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 will cut done on the weeds and I like mulching we straw, because it keeps the plants and vegetables clean and it attracts beneficial insects. But I’m not as keen on wasting all that potential growing space. To make use of every inch of your garden, try and edible ground cover.

This is really just an extension of intercropping. With intercropping, you tuck faster growing plants near...MORE 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 shouldn’t 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
    Sandra Mu / Stringer/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 get the eggplants propped up, when they are heavy with fruits. This also solves the problem of thinning out plants, since you’ll need to remove a few next year, to plant a new vegetable, like kale, in the row.

  • 02 of 05
    Yellow flowers
    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 a great ground cover. Plus they are edible, so once again you’re getting two crops in the space of one.

    How to Make Nasturitium "Capers"
  • 03 of 05
    Growing Oregano Plants
    color line / Flickr: Creative Commons

    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.

  • 04 of 05
    Cooking with Cucumbers
    Marie Iannotti

    This one is a no brainer. I hope you’ve all 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 a ground cover. Vining crops that don’t climb on their 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...MORE sprawl under tomatoes or around Brussels sprouts, you won’t lose much. This can be a bit tricky with really enthusiastic vines, so I would recommend you 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 plant
    Marie Iannotti

    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 in. and spread out by 12 - 18 in. 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...MORE 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.