of 05

    Oregano

    Oregano leaves
    ChristopherBernard / Getty Images

    Of all the creeping herbs, oregano is probably the easiest to keep in check. Yes, it spreads, but it is very forgiving of having its roots disturbed. Oregano does need a lot of sun and prefers a well-drained soil, so it would work best under plants like peppers, that would not shade them and that do not need excessive water while fruiting. Regularly cutting the oregano to use in the kitchen will keep the plants bushy and low. Once your oregano plants flower expect to see them covered in buzzing bees.

  • 04 of 05

    Squash, Melon, and Cucumbers

    Baby Watermelon
    magnetcreative / Getty Images

    This one is a no brainer, if you have ever heard of the Native American tradition of the 3 Sisters, where corn, squash and pole beans are interplanted. The corn serves as a trellis, the beans add nitrogen to the soil and the squash serves as the ground cover. Any vegetable that grows as a vine, but does not climb and adhere on its own can be left to sprawl on the ground and serve as cover.

    Once again, space challenged gardeners tend to shy away from this approach, because it uses too much precious real estate. But if you let them sprawl under tomatoes or around Brussels sprouts, you won’t lose much. This can be a bit tricky with really enthusiastic vines, so your best bet would be to stick with cucumbers or melons, that have smaller leaves and shorter vines. You don’t want them to spread so much that you can’t reach the other vegetables, to harvest. And you will need to make sure they don’t try to climb your tomatoes and smother them or pull them down.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Sage

    Common sage (Salvia officinalis)
    Gabriele Hanke / Getty Images

    Sage isn’t a great choice for all climates, but in cooler climates where its height and spread are kept in check by cold winters, it would work fine. It tends to grow to a low 8 - 12 inch in height and spread out by 12 - 18 inches Since the branches grow somewhat horizontally, they will shade the soil and keep it cool and they do a decent job of suppressing weeds. They are perennial and evergreen, so you may need to do some thinning in future years. But sage tends to be a short lived perennial and very amenable about being transplanted.

Not all of these choices will work for you, but they add to your bag of tricks for maximizing your vegetable garden without adding more work for you. They are definitely worth a bit of experimentation.